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I always find it interesting when a topic starts making the rounds.  Generally, when I blog, its about whatever the heck pops into my brain.  Sometimes stuff pops into my brain by virtue of what I’ve read on the news, or on other blogs, or seen in real life.  Sometimes I then find that other people have been thinking and writing about the same topics, and it seems I’ve joined The Bandwagon.  I really hate that.  Occasionally I make a conscious decision to join The Bandwagon, but my general rule is to jump out of the way when I see one hurtling towards me.  Today though, I’m just going to blab about The Bandwagon (and my conflicting thoughts about it), in the context of two currently hot topics making the rounds in the Pagan blogosphere–veiling and obesity.

I’ve considered talking about both of these (the first in the context of dress as an extension of religious expression, since I don’t have much to say on veiling in particular), but given the current hotly contested debate on both…I find myself unwilling to be a part of a train wreck quite yet (at least without getting this out of the way).  From the outside, both “discussions” are filled with a heck of a lot of attitude, derision, and sanctimoniousness on the part of people that seem to feel entitled, or even obligated, to pass condemnational judgement on what personal actions other people are participating in (personal actions, I might add, that don’t affect the commenter)(and yes, I realize I just turned a noun into a non-existent adjective).  As a member of a community that generally prides itself on its open-mindedness and acceptance, I find myself to be a bit saddened by the insensitivity and hypocrisy that I see in these conversations (lest I sound like I’m practicing condemnational judgement, there have been some beautiful statements of understanding and sensitivity as well).

And so, I think a more important thing to discuss right now is The Bandwagon, and how it affects the conversations that need to be had within our communities, and in a wider society.

The first thing that I want to get out of the way is the idea that The Bandwagon is always bad, because its not.  The Bandwagon can actually do some good.  It brings attention to things we might not notice otherwise.  One person can get drowned out in a crowd, but 10, or 20 or 100 or more people all talking about the same topic can bring to our attention an issue we should be informed about or alert us to action that we should be taking.  The Bandwagon has the capacity to act as a vehicle for discussion and debate across a community that allows for the inclusion of voices that might not otherwise be heard.  It also establishes tracks for others to follow by virtue of paving a way that might not have existed before (yes, I know the puns are awful) and can sort of ease the way for newcomers.  But the very nature of The Bandwagon that produces these benefits also produces its pitfalls.

The Bandwagon is an ephemeral and amorphous undirected phenomenon, open to just about any interested party for the duration of their interest.  And here in lies the problem.  Lots of people jump onto The Bandwagon just because its there.  They don’t bother to take the time to know their fellow riders, they don’t take the time to know what The Bandwagon is about from all perspectives of its issue, they don’t take the time to figure out where The Bandwagon has been or where it is headed, and when The Bandwagon is no longer convenient for them, they will leave.  This lack of commitment to The Bandwagon leads to a lack of respect for other participants and can damage whatever issue or cause The Bandwagon is addressing in a way that leaves a giant mess for those individuals that actually care.

As an example, lets take a look at veiling in Paganism.  Until a few months ago,  I wouldn’t have given a second thought to someone that told me that they covered their hair as part of their commitment to their deity (or whatever other spiritual reason they had for doing so).  After all, I have encountered people that stopped cutting their hair as part of their personal Paganism, people that incorporated tattooing and/or piercing as part of their personal Paganism, people that make all sorts of seemingly odd (in terms of mainstream fashion) stylistic choices as part of their personal Paganism (kilts, fairy wings, leather studded dog collars, even plain dress), etc.  I’ve even met a person that thought their personal Paganism called them to never again wear shoes (unfortunately, they were in the military, and that didn’t quite work out for them).  But then, Star Foster wrote a blog post on the subject, which cause a slight kerfuffle, and has ultimately led to a bit of a debate, some of which has been a bit harsh (just read the comments on some of the links).  Veiling seems now to be a popular thing–if not to try out, at least to talk about.  Everyone seems to have an opinion about it.  Some of them seem to be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction against certain prevailing stereotypes, others are downright hostile, but for the most part…they seem to be fairly supportive, or at least ambivalent.  In  some ways, The (Veiling) Bandwagon seems to be doing some good by  raising awareness about the hostility that people that choose veiling can face, to inspire a new form of spiritual expression for those that might not be happy with their present choices,  and to create spaces for those that veil to engage in communities they might not have otherwise known about.  But, on the other hand, its also brought out some of the latent intolerance that has always been part of the Pagan community.

