An aspiring Witch quickly learns to cast hir spells positively. In other words, one doesn’t do a spell to end unemployment; one does a spell to find a wonderful job. One doesn’t do a spell to end illness; one does a spell for vibrant health. One doesn’t do a spell to harm an antagonist; one does a spell to direct the antagonist’s attention away towards something positive. It’s a skill that quickly becomes second nature for most Witches and other magic workers. The logic that underlies this technique is that energy follows attention. When you give energy to, for example, illness, you strengthen it. When you give energy to health, health grows stronger.
Which is one reason I’m always surprised to see Pagans engage in such negative framing when they issue press releases or give interviews. You know what I’m talking about:
Pleasant Valley Pagan Pride Association will be hosting Pagan Pride Day events. “We want people to stop being afraid of us,” said Wanda Witch, event coordinator. “We don’t really worship Satan or eat babies. We don’t hex people or sacrifice cats. It’s not true that we’re ugly old women in pointy hats.” The event will take place on Saturday at the local park.
As George Lakoff explains in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, when you invoke (there’s a good Witchy word for you) a negative frame, you reinforce that frame. What is framing? It’s casting the argument in terms that you’ve chosen, rather than in terms chosen by your opponent. The American right wing has been brilliant at this. Thus, we have “partial birth abortion” rather than “doctor-directed medicine for mothers”. We have “death taxes” rather than a “tax on excessive, unearned wealth”. We have “entitlements” rather than “social safety nets”. Framing is what a Witch does when she sits down to craft a spell for vibrant health rather than for an illness to go away.
Invoking a negative frame almost always reinforces it. Think Richard Nixon giving a speech and telling Americans “Your president is not a crook.” Think Christine O’Donnell making an ad and announcing, “I’m not a Witch.” The first thing people think of when they hear “Christine O’Donnell” is “Witch.” There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about Lyndon Johnson suggesting that his opponent be accused of something unspeakable. When his aide said, “But that’s not true!” LBJ replied, “Who cares? I just want to make him deny it. As long as he’s denying it, he’s not winning.”
That’s why it is such a HUGE mistake for Pagans to accept the Christian framing of Paganism. As long as you’re denying that you worship Satan (a Christian demi-god in whom Pagans don’t even believe; Satanism is a branch of Christianity), or eat babies, or cut the eyes out of newts for your potions, you, like LBJ’s opponent, are losing.
There’s a reason why Christianity began to demonize Pagan Goddesses/Gods and to characterize the healing practices of the village herb woman as evil. And, sure, go ahead and deny it. The more you deny it, the more everyone else imagines that there must be something to the charge. The Christians were pretty successful. Burning a bunch of people (“guilty” or not) to emphasize your message will do that. Framing works. It’s powerful magic.
So what would it mean to, in Lakoff’s words, “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate”? Focus on the first thing Lakoff says: Know Your Values. I’ll include in “values” your objectives, which flow from your values. What values inspire you to, for example, organize Pagan Pride Day? Pride in the accomplishments of Pagans who invented agriculture, created democracy, built the pyramids and the Parthenon, survived the Ice Ages, and offer modern people a way to reconnect with Nature? The pleasure of getting together and sharing with other Pagans, promoting a community spirit? Devotion to religious freedom that calls local Pagans and other like-minded people together to do a ritual to protect the First Amendment? You need to understand the values that led you to organize your event. (And, trust me, just figuring this out, putting it into words, and making sure that everyone involved is on, if not the exact same page, at least the same chapter, can be a magical (and difficult) process all its own.)
