Norms, short-term history and the collective memory.

This “essay” stems from recent musings I posted in private elsewhere and which have suscitated interest. I had been reading various websites and blogs from the latest wave of otherkin, and found the recents developments thought-provoking sociologically speaking.

When I first was around in the therian community, the norm was animal-people complaining about feelings of body-dysphoria and phantom limbs, or talking about how much nonhuman they felt or how difficult it could be to adapt/accommodate everyday’s life. The norm was the spiritual take on therianthropy (such as animal souls in human bodies), the discussions also were more spiritual in content, and forums that hosted a non-spirituality-centric view of therianthropy were a minority. In fact, they were about two: the Werelist, and the Awareness Forums (note: at this point it was SO/TO/WAG, joint boards for Shifters.Org, Therianthropy.Org and the Were Artists Guild).

And now, we see a return of this take on things, only with an activist twist and more empowerment (as well as different media); and it’s cool to see this actually.

However, the overall short time – even if you consider our “community” started as recently as 92′ – where other voices had spoken up to say “this isn’t my experience of animality – here, I’ll write about what it feels like to me”, that time where some people dared talk about (non-pathological) mental therianthropy, or about animal identities that didn’t find immediate origins in past lives, or about having their animality functional and integrated into their daily life?

That era of the therian community seems to be perceived as “the norm”; maybe it now is in some places (the most influential? the largest?), but as I’m pretty reclusive I wouldn’t know first-hand. What is problematic in this understanding of the community, however, is that many people seem to not have any idea of how much criticism talking about this stuff could raise in most groups, originally. There is a great deal of confusion between some attitudes that took place back then and other behaviours that they’re criticizing in the now, with no regards to historical context, and this fosters an innaccurate understanding of both the community’s timeline and the intents of certain groups of people.

I will take as an example my own writings and similar personal websites from the early 2000’s.

It bothers me a bit when I read certain present-day criticisms, and feel that because we used to think or say X or Y, we are thrown into some same big bag of “anti-fluff extremists” that are seemingly the norm at the moment. It make it as though websites like mine or Quil’s or others were law, when really, only a certain sort of people or circles were into that, and the majority of the community either didn’t know of our existence, or didn’t agree with us, or they did to some extent but saw us – as individuals, voices – as a threat for their authority, or they had more reasons to not appreciate our involvement on forums very much (for those of us who did post, because some others fully embraced their marginal status and have never involved themselves in communities).

We weren’t necessarily kicked out of a place, as most times it was much more insidious, such as the practice from the people in the place (thus who kept the legitimacy to speak) to question one over and over until the person backed down, shunning their views and self. So many people didn’t feel safe around those places and would give up trying to explain their point of view, or were reluctant to register and post at all, because they didn’t want to go through this hassle of always having to “prove” the legitimacy of their experiences. Many have gone offline now, or moved to blogging or other ways to express themselves.

The validity of my own animal-identity was questionned directly and indirectly for many reasons, such as the fact I identify as more than one animal, the fact that for some time I identified more with a taxon than a single species, the fact I don’t view my animality as spiritual in nature (even though I can be a spiritual person), the fact that I had no sudden “awakening”, the fact that I don’t experience “shifts” in animality, and so on and such as… Even the fact that I wasn’t a native English-speaker got me in trouble a couple of times.

So at the time I was quite the oddball, and people like myself were a minority or hidden, more controversial than anything – not the norm.

I originally created the writing group Animal Quills because it wasn’t possible to discuss certain matters elsewhere. The topics were frown upon by the people in place because we didn’t fit the norms of what’s supposed to be a “true therian experience/identity”. Or in the later period, many people would participate with 101 types of comments and detract from the discussions on forums, and other thought-provoking contributions wouldn’t be brought up anymore. Many of us eventually stopped trying, as it wasn’t possibly to discuss the things we were interested in over there. Others just went on with their offline life.

I have personally not supported the widespread use of “awakening” to describe one’s process of discovering their animality – not only it can be misleading for newcomers that it’s so reminiscent of the holliwoodian werewolf transformations, but there also was the implication that one’s awakening marked the start of people’s therian identities. I’m also not fond of shifting categories and a number of other labels. To the newer wave that feel they are “reclaiming” these words, this make me sound like one of the elitists or extremists maybe, even though I have no qualm against the actual experiences behind these words.

But I’ll tell you what. These words are the ones animal-people who constituted the majority used against another category of animal people to disprove the latter’s identities. They reinforce the shifter-centric, werewolf-centric mainstream idea of therianthropy, actually erasing certain categories of animal-folk, such as the non-shifters, people who didn’t experience a drastic epiphany, and so on. For us, it can be a conscious choice not to use these words because we don’t want to support that practice of erasure, and the point back then was also to show it was possible to talk about animal-identity without using a shifter-centric ideology and such.

The norms of the community were quite tangible when a newcomer – who didn’t know of all the “rules” of the community beforehand yet quickly got an understanding of how things were supposed to work there – was brave enough to create topics such as “am I a real therian if I don’t experience shifting?” or “am I a real therian if I didn’t have a sudden awakening?” and so on. Because these experiences were believed to be mandatory in order to be real, and the widespread terminology reinforced that idea. Other experiences were silenced – until enough people begged to differ and spoke up.

So, what part of a generation of otherkin may see as reclaiming certain words, I see under a totally different perspective and I know I don’t want to rehabilitate some terms, because to me it feels less like reclaiming and more like the norm coming back again, the community returning to a shifter-centric point of view, et caetera. Some recent folk may use our old writings as a basis to illustrate the “old ways” and discard them, but they’re not setting themselves apart from a “us=community”, because we were never a truly integrated part of the community to begin with. Even though some of our ideas have apparently lasted, even though we left our mark somehow; I was not the norm when I was around.

