Recently I’ve been doing a lot of driving in unfamiliar parts of town. This has led to much slow crawling down streets (with traffic backing up behind) while craning to read the street signs in time to make my turn. The experience is… unpleasant… to me. Couldn’t they make the signs just a little bigger?
Still, street signs are useful things, because if they aren’t able to tell you where you should be going, they at least tell you where you are. Which, if I’m driving, is usually not the same place…
Now and again I come across something that seems like it’s a cultural street sign, something that seems to scream clearly, “This is where we are!!! Welcome to our culture!”
That was my experience when I read this article about the online marketplace Etsy banning spells. It paints a clear picture of the nature of Western tolerance and of the tacit agreements which must be made to live in our societies.[must]
The actual news content of the article is simple and unremarkable (if you’re not a spell vendor on Etsy). Etsy, which previously allowed the sale of spells and hexes, is now banning such sales on the site. It is the undercurrents of the article which are worth some time and reflection.
For example, consider the reasons for Etsy’s refusal to sell spells and hexes. Bluntly put, the reasons are that (a) spells don’t work[ver] and (b) spells don’t exist. The old site rules were that as long as you didn’t promise something worked and as long as you gave the client something real (something that existed) you could sell it:
“The witch explained that under Etsy’s previous rules, spells and hexes were allowed to be sold, as long as they fit two criteria: They didn’t guarantee results, and they produced something tangible. So you could sell a tarot reading as long as it came with, say, a digital download, or a candle that could be used for casting spells, as long as you didn’t guarantee that the spell would actually work.”
Recently, however, Etsy quietly adopted new guidelines that prohibit the sale of spells and hexes. According to its new rules, “any metaphysical service that promises or suggests it will effect a physical change (e.g., weight loss) or other outcome (e.g., love, revenge) is not allowed, even if it delivers a tangible item.”
What is writing the trade rules here? What does Etsy appeal to? The pillars of scientific, secular philosophy, as endorsed by the general culture. Metaphysics doesn’t affect physics. Full stop. [phys] What does Etsy demand from its goods of sale? That they be physical and functional. In our culture, invisible things don’t exist[inv] and spells don’t work. If we believed in spells, we wouldn’t ban them. But we don’t believe in them, and we’re going to write our rule of life[rule] according to our philosophy, which is secular and ignores the spiritual world.
Admins in the forums insist that the sales of things like oils, incense, crystals and candles for use in spells are still okay, as long as they don’t claim any magical properties. For many witches, however, that’s not good enough.
“The entire point of buying stones/herbs/oils is for their metaphysical effects in my community!,” wrote one vendor. “If I can’t list these correspondences, then why would any witch/pagan buy them from my shop? Witches and Pagans want to buy stones from people with knowledge about their magickal properties.”
The big dog, the one writing the rules, is a secular worldview. For instance, look at the term “meta-physical community,” or even the sister term, “supernatural”. What self respecting witch or psychic would self-identify as a “meta-physicist?” This is not the language of these traditions! If they were free to use the language of their traditions in public, they would call themselves very differently. But they are conforming, using a foreign term as a gloss, an attempt to eke out some scrap of respectability in a scientific landscape. The big dog gets to eat. The other dogs snatch whatever scraps they can get, because the big dog is never particularly tolerant.
Tolerance is horribly shallow, because it doesn’t extend down to the realm of worldview. It can’t. Worldviews are pitiless and ruthless when they fight. Like the Highlander, there can be only one. We only have room for one in our lives – one set of core beliefs and assumptions – one set of things that are undeniably true. We don’t have the luxury of stopping life, yet we will tear ourselves apart trying to follow two guiding lights. We have to choose one way.
At the worldview level, we believe one thing and not another, and in this instance, the big dog dictating our practical doing (particularly, our selling) is secular and scientific. Our inner heart feeling or believing doesn’t have to conform (after all, we have freedom of religion, right?), but our doing must certainly be scientific. You can personally believe in spells, by all means. But our public rules of selling are built on a disbelief in spells. The big dog’s gotta eat.
Here we have a clear cut example of a general cultural worldview establishing dominance over and stomping on minority worldviews which challenge it. Tolerance doesn’t factor into a worldview fight. Where I grew up in Africa, people sell spells and blessings without blinking an eye, because there is a general level of belief in them. Culturally, there is no leverage or stomach to ban their public sale. The idea that they should be banned gets stomped out by the big dog of that culture, which has no particular concern for scientific verifiability.
