“Self-Described Witch”

I do have a Facebook presence.  I ordinarily abstain from publicly commenting on controversial topics and try to keep my communication light, relatively impersonal.  Facebook is a far more public forum than it started out as, and I like to treat it as though I’m standing in a large field with a megaphone.

I broke that cardinal rule over the weekend.  I had my gallbladder out last week, hence the lack of blog posts, and thereby had plenty of idle time to get myself into “trouble.”  I may not be a Christian, but the adage “idle hands do the Devil’s work” has a lot of truth to it.  I want to share with you the conversation that ensued when I broke that rule, posted with permission from two long-time friends.  

Here’s the set-up: I read an article written by an “outside” journalist about Wicca.  I apologize that in my pain-killer induced haze I didn’t think to save the link to the article, and for the life of me I can no longer remember what it was about.  What I do remember, however, was that the journalist interviewed a woman and stated that she “self-identifies as a witch.”  I cannot begin to numerate how many articles I’ve read where those interviewed are “self-defined” or “self-identified” as (insert Pagan path here).

I’m far from the first person to be annoyed by this, and there are varying degrees and opinions about using this kind of phraseology as regards different Pagans.  Some regard this phrase with vitriol, others defend its use because they don’t want to be associated with a definition they don’t agree with.  This is something I can understand and be very sympathetic to because I have distanced myself from the community for this very reason.  However, I have come to realize that this line of thinking is very divisive and works against the community, particularly the Wiccan community, in its efforts to be recognized as a valid religion.  While by law it is recognized, it is still nowhere near the level of social acceptability we, as a community, crave.  This is more important to some individuals than others, but given that genocide based on religious philosophy is committed throughout the world to this day and in the modern Western world in the last century, witchcraft has historically been grounds for execution, and people are still killed for witchcraft today, I think that the fight for social acceptability as a community is not only valid but important.  I posit that the phrase “self-identify” or “self-describe” as used by the print media is subversive to this goal, though it not done consciously or maliciously, rather it is done because there is still a tacit unacceptability to the label “witch” in our culture.  Language is powerful, and I would implore the media to stop “self-identifying” Wiccans and start identifying us, or else the struggle will continue in a catch 22 pattern.

I’ve blabbed enough.  Here’s the conversation:

Ariawn:  You know, just once I would like to read an article about religion where the subjects are said to “self-describe themselves as” Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. with “self-identified” priests, popes, or whatnot. Every time a writer does this they undermine the veracity of an entire subculture by creating an atmosphere of doubt. If you state that I “self-describe” as a witch, you completely disown your own writing and make it look like its a “her words, not mine, don’t blame me” scenario. Own your writing! Embrace your research! And stop justifying the fear and doubt about something that is little known or understood through media! That’s the exact opposite purpose of writing. Write to teach. Write to love. Write for peace.


Kenny: “Self-described” is also a tool to denote when you don’t know the full details of group’s beliefs or practices. Better to let somebody stand on their own statements than risk creating a strawman out of them that doesn’t at all resemble the claimed subculture.

Writers who aren’t experts in a field will use it as a productive way of not insisting that “Group A” likes this thing. Instead you are stating that this person claims that their brand of “Group A” likes this. Otherwise you risk alienating any readers that do identify as “Group A” and feel misrepresented by the subject in question.

Just another way to see it! In some cases it may not be as cynical as it appears at first glance.

Ariawn: I can understand that, Kenny. They don’t want to alienate readers or come across as saying that “this is what I wrote and so it must be true and everyone has to take my word on it.”. If, however, they are going to use this tactic, then it needs to be applied to ALL subcultures equally. I have never once read an article about a “self-identified Catholic priest” or “self-described Muslim.” By selectively using this phraseology in writing, they are, without realizing it, creating a connotation of mistrust in the selected groups. If their desire is to let the subject in question stand on their own grounds, that’s what quotes are for. There is no possible way for a single subject to possibly represent an entire group, and I think that writers and readers have got to learn to accept that if individuals are going to be used for research and interviews, there is going to be a perception of misrepresentation (or actual misrepresentation depending on whom is interviewed). Those possibilities open a floodgate for a conversation and more research and more writing. Clearly I’m being idealistic.

