A Rant About Unintended Insults

What I am about to tell you is not about paganism—or maybe it is. Also: The following is a rant.

It happened again today, you see, or perhaps last week. There I was, conversing as always (surely about French Structuralism, or the nature of the Image, or how much I love Reuben sandwiches) when someone raised their hand and cut me off.

“Wait a minute,” they said, obviously puzzled, “did you just say the word y’all?”

“Why yes, yes I did,” I reply, and before the conversation could go on any further I already knew how it would go: First, my co-conversationalist would look me over, sizing me up – Are they wondering whether I am a physical threat, I ask myself? Hardly. Are they considering my potential bone-ability? Hopefully, but alas, probably not.

Are they trying to work out the perceived contradiction between my oh-so hip and urban Gap jacket, my Boystown buzz-cut, and my sizeable vocabulary (on the one hand) and (on the other) the torrent of stereotypes, pre-conceived notions, and generally not-so-couth ideas about rural (often “Southern”) America? Bingo. Then, they will verbally kick me in the face:

“But,” they tease, obviously unaware of my inner monologue, “you don’t act like a hick.” Apparently the reality of my rural background has hit them for the first time, and they don’t know what to do with this new information.

Which is the part of the conversation in which I have to remind myself not to gut whomever I’m speaking to, just like my hick father used to do to the hick deer he would hick hunt with his hick friends near our hick house in the hick countryside. Calm, Johnny, I think. Calm.

Can I tell you how much I hate the word hick? It’s one of those loaded, derogatory words that smacks of nothing but hatred and disdain and superiority. It’s one of those hateful words that people don’t realize are hateful because it’s so socially acceptable to be bigoted in this way that nobody has ever clued many folks in to the fact that when I hear this word it’s like having my entire life prior to 2001 tied up and stuffed in a smelly bag, lit on fire, and then shoved down my throat. Let’s reword the last statement from my “friend” to see how it sounds:

“But, Johnny, you don’t act like a moronlike a lesser personlike those inbred locals from ‘Deliverance’like someone I’d never want to interact with or love or respect because they’re from a socioeconomic background, a culture, an upbringing that I don’t understand and that I have been taught    to frame my own worth and identity in contradistinction toward.

Okay, okay. So maybe I’m flying off the handle here a little bit, and maybe you need a little bit more background to know where I’m coming from. I grew up in a rural area in mid-Missouri, amid the corn fields and cow pastures that comprised my family’s rather extensive farm. One side of my family moved to the area from the Deep South; the other has lived in the same Missouri farm house for at least 100 years. I have nothing but respect for my families—my decidedly rural, Southern families—and so when folks use words like hick to brush our histories and our lives aside in one blasé stroke, it’s a little… hard to swallow.

Anti-rural bigotry is, of course, a systemic problem in America today. Sure, there’s the projected image of “America” as the land of the determined free white farmer folk that still gets played up every 4th of July and amid various political ad campaigns. But the truth (as far as I can tell) is that the country, at least the urban (and more affluent) areas of the country, have in large part learned to ignore the various “fly-over zones” that not only connect the urban areas, but are also where all our food is grown, where our oil is pumped, where our coal is mined, and so on. How many times have I heard a comrade speak of “the sticks,” meaning the outer suburbs, meaning the ends of the known Earth. And so, when someone like me, someone confident in my place and people of origin, shows up in the city (which happened when I moved to Chicago for university), it’s like a ghost has appeared, a monster from beyond the fringe—and one disguised in the visage of “Man”!

“But,” they say, “you don’t act like a hick.” They mean I’m not a Republican. Okay, no, I’m not, and I have lots of disagreements with Republicans; but it’s not like Republicans have three heads, let us remember. My grandfather is a Republican. My mother is a Republican. (My grandmother is an FDR-style Democrat. Go figure.)

“But,” they say, “you don’t act like a hick.” They mean I’m not a Christian, and definitely not a “crazy right-wing Evangelical.” Well, no, I’m not. But when my family left my father’s home because of abuse, it was those same “crazy right-wing Evangelicals” who came to our help with food and shelter.

“But,” they say, “you don’t act like a hick.” They say it in amazement because I’m gay and yet not dead, having avoided being mauled to death by the conservative rural hordes. How is this possible, they seem to ask themselves. (NB: In the last sentence, I at first used the not-widely-recognized word “mawn,” another nod to my native dialect, just like ‘y’all’.”)

