On “closed practices”

Having observed discourse circulating on Twitter re: “closed practices” for awhile, I thought I’d pitch my opinion on the topic. I do not by any means reject the concept as such – in some instances, it’s appropriate to apply. However, I have several concerns about how the concept is applied, and the implications of becoming overly hung-up on it.

closed practices

Introduction

Anyone who has encountered discourse about “cultural appropriation” will at once grasp the gist of what “closed practice” means. The basic idea is, some forms of esotericism are not – or at least, should not – be open to “just anyone”. The reasoning on this generally runs along one or more of the following lines:

  • The practice is strongly associated with a specific ethnic group, grounded in their particular culture. An outsider who lacks this context cannot meaningfully grasp key nuances of the practice.
  • The practice involves an initiatory lineage – i.e. you get into it only if someone already in it initiates you. Absent this, you cannot “really” take part in the practice.
  • The West knows of the practice primarily due to colonialist impositions upon the original culture. Therefore, if you as an outsider just “come in and take,” you are further perpetuating the violence of colonialism.

All three of these rationales boil down to “it doesn’t belong to you, so it isn’t your place to participate in it”. You simply do not have the right context to do the thing authentically. At best, then, trying to do so both makes a fool of you and a mockery of your efforts. And at worst, you risk perpetuating misconceptions, undermining the original community of practitioners, and causing other assorted harms.

I am sympathetic to these core concerns that drive labeling some things as “closed practices”. Nonetheless, I’m increasingly seeing applications of this concept in online spaces that seem misguided, incoherent and/or outright stupid. Bad applications of the concept strike me as conflicting with Satanism’s ethos of self-directed spiritual exploration and individual empowerment. I therefore think the concept needs some criticism, even at the same time as I do assent to its basic validity.

Problem 1: who gets to declare a practice “closed”?

This issue entails two distinguishable sub-issues, which I will call “etic” and “emic”. The issue is fundamentally the same in both, though: who do we recognize as “speaking for” a practice, and with what result?

The etic side entails cases where an outsider says on behalf of a group that their practices are “closed”.  (Linked article above mentions this kind of case.)

One then witnesses “interesting” situations wherein actual practitioners may not see their own tradition as closed, but outsiders insist it is. Said situations become doubly “interesting” when the outsiders are white Western far-left types speaking “for the marginalized”.

So… you’re speaking “for” these people… who disagree with you? And when they disagree, you super-patronizingly wring your hands about how their colonized minds fail to appreciate your beneficence? This kind of situation breeds critiques of how “intersectionality” prescribes only one correct view for people from a given culture, whilst nonetheless claiming to fight for “diversity.” Such circumstances look suspiciously like the same old “arrogant white Western people talking over other cultures” that “the good guys” are supposedly fighting against.

The emic side, on the other hand, entails cases where one member of a practitioner group says their practices are “closed,” and another practitioner disagrees.

The “interesting” aspect of these situations arises when adjudicating such claims turns to questions of “tradition”. One then beholds the “interesting” sight of “progressives” elevating the most conservative voices in the culture over other speakers. Which leads directly into Problem 2, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

My point for now, though, is I suspect people overestimate how many clear-cut cases of “closed practices” actually exist. Maybe turn the heat down a few notches, then, regarding how “bad” it is to dabble in something “closed”.

Problem 2: why are folks declaring the practice “closed”?

It troubles me to observe folks trying to police “closed practices” without asking: what really motivates the “closed” claim? Like, could it be because:

Etic: All you actually knew about the practice before declaring it “closed” was that it had a non-European origin. You didn’t actually talk to anyone doing that practice, research cultural exchanges involving it, or etc. Instead, you made the same bullshit “ooh, people different from me, looks exotic!” move that xenophobes base their judgments on. Oh, but you’re “progressive”. Really?

Emic: You’re a gatekeeping dinosaur scrambling to protect your own traditional authority. Heaven forbid that anyone you consider “unqualified” try to do something new, creative and interesting with “your thing”. Especially if it’s – gasp of horror – a woman!

Now, I am not by any means saying that such considerations invalidate all cases of “closed practices”.  Cultural context is an indispensable part of some practices, in which case pretending authenticity without the context = being a poser. That’s the valid case of “closed practice – hands off!”

As a cynical former-LaVeyan, though, I am unimpressed by my sense that some of this discourse is motivated by mere status-gaming. On the etic side, factual complexities take a back-seat to impressing one’s fellow activist-wannabes with ever-bolder insights. On the emic side, stuffy traditionalists hasten to rip “their” toys out of the hands of whoever hasn’t kissed ass enough to receive their blessing. Both such parties thus wind up doing exactly what priesthoods have always done: establish and preserve hierarchy! And since when do Satanists feel the need to “respect” that kind of authority?