Maybe you’re not promoting a Pagan Pride Day event. Maybe you’ve written a book, or developed a workshop, are protesting DC40, or are opening an art gallery. Doesn’t matter. You still need to know (and be able to articulate) your values. Once you do, then you need to frame your press release, interview responses, flyers in a way that promotes those values, not your opponent’s. So for example:
Pleasant Valley Pagan Pride Association will be hosting their fifth annual Pagan Pride Day event on Oct. 30th, beginning at 9:00 am, at Pleasant Valley Community Center. All are welcome to attend. The price for admission is an item of nonperishable food to donate to the Pleasant Valley Soup Kitchen. Wanda Witch explained, “We host Pagan Pride Day so that various Pagan groups from Pleasant Valley can enjoy getting together, sharing information via workshops, seeing each others’ art work and craft projects at our crafts display, and collect donations for a worthy cause. We’re proud of what local Pagans contribute to our community and Pagan Pride Day is a chance for us to celebrate those contributions. We’ll have a closing ritual to honor Pleasant Valley’s Pagan teachers, police, paramedics, and animal rescue workers.” Participating Pagan groups will include Coven of the Valley, Druidic Grove of the Valley Oaks, and the Hermetic Temple of the Valley. Workshops planned for the event include Tarot Therapy, Raising Pagan Children to Honor the Earth, Urban Gardening, and Magical Techniques for Beginners. For more information, please contact Wanda Witch at ___
That’s positive framing.
But what if you send out that press release and the religion reporter for your local tv station calls you up and asks for an interview? And what if, at the interview, the reporter says, “But don’t Witches worship Satan?” Or, what if you’re a well-known local Pagan and you get called up by a reporter and asked to respond to a national event such as DC40? What if you send out review copies of your book on Wiccan Spiritual Practices and a tv reporter shows up outside your home, cameras running, and demands to know, “Aren’t Witches responsible for the string of natural disasters that have hit our nation’s capital? Isn’t it toleration of this sort of Satanism that causes God to punish all of us?” What if, in the middle of a nasty divorce, you get deposed and asked, “Isn’t it true that you have known Witches in your home, doing witchcraft while your young children are present and awake?”
In other words, aren’t there times when you must respond to negative framing? Of course there are. Just ask John Kerry who thought that he could ignore being “swiftboated”. I’m a lawyer and I spend a lot of my time responding to my opponents’ arguments. I’ve never counseled a client to just ignore the charges.
But! Again, first, you have to “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.” And, if possible, you want to get your message out, using your terms, ahead of the criticism. It’s already a lot more difficult for a reporter to attack Wanda after the second press release quoted above than after the first. “Come on, these folks donate to the local soup kitchen and honor local public servants. They want to share with each other and talk about how to raise their kids. You’re going to call them devil worshippers?”
But! First, I want you to, if it’s at all possible to avoid the question (the only example above where it’s actually impossible is the deposition, BTW, and the response to that question is a legal post of its own), stop and consider: How does granting this interview/responding to this question/dealing with these charges advance YOUR OBJECTIVES (which, remember, come from knowing your values.) If the answer is: responding won’t advance my objectives then: DON’T RESPOND. You’re not obligated to grant every interview you’re asked to do. Repeat this over and over. In America, responding to the media is a matter of faith. Here’s a revalation: You can just decline the interview. Trust me. You can. (What do you know/can you find out about this interviewer, hir organization, their biases? What have they already said about Paganism or other minority religions? Do they seem ethical?).
Second, I want you to stop, check your ego at the door, and ask yourself: “Am I the right person to respond?” If you sent out the press release for Pagan Pride Day, it may be that you are. But maybe Wanda Witch has never done an interview, while her co-coordinator, Wesley Wicce, does it all the time. Maybe this should be a joint interview. If you wrote the book, then you’re probably the person who should respond to the request for an interview, assuming it will promote your objective (getting publicity for my book) to do so. If you are the right person, do you have a chance to prepare and practice? If not, maybe now’s not the right time for you to do this interview. If you get the fact that I think that it may often promote your objectives to decline an interview, then you’re right. While the old saying is that all publicity is good publicity, I’d argue that most media attention to modern Pagans is unwarranted and bad attention.
So imagine that responding will advance your objectives and that you’re the right person to respond. You’ve done all that you can to frame the issue in a productive way and you meet the reporter, s/he softens you up with a nice question or two, and then s/he zings you: “Everyone knows that Witches worship Satan. Why shouldn’t the city shut down your Satan-worshipping Pagan Pride Day before you corrupt more young children?” Here are three simple steps:
(1) Respond forcefully: “That’s nonsense.” “That insulting trope is beneath you.” “Of course, that’s ridiculous, and you know it. Shame on you for repeating Dominionist [note the early beginnings of reframing] talking points. I guess if you were in Afghanistan, you’d call Christians ‘infidels.'”