In North America, the idea that magic is a thing simply has no traction, and the minority that do believe in it (as evidenced by their practice of it) can just shut up and go elsewhere. Elsewhere, the precise opposite is true. The point is that the sales can be either banned or unbanned, but they cannot be both. There is one common practice which all the dogs fight to establish; the big dog wins.
The freedom to establish other private marketplaces is retained (which is important), but I find it interesting that the practical freedom to do so (it’s harder than it used to be) gets squeezed out. The big dog allows your profession/confession… but actively denies your true belief and tries to crush it.
Recently I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus makes the uncomfortable point that what we do is a more important battleground than what we profess. Sadly, our culture is happy to let us keep our profession as long as we give up our practice and action wherever worldview conflict arises. Even our culture realizes the truth of Jesus’ words – that it’s more important to control action than belief. Of course you can believe in spells, and legally, you can probably even sell them (for now).[leg] But you can’t sell them on Etsy.
There’s another signpost that’s also worth noting, one which doesn’t even require you to read the article – you just have to look at the pictures! The message is quite clear – witch-hunting is evil, as amply demonstrated by Salem and Disney’s Frollo. Religious intolerance is a clear and unforgivable sin.
The veneer of tolerance is important to our society, even if practical tolerance is quite impossible at the deepest levels (which matter most). As the story goes, moral condemnation or intolerance is quite improper (actually, it is hypocritical and evil) and no hint of it should be allowed. The crime that Etsy is being accused of here is of religious intolerance.
Within Etsy’s witch and metaphysical community, there are a few theories as to why Etsy would have adopted the change. One has to do with Etsy having gone public in April. Additionally, while the site focuses on selling handmade, unique goods, it has always been an easy place for resellers and counterfeiters to set up. Etsy is now facing a lawsuit from investors over items that possibly violate trademarks, and it’s possibly that the website has become more strict about just what can be sold.
While these theories are all sound, many metaphysical sellers believe that Etsy has a cultural bias against their goods. One forum user compared the sale of crystals that could be used in meditative rituals to the sale of a rosary or a cross. Both items represent spirituality, but neither make the claim that they will heal your ills or help you speak to God.
If Etsy acts along secular principles, well, that’s understandable. But if it acts along religious ones, then that’s a different thing altogether. The one thing you can’t be is a witch-hunter.
What North American Christians face is a society whose laws grant freedom but whose general worldview is intent on crushing theirs. The right to exist is nice, but it’s a small comfort if you find yourself being eaten.
It’s remarkable to observe a public censure of evil behaviour occuring not because the behaviour is evil, but because it is spiritual. It’s also remarkable that, were it actually being censured for being evil, that censure itself would be judged evil.
This is a very difficult culture in which to maintain true spiritual belief, belief which manifests in action. In this particular instance, a piece of the internet has become more secular. This means fewer reminders of the spiritual nature of the world, lessened consciousness of the spiritual nature of the world, and probably less prayer. Basically, it means more work for every minority worldview, and more work for Christians.
In some respects, the corner of Secular and Tolerance is a nice looking neighborhood, but the uncomfortable truth is that the world is a spiritual place. To use foolish terms, metaphysics does affect physics, and particularly, metaphysics is going to haul the entire physical world before the judgement seat of Jesus Christ. Whether our map was upside down, or a wrong turn was taken, we have not arrived at the right place to be, and the place we have arrived at is not a safe place to be.
- By “must be made,” I mean that our culture demands them for the common good.↵
- or, perhaps, can’t be scientifically verified to work… The clear underlying assumption, though, is that they don’t work. If they were widely believed by the general culture to be effective, there would be no pushback on this point. Rules are put in place to keep customers from being ripped off, and you don’t spend time making rules about things that obviously work.↵
- More specifically, “The belief that metaphysics affects physics is not a valid legal defense if you get sued.” If our legal system believed that metaphysics could affect physics, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But it doesn’t.↵
- Note, you can sell radiation therapy (probably not on Etsy, though) but only because we managed to verify it in a good scientific fashion. We know it’s a thing, and so we don’t feel nervous about selling it. But we know it’s a thing by scientific, secular rules, which is what matters.↵
- In this case, our rule of sale, which is a small sub-section of our rule of life.↵
- It could be, of course, that legally you already have no defense in selling them (like that bridge over there), and that Etsy understands this. I don’t know. But I would be very surprised if the general tone of the market, over time, did not put pressure on legislation to be reformed to match commonly accepted principles (which Etsy is doing its part in establishing).↵