Problem 3: how are the “wrong” people performing the “closed practice”?

By “how,” what I mean is, which of these is the dabbler-in-closed-practices actually doing?

  1. Intentionally putting themselves forward on social media as a fully-qualified, authentic practitioner
  2. Being loudly passionate-yet-imprecise about the practice on social media, unintentionally misleading the ignorant about “how it works”
  3. Overtly framing their dabbling in the practice in terms of “just their own understanding” of it, without claiming “authenticity”
  4. Doing number 3, but without talking about it on social media or otherwise contributing to public discourse about the practice

My contention is that these are in descending order of “how problematic is it”:

  1. Overtly a charlatan, deserving of criticism.
  2. A bigger a problem the bigger a platform you have, but a) not the same kind of hubris as 1, and b) where’s the responsibility of the audience to educate themselves on the topic?
  3. I can totally understand how this may still be distasteful to an authentic practitioner. But such distaste isn’t necessarily indicative of the dabbler sowing misinformation in the way of 1 & 2. If they never claimed authenticity, or even overtly denied being thus, how can one blame them for dumbasses in the audience who yet persist in misperceiving them as an authenticity-wanna-be? And how much sense does it make to “school” them when the sheer fact that they are denying an attempt at authenticity implies that actually, they already have a decent grasp of what the practice “really is”?
  4. It is, frankly, creepily totalitarian-seeming to me that someone would call this out. Like, you want to play thought-police regarding what people do privately in their own homes? Seriously?

Such distinctions seem irrelevant to the dogmatic left

You see, then, that I personally have a nuanced view on this topic. I think there is a vast difference, in particular, between “I went to one weekend workshop on shamanism, so now I am a shaman” idiots (1 or 2) and “I’m a chaos magician inspired by my own understanding of elements of shamanism” -types (3 or 4).

Contrarily, it seems to me that online social media spaces often suck at drawing this kind of distinction. I get the impression that the hardliner argument runs along the lines of “society’s favoritism toward the privileged so magnifies their voices that 1-4 are all problematic.” Well, I don’t know for sure about 4, but I suspect the closed-practice-police think that either i) nobody actually does 4, because social media is life 🙄, or ii) 4 is also a problem, because racist-colonialist-appropriation in private is still racist-colonialist-appropriation.

All of that is all well-and-good if you are “that kind of leftist.” “That kind of left,” however, seems radically opposed not only to Satanic values, but to the essence of “spirituality” generally. I would go so far as to say that to me, it seems like some of these people think the very act of researching other cultures’ spiritual beliefs and practices, and trying these on for size, inherently constitutes “white people doing colonialism,” regardless of the finer details.

My view, by contrast – and, I daresay, the view of spirituality itself – is that heresy is a fundamental human right. Yes, it’s a problem if someone misrepresents their own innovation as authentic to the original culture’s practice. But so long as they are transparent re: “it’s just my interpretation,” are they really doing something that bad?

Why this is “un-Satanic”

Consider, next, that the dogmatic-leftist approach to this issue seems to run as follows:

  • The first, most important thing to do is determine which Herd a given individual belongs to.
  • Next, we consult our own Herd’s big mental book of the beliefs and practices proper to that Herd.
  • If we find someone not conforming to our definition of their Herd, our Herd has the right to harass them.

Such a worldview treats cultures as monolithic, and individuals as inherently beholden to those monoliths. As a Satanist, I find that unacceptable.

“Oh, so you’re asserting that you can’t be ‘individual enough’ unless you can be a racist-colonialist-appropriator?” sneers the dogmatist. Such an accusation does not deserve a direct refutation, as it takes the dogmatist’s own dualistic worldview for granted, and thereby sets up an unwinnable conversational game for whoever dissents.

Instead, I would remind the audience that I am not arguing for anyone’s “right” to distort or violate a closed practice. I am, rather, arguing that not all dabbling in such things inherently constitutes distortion and violation. If someone is self-conscious re: they are just playing with the surface of something, taking inspiration from it without claiming to “be of it,” etc. – as is generally inherent to Chaos Magick, for example – what is the actual problem? Like, do these dogmatic leftists attribute a demonic power to the dabbler, such that an outsider’s mere direction of interest toward a closed practice is enough to despoil it with “outsider cooties”?

It seems to me that such a view both exaggerates the fragility of the closed practice, and attributes a degree of power to the dabbler that they neither possess, deserve, nor asked for. I thus see no gain to anyone in this way of thinking.