Kenny: Yeah I think the “self-described” descriptor is probably a pool floaty for writers that feel out of their depth. I wouldn’t make the negative connotation myself, but I am not everybody. I suppose it is better to drop the construct and rely on quotes to not send the wrong impression.

I still think exclusionary aspects are unintentional in most cases, but I can see the point. 

Jack: With the larger groups where the term wouldn’t be applied, I think there’s also an assumption (and not an unrealistic one) that the majority of the readership has a knowledge base and reference points, be they correct or incorrect. Most everyone has an image of a catholic priest, a tent revival baptist preacher, an orthodox rabbi, etc… that at least superficially aligns with objective reality. I think the term witch on its own still conjures images of The Wizard of Oz rather than anything more realistic or accurate in the minds of the mass public. Is that right? Nope. Is it true, methinks so. Perhaps one small upside of “self-described” is that it can function as a substitute for “may or may not align with your (the reader’s) preconceived notion of said group,”

Ariawn: Kenny–I like that, a “pool floaty,” lol. I have opinions about pool floaties after 10 years of lifeguardint, too. I think the negative connotation has been ascribed to the phrase mostly because journalists have literally been doing this for decades, not just a few years. In the Pagan community in particular there is a lot of grumbling that this phrase is still being used in large part because the greater majority is trying to dispel misinformation and gain some level of public legitimacy, and it feels like the media is, albeit unintentionally, subverting this goal with diction. I agree, it’s not intentional, but that’s the whole point of critique and feedback, right? To help writers be conscientious of their writing?

Jack–you have a very valid point, and I can completely agree and understand a writer using “self-described” in this manner for a level of clarification with their readers. This doesn’t make the phrase acceptable, however. It is still an unequal treatment of subcultures in writing on the surface. Moreover, it allows a reader to continue to hold onto their preconceived notions, and more often than not isn’t the point of writing about a little known subculture to help dispel those (usually incorrect) notions? Or at least to provide some level of accurate information? Using “self-described” they are only asking that the reader accept a different definition in regards to that individual–it allows the reader to reason that the subject is a unique entity at best or mistaken at worst because the “common knowledge/definition” is what the reader knows, they assume this is what is accepted by the world at large, so their preconceived notion must be what is still reality. When you say “so and so IS a (whatever)” you are asking the reader to challenge their preconceived notions. They still don’t have to accept it, but they’re more likely to think about it, as uncomfortable as that might be. I understand not wanting to alienate an audience, but if that’s their concern, then don’t write about something controversial–you’re going to piss SOMEONE off. I say it is better to be accurate to stand by one’s research than to pander to someone else’s preconceived notions, and, barring that, to treat all subcultures equally in media. Besides, they are casting doubt on their own work using the phrase because it sounds like, “They say they are this, but I don’t know.” If you don’t know, don’t write about it. That’s what tabloids are for. So yeah, I get it, but it’s been going on for decades, and I just think it’s high time that we stop being “self-described” and start BEING.

Ariawn: Also, do you guys mind if I post this conversation on my blog? I’ll edit out personal identifiers, but I think it’d make a great post. 

Jack: By all means!

Kenny: Fine by me to use it for your blog. I’m just saying that, as an atheist (who are also very often misrepresented and misunderstood), I would prefer a writer who doesn’t know anything about atheism to use the cop-out than absentmindedly align me with people who don’t represent what I think naturalist atheism is.

Different sub-cultures, different issues, though.

Ariawn: Fair point.


About Ariawn

I am 33 years old and have been studying Wicca for over 15 years. In 2012 I was elevated to the third degree in Traditional English Wicca by Dragoman Sledz. Since his passing in 2014, it has been my goal to develop and document our Wiccan philosophy as fully as it is within my power to do so, and in doing so continue our mission to bring Wicca out of the shadows and make it available to those who seek the path. I currently reside in Ohio with my husband and our three cats, and I work as a registered nurse in Cleveland. I have an additional bachelor's degree in English literature. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
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