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Who Are You?

25 June 2002 

Over at Rants by Tess, there's an interesting, if a tad intense, discussion going on. Rather than take up Tess' valuable bandwidth by posting my response in her comments, I'm going to tackle it here, in what will probably be a babbling mess. I think the fundamental issue is one of identity, and the words we use to proclaim or describe that identity. I used to underestimate the power of identity words. At one time in my life, I tossed around words without care, not thinking about the power I gave them or the power they held with other people. That began to change when my sister was diagnosed with a learning difference when she was 12. Yes, a learning difference. Most people call it a learning disability, but her teacher told her it was a learning difference. Disability implied that she was UNABLE to learn, when in fact she just needed to learn in a way that was different from the normally prescribed method. That simple word change made all the difference fro my sister, who felt empowered. She felt that she COULD learn. She took that to heart, and has never looked back. It changed her identity.

Now, some people will say that we're all the same -- we all bleed red, as it were. And that's true. At our depth, at our core, we are all the same. My personal theology says that that core similarity is our Divine Createdness. We share a link with one another, the Earth, the Universe, the Divine. At that higher level, we're connected in a way that is beyond vocabulary, beyond our simple human understanding.

Down at the real-world, though, our every day existence causes us to use words to label what we experience. Categorizing objects and people is how we understand the world AND OURSELVES. Foucault was the first, really, to say that our identity comes from outside ourselves, not from within. That is, our identity is formed as a result of discourse - how we describe ourselves. Of course, it doesn't stop there, because words carry different definitions and levels of power depending upon our personal experiences.

For example, I continually wrestle with the terms "Pagan" and "Christian". By definition, I am a Christian because I believe in the divinity of Jesus and I follow his teachings. I'm also considered a Pagan, though, because of my faith in the Divine Feminine (among other heretical behaviors!) However, I resist the label of Christian because I don't want to be confused with the Jerry Falwell crowd that, in my opinion, doesn't know the first thing of what Jesus taught us. I don't want to be associated with "Christian culture." When I think "Christian", I don't think of people like me. I think of people who have cast judgement upon me because of my sex, my religious beliefs, even my choice of music. I think of the people who have told my closest friends that they are going to hell because of their choice of sexual partner.

There are more words that I resist, and as part of that I resist identifying with that "culture" that is understood to be identified with those words. Feminist is one of those. I may or may not be right in my understanding of that associated culture, and my understanding is almost certainly in conflict with someone elses understanding, but when it comes down to it, what I believe is what matters. My experience shapes my understanding, and until I have a different experience that changes my understanding, it will remain as it is. Postmodern theory calls this autobiographical criticism. Our autobiography is the lens through which we interpret and thus define the world.

Which brings me to my next point. It is only in this last century, and probably really only the last fifty years or so, that the concept of subcultures has really been acknowledged, as a result of deconstructionist thought, which challenges the notion that there is one, absolute, non-negotiable interpretation of any given experience. That interpretation has been defined and passed down by the people of power - usually White Men. (This is not white male bashing, by the way… I'm just pointing out the stuff of postmodern theory.) With deconstructionism, the authority of that interpretation is challenged. Through this process, our voice is found. It was not always so. Fifty years ago you could not use the lens of cultural studies, feminist studies, queer theory, post-colonial studies, etc. Fifty years ago, these voices were not heard.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Margot Adler speak at a Women's Festival, and she described how in the fifties a woman couldn't sit on a park bench to read a book without getting harassed. We have made such strides, she said, that sometimes we forget where we started and become impatient with those who are still finding their voice.

So while I agree in principle with Tess, I wonder how much of what she's experiencing is related to people who are finding their voice. That process means speaking up (sometimes loudly!) and saying "That is NOT who I am. I am Different", whether it's identifying yourself as Pagan, Gay, Redneck or any other of the myriad of socially constructed labels that we use to understand the world. For those of us still finding our voice, it's important to continue to accentuate the differences, lest we continue to feel like a system is being forced upon us. Finding my voice theologically has been the single most important quest of my life, and pointing out the differences in my faith while still finding those commonalities we as share as Divinely Created individuals is all a part of the journey, and perhaps the most important part.