I smile politely, and then ask what exactly it would look like if I did “act like a hick.” They pause, embarrassed, and realize that what they mean is that I don’t look poor (and therefore useless, unwanted), or uneducated, or whatever else. Then they start to back pedal wildly, flailing their arms and their tongues along the lines of, “Well it’s not like that’s a bad thing!”

They do mean it as a bad thing, and they mean it as an insult to my family, my friends, my community, my heritage – to me.

I think you get my point.

And now, all this does actually relate to paganism; here’s how:

Despite some of the more eloquent translations of the word “pagan,” among them “country-dweller” and even “the People of the Earth,” I think that the most connotatively accurate English translation of the word would be—you guessed it—“hick.”  Even if the historicity of the term being used in this way is somewhat disputed, those involved in paganism today have (at least) retconned the word to mean the folks who lived outside of the Roman cities who practiced “the old ways.” These pagans are supposed to be (setting actual realities aside for a moment, if you please) our spiritual predecessors—we are to follow “the old ways” in their footsteps.

And yet, paradoxically, pagans seem to me to be even more prone to the negative “hick” rhetoric than others. Now, perhaps that’s a misjudgment on my part, but hear me out. I think this may be because, like homosexuals and others of various queer persuasions, pagans flock to cities – I don’t count myself apart from this, it describes me twofold! – and so there is an understandable stigma that arises. To some – myself included – cities represent the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Acceptance, and so non-urban areas become our respective Egypts. All right, okay. But I think we’ve all gone a lot too far with this, to the point of inculcating a new hatred.

But then there’s all the reclamation rhetoric about the word “pagan”, i.e., that we’re taking the word back, changing it out of a derogatory slur and into a positive label of self-identification similar to the process undergone by other unmentionable phrases. The problem seems to me to be that we are only taking up the word in ways that are convenient, and not following up on the battle that seems to be implied by such lexical reclamation. Let me explain this a little more clearly…

If pagans are the spiritual “country-dwellers,” we must respect the actual “country-dwellers.” It’s as simple as that, really. When (as has happened to me many times) a pagan makes a remark along the lines of “All those country folk have lost track of the old ways, they’re so full of all this new Evangelicalism,” etc., I find myself wondering if maybe, instead of recoiling from the realities of country life in America, we should ask ourselves about the circumstances of those who hold beliefs that we disagree with. What I mean is, instead of caricaturing rural folks in America, we should wonder whether apocalyptic evangelicalism (among other things) might be a  reaction to having been forgotten by the rest of the country, and to the monotony of the corn fields that is so frequently interrupted only by teenage pregnancies and the explosions of meth-labs.

Just maybe. Maybe, as pagans, instead of distancing ourselves from the lives of those who live in close concert with their land-bases, their food, and the natural cycles, we should find ways to come together in solidarity with folks whose lived existences match, at least in part, our stated ideals.

There. End rant.

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

2 Responses to A Rant About Unintended Insults

  1. flameinbloom says:

    I so agree with this! I’m from Alabama, and my brother is a proud redneck. He wasn’t raised a redneck–he grew up in Kansas City and moved to the south in his 20s. But he’s a redneck. My boyfriend’s family lives on 40 acres in the country, and their neighbors are “hicks.” And I love them because they are good people who love their families and their neighbors and their land.

    When I moved to college in New York State, I was teased for saying things like “right quick,” but I got the incredulous, “You’re from ALABAMA!? But you don’t have an accent…” kind of thing. And the jokes about incest that never ended….

    Once in class, I said that my brother chose to be a redneck and that he likes it and he’s proud to be one, and all the students, flabbergasted, couldn’t believe someone would choose that, as if it’s not a life worth choosing, as if it’s so bad of a way to be that you could only be that if you’re a backward, uneducated “hick” who can’t “get out” and not an educated man who realized he likes growing pigs and having a bunch of broken down cars to play with in his giant yard. As if there is nothing worthwhile about choosing that life. It really grossed me out.

  2. No chit. I have impeccable redneck credentials: both of my parents were Tennessee sharecroppers. It was pretty weird when I hit Cambridge in ’68.

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