The point is, people who belonged to this era? We were never an homogeneous bunch, and individuals like myself were more controversial than anything. What happened later, the lack of tolerance some have shown based on old writings they’d find inspiring, I’m not accountable for. I don’t agree with everything I’ve said in the past either, you know. I can take responsibility for myself and say “yeah, I used to be that person”; I cannot, however, answer for the actions of everyone who’s felt that because I or other people had written some stuff, they were legitimate enough to bash others.

It is ironic when a minority seemingly becomes a majority, even though it’s a common pattern for groups to oppose others to distinguish themselves and exist.

However, mistaking what we did when it was akin to “counter-culture” in reaction to the community’s norms, with the groups of people who are actively enforcing ideas as norms now (I do not support this practice)… well it’s a bit anachronistic, and disrespectful regarding what we actually accomplished. It erases as much parts of personal histories as a part of the therian timeline when people who were silenced spoke up. I remember countless hours of heated discussions where we’d raise points which were “out of the norm” back then, and it was nothing like the sort of hegemony some writings make it sound now.

This isn’t an actual rant; I hope to offer a perspective on the evolutions of “norms” (or the perceived norms), and some musings to chew on about the community’s memory. I don’t consider myself that old or wise, but I find it’s important to keep talking about these matters so that they don’t go forgotten, and to help correct a distorted view of this community’s history.

clouded leopard skull

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4 Responses to Norms, short-term history and the collective memory.

  1. Meirya says:

    This is excellent. I wish we had more community history perspectives out there – not just the timeline event-by-event perspective (which we do have, Orion’s timeline is great), but a more cultural-progression perspective.

    For instance, my perspective of the therian/animal-person community starts with Werelist when it was very “grilling” and “you have to prove/defend your identity” and rigid. And I was mostly just on Werelist and TO. So I forget, frequently, that *before* that, and even during that time (just in different forums that I didn’t go to), there were forums with less focus on critical thinking, and the bulk of the community was actually on the flaky side. This is a good reminder of that! It’s interesting, what you point out, that the community has in some ways come full circle. Hopefully it won’t fall into the same traps of the early community that you mentioned.

    I feel like both the otherkin and therian communities have been doing this wild vacillation between extremes. And it’s reactionary, rather than balancing or proactive, which is frustrating. It doesn’t have to be *only* spiritual/experiential/accepting or *only* critical/physical-world-focused/scientific-minded. There’s a balance between those extremes, an integrative place. I don’t know if that’s a possible place to get to as an entire community though, because communities are organisms made up of many people in many different stages of development; it might only be possible for individuals, and small groups.

    I might have to clean up my DW post from a while back on community trends/developmental stages and post it here too…

    • Akhila says:

      Right, the ‘list was only accepting (up to a certain degree) in its very first year; then it became more and more like TO. Though I think the worst I’ve seen as far as grilling goes was WereNET before them (now defunct), but as I didn’t post on their forums and only participated in the IRC channel, I won’t say more than that.

      I had so many forums accounts over the net at some point, lol. Not on every board that existed, but on the bigger/active ones (except wolfhome maybe). ‘Wish I had kept more logs of the stuff now that I have a sociological perspective on the matter, it would have been useful.

      It’s true, the going-back-and-forth-extremes of the community. It IS reactionary. I think one of the main reasons it always becomes “only this” or “only that” is because of one possible expression of some people’s insecurities (not everybody’s of course, as I wrote elsewhere it’s normal to feel insecure about certain things sometimes). Some people feel the need to follow or even enforce what they perceive as the trend of the time, it’s just a process of making a space safer *for themselves*, and also reassessing the validity of their own identities/experiences by bashing others.

      Which is a practice not limitated to the otherkin communities after all. People often need an escape goat to reinforce the social bonds inside their own groups (existence through opposition to others, etc).

      (‘Can’t wait to see what you make of your community trends/stages article!)

  2. Paleo says:

    I think my time in the forums came at what could probably be considered the very late years of “the old times”. I remember being somewhat conflicted about what I saw. I do remember the endless debates about shifting and terminology. On one hand I was happy that these things were thought about in such depth and that much was written about it. On the other hand I grew tired of it seeming that people were trying to turn subjective experiences in some sort of exact science.

    For me, the culture of grilling and feeling like you had to defend yourself based on a certain set of rules was a mixed bag. I think it made me spend way too much time worrying that I don’t shift all that much (according to the then standard definition of shifting) but I also never fit into any of the alternative labels that were created. Then again, because the culture demanded so much self reflection I figured out why grey wolf wasn’t a perfect match for me. Without that demend I probably would have just stuck with calling myself a wolf and never of figured out the exact species.

    IMO, a sign of being a mature therian/otherkin is cultivating the ability simultaniously believe in your own truth while at the same time releasing the emotional connection to the idea enough to at times critically think about it, to be your own inner critic. Alas, I don’t see these values very often. It’s always “anything goes” or “let’s butt clinch over every little detail”. I rarely see middle ground.

  3. Akhila says:

    Sorry for the late reply :> I see what you mean about the forums being a “two-edged sword” kind of place for most.

    “IMO, a sign of being a mature therian/otherkin is cultivating the ability simultaniously believe in your own truth while at the same time releasing the emotional connection to the idea enough to at times critically think about it, to be your own inner critic. “

    Mhh… I think works for most identity labels actually.

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