Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Labels (again)

This following post is something I've been pondering for a long while, and have made several attempts at getting it all out in a post only to give up and come back to it later...my brain, it just gave up; even it wasn't sure where I was going with this. Some recent conversations I've seen going on have started me thinking about all of this stuff again, though, and it's spurred me on to try and finally get these thoughts into a more coherent mess. Hopefully, I will succeed.

Mostly what I've been thinking about is the ever-popular subject of labels and how (or maybe why) people pick and choose those labels; or perhaps more to the point, what those labels are all about. There's a lot of baggage that can come with those labels sometimes, a lot of judgement values people might place on those who associate with them; a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings that come with them. We all have our biases.

In theory, any labels we choose to identify with are the ones we feel fit us best (hello, obvious statement of the day...). Sometimes, though, maybe that's not so much the case. Maybe sometimes we desperately want to cling onto those labels because we think that's what we should be, but maybe it's not what we actually are and we either can't or won't admit it...yet. Maybe sometimes, those labels become so swamped in misconceptions that they get co-opted into meaning something entirely different from what they were originally intended for. Maybe sometimes people see a prestige in the label and they want to be associated with that prestige, regardless of anything else. Maybe sometimes those people aren't even aware of what it is they're doing.

There is room in this world for a huge variety of viewpoints and approaches, and like anyone else (in theory...) I choose the approach that suits me best, and so the labels as well. In a religious sense, maybe it's not even about me, but what's right for the gods, the spirits, the ancestors that I strive to build and maintain a relationship with.

Either way, it should be a case of 'if the shoe fits,' right?

When it comes to reconstructionism, though, there are a ton of misconceptions that we come up against every day - just like anything else, surely. No, it doesn't mean I'm trying to go back to the Iron Age. No, I don't want to 'live like they did.' No, it's not just an American thing. And no, I don't run screaming from the building when someone mentions UPG...

These are all things that come up again and again, here there and everywhere, among many other things. Sometimes I see folks confidently stating that since Celtic Reconstructionists inevitably have certain gaps in our knowledge as far as our practices go, we look to other cultures to fill those gaps in. I disagree with that; we might look to other cultures - neighbouring Indo-European cultures - in order to form an educated picture of what we should be looking for in certain areas, but this is not the same as taking bits from here and there just to flesh things out.

If we did do this, then it seems to me that what we end up with can't really be considered to be particularly Celtic, let alone 'Gaelic', or whatever our focus happens to be. By incorporating other cultures' traditions into our own, the lines are blurred between trying to reconstruct something, as opposed to synthesising something that is simply modern and eclectic.

Of course, no culture exists in a vacuum; there are accretions from outside influences within any culture. But these are natural accretions, exceptions, that are made from within that cultural framework, over time, and by a process that generally involves the meeting of those cultures naturally, in one way or another. The Norse influences in Scotland are a good example of this, and I think it's fair to say that these influences happened over a long time, through contact and trade before the Norse actually settled and took over parts of Scotland. They had an influence on the language, customs and traditions, but first and foremost, these are things that were adopted into the culture, not things that dominated the culture that was there already.

In the same way, what we do as Celtic Reconstructionists should be approrached on the same terms; in understanding the culture, the beliefs, and most of all the worldview that informed those beliefs. These were and are the aims of CR. More and more, though, there seems to be an increasing trend to ignore that; adopting belief and practices from within a modern, neopagan view, rather than a specific cultural context. A side effect of this is that some then end up clinging onto labels that aren't appropriate in cultural terms, but which are perfectly understood - if contradictory - in neopagan terms, but that's perhaps a different post. Either way, yes, we are a modern religion, but I think it's important to point out that neopaganism in general is not a point of reference for reconstructionism as far as practices are concerned (historically, reconstructionism emerged as a reaction against those practices, even). What we find from historical sources, archaeology, language and lore is; from the culture. That's where we should be looking.

But then, there will never be one way of doing things, or total agreement amongst people, especially when we're dealing with an extremely disparate (and highly opinionated) group; it's unreasonable to expect that to be the case. It seems that reconstructionism will always be a spectrum as much as it's a methodology, even when one end of the spectrum might seem to be totally contradictory to the other. Ultimately, there will always be some people who just don't seem to get it.

Some of us deal with the problems these lables can bring by redefining ourselves and abandoning old labels in favour of new ones, sidelining ourselves. If anything, this allow us some space to move beyond the misunderstandings and find a community that fits us better, even if the pond is much much smaller. Inevitably, though, that just means there are new labels to be misunderstood and get confused by...It's a fudge, really, not a solution.

The only thing we can really do is be mindful of the labels we use and the communities we identify with. When we wear those labels and proclaim them, we take on a responsibility to the community those labels are associated with. To misrepresent them can be seriously damaging, and result in yet more misconceptions. Likewise, it's up to everyone to be mindful of what other people mean when they use a label - do they mean the same thing as you? Otherwise discussions get messy; people talk at cross-purposes and end up bickering, only to end up realising that both sides are talking about entirely different things.

Trust me, it's infuriating.