Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Among the many great reads I stumbled upon in 2019, one stands out for its thoughtful consideration of how settler activists interact with Indigenous peoples in the context of broad socio-political movements. It is a long essay published as a small book through pm press, called Occult Features of Anarchism With Attention to the Conspiracy of the Peoples by Erica Lagalissé. The remarkable title indicates a remarkable book, full of careful explorations of the often ignored or yes, hidden, spiritual lines of thought feeding into various social movements, focussing in on anarchism. She unpacks entanglements between secularization and the privatization, feminization, and as time goes on increasing racialization of religion or other spiritual modes. Leaving aside the ongoing debate within and without anarchism about atheism, I would like to draw out two quotes that have given me plenty of good stuff to meaningfully think about.
...regarding my question of anarchist atheism, many agreed that we should indeed be more 'respectful' of 'Indigenous identity.' This last continually disturbed me, as I had taken care to emphasize that the problem goes beyond a failure to be sufficiently polite in the presence of difference. Beyond being 'disrespectful,' the modern Western insistence on a mechanical universe delimits the radical imaginary in general. To refrain from telling the non-atheist activist they are wrong (while continuing to think they are), simply because he or she is a person of colour, is altogether different than deconstructing one's colonial mentality, which treats the religious as other in the first place.
A part of what makes this such a striking passage is that it reveals something important about the type of othering that is at play here. It is a type of othering that deems the person or persons affected as wrong about something completely fundamental. So wrong in fact, that their very intelligence and status as full human beings or at last full adults may be questioned. This is the same attitude embedded in missionary thought, in which the missionary's belief in their absolute and absolute correctness of their belief makes the derogation or the beliefs or reasoned conclusions of others totally just. From what I can tell, this point of view is quite unshaken by the illogic of being so certain of being able to correctly and totally understand reality and divinity despite being a mere single human being. There is a lack of intellectual humility at play that is unsurprising because we see it all the time. All of which is to concur with Lagalissé's point that no one is immune to this, regardless of their own politics or beliefs about spirituality and religion. The root issue is deeper, it lies in the settler belief that they must know better and have the one and only true answer.
It makes sense that a critique of cultural appropriation emerges in the present-day context, wherein cultural difference is fetishized and certain people may valorize themselves by accessorizing commodified attributes of those they structurally oppress, but we may also lose something in the process of applying the logic of property and culture, and to spirituality in particular. When entire cosmologies are reified as 'proper' only to specific preordained identities, we are effectively saying they are false to the extent that they do not apply across the cosmos whatsoever. The sacred is thus rendered as alterity, nothing more than a cultural accoutrement in a marketplace as big as the universe. Appropriating indigenous spiritual forms without the intended content is entirely in line with the logic of capitalist colonialism, but so is marking off and containing everything considered sacred as property (and thus nothing more).
This passage is tougher I think, because it grapples with the question of cultural and/or spiritual appropriation. It makes sense that Lagalissé is resistant to notions that essentialize people as having certain ideas or beliefs because of their particular origins or communities. Indeed, this is a key point that many Indigenous scholars and activists make, because to do otherwise effectively denies Indigenous peoples their right to determine who they are, and whether and how they will adopt people who join them from other places. It can be hard to accept that non-Indigenous people may win full acceptance by an Indigenous community in a lifetime, while not pretending to actually be Indigenous in the sense of originally born into a people whose attachment to that place stretches beyond time immemorial. The difficulty of accepting this is not that it is not possible, but because we hear everyday that this is all about "race" and something "inborn," not in fact a determined commitment to and enactment of a principled and deep relationship to the land all the other beings living there. We are encouraged everyday to accept the claim that settlers cannot be different because they are inherently different, and that they will inevitably force the rest of us to become like them because, the additional subtext runs, they have the one and only true answer. Quite apart from my personal refusal to accept assimilation as a good for anyone, I also refuse to let settlers off the hook or agree that they are somehow incapable of being other than genocidal maniacs. These would all be self-defeating stances to take.
The other notably tough part of this passage that I will consider here is the last two sentences, because they helped me finally make sense of the weird perspective so many settlers hold on spirituality in general. I have met people of wide ranging views about atheism, from those who believe that anyone who does not subscribe to their religion is actually an atheist, to atheists who are careful to disclaim any desire to tell others what to believe and do their best to act accordingly, to agnostics who are frank about not being sure about any of these things. Among those who firmly believe in some sort of divinity, I have been struck by how comfortable they apparently are with switching from practice to practice, religion to religion, depending on what satisfies them at the time. It's not a big deal, they just change their minds, holding their basic belief in divinity constant. I am not able to share this comfort myself, since to me it seems far too cavalier. Yet, if the point for those who are comfortable is that these different practices and religions are mere forms with which they clothe what they understand to be the one and only true answer, then of course there is nothing to be worried about. No need to feel weird about a mere transfer of property, which entails only the most brief and delimited of relationships.
The relationship aspect is what troubles me most of all, because over the years I have learned that these spiritual practices and religions are not just a sort of costume or property at all. They entail an ongoing commitment in the form of relationships with particular people and places, let alone one or more divinities. Teachings from my own community and from other Indigenous communities have quietly shown me again and again that everything we do each day is how we relate with and related to other beings. Those other beings include not just spirit people or beings otherwise understood as divine in settler terms, but also all the other animals, plants, land, air, and water. Those relationships are not simply or easily cast aside, and indeed in some cases it's impossible to do so without dire consequences. We can't throw away our relationships to the air we breathe or the water we drink, regardless of whether we are sure there is one or more divinities or not.
A person could read up to know and ask then how I can square this perspective with a refusal to accept that assimilation is not good for anyone. This person could ask, not intending anything controversial, how it make sense to claim this, when more and more evidence suggests that Indigenous spiritual practices and religions are better ways to interact with the world. If that's the case, why wouldn't it make sense to insist that settlers should assimilate to Indigenous peoples, thereby end running around colonial mentalities and such unacceptable practices as cultural appropriation? And I would have to say, as Lagalissé's nuanced discussion demonstrates yet again, because things are not that simple.
For one thing, the evidence on assimilation is also in, and it is quite unambiguous. Assimilation is impossible. That is, no one can completely understand and meld into a different culture and people. This is not because of genetics or any other essentialist sort of pseudo-argument. Rather, it is because that community of people the new person enters has developed together over time and in a specific place. If a person enters after their own adulthood or even during their early childhood, they are bringing with them formative experience in another community entirely, and from another place. Those aspects of their lives and experience cannot be made the same. Luckily for us all, there is no need to. It is quite possible to integrate in the best sense of the term, without denying differences of experience or defining the experiences of others as less than human or fundamentally invalid. It is quite possible for settlers in particular to accept and act on the respectful premise that they do not have the one and only true answer while remaining unique peoples themselves and not trying to pretend to be otherwise. But then, perhaps that is the hard part, because that would require settlers to accept that they have become different from their ancestors who came from elsewhere and that the different they have become is not for example "being more english than the english."