(2) Immediately re-direct: “Pagans invented democracy.” “Local Pagans risk their lives to keep our community safe.” “My book is focused on how everyone can grow spiritually.” “My art gallery is devoted to fostering beauty and showing the work of local artists, embedded in our community.”
(3) Conclude quickly: “I hope everyone with questions will come to Pleasant Valley Park on October 30th. Thanks for the chance to talk about our community-based workshops.” “The First Amendment ensures that all Christians, just like all members of other religions, are free to worship as they wish. If you support the First Amendment, I hope you’ll attend our ritual on October 30th. Thank you.” “Thanks for this chance to chat. Sadly, I have to ring off just now. My book is available at these local bookshops. _______”
If there’s any chance that you’re likely to interact with the media, I’m going to beg you to “get to Carnegie Hall.” You know how you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Do you have a friend whose iPhone has video? Get them to ask you the hard questions, answer them, evaluate how you did, try again. Again. Again. If I have a client about to be deposed, forced to testify before Congress, needing to go on a Sunday talk show, you can be sure that we’ve anticipated and rehearsed answers to likely questions. More than once. You owe the Pagan community at least the same level of preparation.
Here are a few other basic tips for interacting with the media.
(1) Have a fact-sheet that you can hand out to the reporters, etc. It needs to look professional, be spell (no, the other kind of spell) checked, and include all relevant information. “Pagan,” “Wiccan,” and other similar terms should be capitalized. Your bio and contact information should be included.
(2) Ask if you can fact-check the article/interview before it goes out. Great chance to correct capitalization. (And if you don’t get how capitalization matters, you’ve missed the point of this post.)
(3) If being interviewed, bring you own pocket recorder and tell the interviewer that you are recording the interview. If s/he objects, decline. This keeps the interviewer from fabricating quotes or cutting out context. Shocking, but this does happen.
(4) Dress and appear in a manner congruent to your objectives. In many (but not all) situations, this may mean toning down the RenFaire or other non-professional aspects of your “normal” costume. It means thinking about the setting. Do you want to give the message that you’re the crazy-dozens-of-cats-lady-living-in-a-cramped-apartment-full-of-tchotchkes? (Depending upon your objectives, you may. But, if you don’t, should the interview be conducted at a local library or at the park where the event will take place? At a desk moved to the spot in front of a window instead of its normal spot in front of the litter boxes? Should you not allow the reporters to shoot empty plastic lawn chairs around a weedy circle?) Should you appear at a desk in front of bookshelves? Should you be holding a copy of your book or be sitting in front of an event poster?
Finally, there are a number of more subtle ways that Pagans buy into Christian framing. Here’s my favorite example: Most Christian groups in America base their religions on “faith.” One is “saved” by having “faith” that “Jesus is lord” or by having “faith” in Yehova. As a result, “faith” has come to serve, in America, as a substitute for the word “religion.” Thus, one will hear Pagans talk about their “faith,” when what they mean is their “religion.” It happens w/o thinking, which is the goal of successful framing. This framing makes it easier to argue that any religion not based upon such “faith” is not really a religion, not really entitled to the protection of religious freedom. And, of course, for most American Pagans, faith plays little role in their religion. I don’t worship Hecate or Columbia because having “faith” in them is a prerequisite to “being saved.” I worship them because I have experienced them. So I insist on referring to my “religion” and never to my “faith.”
We buy into Christian framing when we assume that having a building — a church — is a prerequisite to being a serious religion. We buy into Christian framing when we assume that having a dedicated clergy is a prerequisite to being a serious religion. We buy into Christian framing when we assume that having “a book” is a prerequisite . . . . You get the idea.
We’re about to head into September and October, when most Pagan Pride events occur. We’re facing DC40, when a number of Pagans may get approached by members of the news media. Framing matters as much when dealing with the news media as it does when crafting a spell. We’re good at this stuff. Let’s act like it.