That latent intolerance, I think, is The Bandwagon’s biggest problem.  If you are going to jump on board, you need to do your homework first.  Failure here leads to all sorts of problems later.  For the love of all that is good and holy, don’t join just because it is something new and different.  Get to know the people that are actually involved in the movement, learn about its history, and take the time to figure out what direction it is headed into.  Determine the level and scope that you are willing to commit to The Bandwagon, and then decide if and how you are going to join it.  And, if you aren’t going to join it, figure out if your criticism is actually necessary or if its just a bunch of hot air.  If all I cared about on a particular topic was disseminating my opinions on what someone else is doing (particularly when what they are doing has little effect on me directly), then I’m not sure that I’m really being authentic in terms of what is meaningful to me, and I’d hope I have enough common sense and courtesy to treat the subject in a way respects the people that *do* find it meaningful.  I can state my opinion in such a manner, but I think that is ultimately a disservice to those that are a part of The Bandwagon and those that may be interested in being a part of it when one does so from a position of privilege without acknowledging that privilege and working to overcome the lack of understanding I have because of it.  Even worse though, is when the opinion is flat-out insulting and even damaging (or expressed in such a way that it seems so).

Which brings us to our second example, the recent discussion of obesity in Paganism.  This is a bit of a more recent and more hotly contested discussion, which seems to have been accidentally sparked by Peter Dybing.  There have been a number of posts in response: some outraged, some a bit less outraged, some thoughtful, some humorously indignant, some kindly critical, some detailing previous personal experiences at opening this can of worms.  The posts themselves aren’t so much the issue, as the commentary that often flows afterwards.  Its sometimes hard to tell going back, once an author edits or eliminates some of the worst offenders, but in many cases, both tone and actual words are downright insulting.   Also, in this case, a good number of the people involved just have no freaking clue what they are talking about, and the rest only know the poorly reported talking points of incomplete science (and some of them seem to think that makes them an expert). The reality is that there are so many factors that have to do with weight–genetics, ecology of gut micro-fauna, base metabolic rates, activity level, muscle efficiency, dietary content, etc, and even then, those factors are only the tip of the iceberg of the factors that contribute to health for The (Obesity) Bandwagon to be meaningful. And, in this case, I fear that the amount of hubris and idiocy flying  around is probably going to do more damage than good.

Humans like things to be simple.  In this case, fat=unattractive=unhealthy=bad, thin=attractive=healthy=good.  The dichotomy here has been pretty clearly defined by society, and the manner in which the topic has been introduced in the Pagan community has unfortunately not taken the reality of complexity into play.  This leaves one side speaking from a place of privilege, and the other pissed off.  Not a good way to do any good.  The only simple fact about any real issue is that its not simple and it can’t be reduced to an equation.  The Bandwagon is not, and by its very nature, cannot be equipped to handle complex issues.  The Bandwagon has no driver, no road, and no brakes.  Sure, it can bring attention to complex issued by reducing them to a simple soundbite, but unless the participants of The Bandwagon are willing to do the hard work behind the scenes and after The Bandwagon has crashed, to create meaningful and compassionate conversations, The Bandwagon usually just runs people over like an avalanche or a derailed train.

So, where does that leave us?  Heck if I know…but I’d hope it would leave us all more thoughtful without our words and deeds.  I’d hope it would leave us more compassionate with one another, more prone to complete research and looking at the big picture and listening to one another without jumping to conclusions.  I’d hope it would leave us more likely to leave The Bandwagon and engage in real, meaningful conversations and projects that celebrate diversity and cooperation.  I’ll keep hoping, but I wouldn’t bet on it.