Problem 4: whose interests are served by fencing off “closed practices”?

A final thing I’ll raise stems from a bit of Twitter snark I concocted awhile back.

Every now and then, the argument goes around once more as to whether Kabbalah is closed. My actual view is ascertainable from what I said above: anyone can borrow ideas from it (as occultists in fact long have), but they shouldn’t call themselves a traditional, authentic expert if they have no cultural or religious background in Judaism. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable view.

However, I additionally have a “snark” view about this topic. That being: you know what would thrill the Nazi types associated with the Order of Nine Angles (ONA/O9A)? The elimination of “Jew magic” from Western esotericism. And you know what dovetails strikingly well with such a “purification” endeavor? Convincing people that Kabbalah is a closed practice.

I at one point tweeted a sarcastic, made-up conspiracy theory re: maybe there’s even a Niner who’s infiltrated far-left circles via an insight role, advancing their Sinister agenda in this very fashion, delighted at the progress being made. 🙃

That tweet almost immediately got a like from an account (neither one I followed, nor one following me) that I am 98% sure is an actual Niner. 😱

So, yeah… watch me get culled for unintentionally outing someone… 😬

All kidding aside, though…

Here’s the actual point I’m trying to make, though:

As a biracial person, I have for years now watched the left march down a path that worries me. That path is paved with the policing of behavior based on whether people look “too white,” “Asian enough,” or etc., with racial segregation justified for the purposes of “providing a safe space,” and with editorials about how maybe people of different races can’t really understand one another. I even at one point saw an article that I swear implied that in every family that looks like mine (white father, Asian mother), we can safely assume the white guy is “just exoticizing the Other”. Kinda hard not to read that as “families like that are bad and we shouldn’t have them,” don’t you think?

My lived experience thus impels me to cry out: dear far-leftists, can you please maybe stop doing things that divide races and cultures in the self-same way that the far-right seems to want races and cultures to stay sharply divided?

This is not to make the lazy centrist claim that “both sides are equally bad.” The point, rather, is that if someone who sympathizes with your side, and wants it to succeed, has an argument re: actually, your tactics are bad in a way that is useful to your enemies, shouldn’t you at least think about this?

Tying more explicitly back to the closed practices thing: if you want people to be more self-conscious, reflective and articulate about their “borrowing,” great – I basically agree. But if your position is verging toward “people should stay away from other cultures and only engage with their own,” you might want to consider who else wants a world that looks like that. That’s all.

Concluding thoughts

To summarize my thoughts on “closed practices”:

  • Yes, I agree, cultural context and initiatory issues render some forms of esotericism “closed.”
  • However, this primarily means “if you aren’t from that culture and/or aren’t an initiate, don’t pretend to be authentic”. It doesn’t actually mean much of anything re: can you still learn about it, draw inspiration from it, etc.
  • We ought to be able to engage critically with claims that a practice is “closed”. Does the culture itself actually say it’s closed? Is there disagreement about this within the culture? Is there good reason for calling it “closed” beyond just the status-seeking of those making the claim? Can we ask these questions in the spirit of honest intellectual inquiry, instead of presuming they “must” indicate bad faith?
  • If someone on social media isn’t clear about what they’re doing, consider giving them the benefit of the doubt. I say this because I suspect most spiritual folks who “dabble” know full well that their interpretation isn’t “traditional.” The inquisitor who berates them for “appropriation” is then more just nitpicking the way they talk about themselves than exposing any “wrongdoing” of consequence. Why thus make the Internet a more needlessly-hostile place, instead of just not talking to the people you don’t vibe with?
  • It seems to me that occasional missteps are the inherent price of a world in which different cultures meaningfully interact. I prefer a world that facilitates spiritual exploration and innovation whilst managing this risk responsibly. If you think it’s a higher priority to respect traditional authorities, lineages, taboos, sentiments, etc., fair. But in that case, you and I will just have to agree to disagree.

Any thoughts, concerns, or unanswered questions about my position? If so, let me know in the comments.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Canuck Druid

    I am not sure if you read this pamphlet, but it’s relevant to what you said about Kabbalah in this post. It really does not sit well with me. The implied conclusion is that Western Occultist should sit in perpetual shame and guilt or remove all Jewish elements from their practices. It also makes me question if the same should be applied to Christians. https://ezrarose.itch.io/fyma-a-lesser-key

    1. Othaos

      Sorry about the super-delayed approval – been distracted and away from the blog! But yes, I haven’t read that pamphlet but I have seen it go around. I must admit I did find the cover graphic somewhat amusing. 🙂 I’ll take a look at it when I have time; I anticipate my feelings will likely echo yours.