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Plurality, witchcraft, otherkin: against anti-scientific and new-age religious ideologies in progressive spaces

It has become increasingly common in anglophone progressive online spaces to encounter and encourage anti-scientific sentiment. It is a worrying development.

Just to clarify: I am very much not arguing from a conservative "facts don't care about your feelings" kind of standpoint. I am non-binary, I struggle with mental health issues myself, and have been an activist on the far left for almost a decade now. That's exactly why I care about the integrity of spaces that hold themselves to a socially progressive standard; because I would like to be a part of them, and I would like our common struggles to succeed and for a better world to arrive.

Science, yo!

At the same time, I am in academia and, at the daunting risk of sounding like an atheist Redditor, I just... well, I value science! Science is not a standpoint or an opinion or one of many valid world views, it's nothing less than the only method of thought that leads to fact. I value materialism: the school of philosophy that the observable, physical world and its processes and relations are real and primary to all that happens in the world of concepts, as opposed to 'idealism', that posits that intangible things like thought, ideas, language, or God construct and shape the world primarily.

There is an objective world! The world is not "relative" to the observer; only the observer's thoughts and ideas are relative, but not the objectively existing world itself. Not all ideas are valid. Not all thought processes, identities, or experiences are true. There is such a thing as objectivity. This might sound like a complete no-brainer to an ordinary person, but you would probably be surprised by how many people still consciously deny those maxims, and especially by how much of this anti-scientific, religious drivel is accepted in the progressive community as a whole; one that usually prides itself on being scientifically validated in terms of, for example, climate change.

I want to talk about some of the ways that the current progressive subculture, especially on Discord, Twitter, the Fediverse, and even unfortunately the web revival, devolves into an anti-intellectual, "everyone's claimed experiences are equally true" self-gratifying mush that explicitly denies the scientific method.

Between a flawed medical system and anti-science reaction

There are a lot of reasons to distruct doctors and psychiatrists in the world we currently live in.

Just for starters, the average doctor is not going to be fresh out of medical school, so their education is likely to be decades old at the time you go visit them. Not only is their knowledge then wildly out of date, they also might just not have been very diligent students! A lot of doctors simply go through their education process once, and then just coast along with that knowledge until retirement.

There are, of course, a lot of people in medicine that regularly attend conferences, stay in contact with their peers and the academic world, or actively do research themselves. But that is, unfortunately, not even close to the norm. Plenty of medical personnel just go on gut feeling, Google and whatever they kept in mind from their original education; no matter how old, outdated or outright wrong that information is now. Their personal biases and opinions might even influence their practice despite the ethical concerns, especially if they are in "soft" medical fields such as conversation-based psychotherapy.

And even if medical practice was perfectly in sync with the academic world, there still is a lot of issues in academia itself. Science is never apolitical or removed from the world we live in. Minorities and working class people are due to economic circumstance statistically less likely to become academics in the first place, and even if they are there, they meet a scientific world that is influenced mostly by petite bourgeois, upper-class ideology and all that goes along with that: including bigotry. There is therefore quite a lot of bias and false information. As someone in academia myself, I have to admit: when choosing a topic to research, we are mostly motivated by either where the money in grants is, or what might confirm our personal opinions or complement our interests. Someone who goes into, for example, transgender psychological research, has a reason to do so: either because they want to "make the world a better place" since they or a loved one are affected by it, or because they would like to prove their own preconceptions about the topic.

If they work diligently and the control instances such as peer review work, that is not a big problem and still doesn't invalidate scientific findings, since results using correct methodology are not in the habit of lying. Still, especially in psychology, there might be preconceptions at work: the idea that divergence from the norm must be cured, for example, informs the kind of research that will be done.

All of this gives a lot of reasons to at least stay skeptical of the actually existing scientific community and to not treat doctors as all-knowing infallible instances of knowledge. After all, science itself is about generally staying skeptical, verifying, and reproducing results if in doubt! It also means that in a world of medical bigotry and fallible doctors, careful self-diagnosis might be a good alternative to find out what is happening in those wacky neurons of yours. Science is not wrong, but scientists can be.

At the same time though, the distrust and skepticism against the medical system should not turn into an attitude against the validity of medicine, psychology or diagnosis as a whole. Unfortunately, that is what it turns into, though. In many spaces, it is viewed as a bigoted to acknowledge that one can misuse terminology and easily misdiagnose oneself, for example. It's not even a matter of elitism or gatekeeping. It's a very well documented effect that reading or hearing about psychological phenomena leads to empathizing with the symptoms to a point where you can easily get convinced that they fit your experience, and therefore lead to false self-diagnosis. Only if you know the full context and background of a diagnosis, you can really make a judgement on it. Symptoms of completely different conditions commonly overlap, and due to the placebo effect and hyperempathy, falsehoods you convince yourself of can become truth if you believe in it hard enough.

There is a need for objectivity in such matters, and patients themselves are notoriously bad at knowing what is wrong with their body or mind. Experiences cannot be the single source of truth, because individual experiences can be distorted and contain falsehoods. The existence of psychosis proves that what people say should not always be taken at face value or for individual truth, because they can be mistaken even about matters pertaining to themselves. Unfortunately, the progressive subculture often confuses solidarity with uncritical affirmation and repetition of individual viewpoints of minorities, and views any kind of inquiry, criticism or research into it as bigoted.

"Plurality", "witchcraft" and progressive validation of minority religions

One of the biggest tell-tale signs of that validation of anti-science ideology in progressive spaces is the prevalent narrative of "plurality" as a true identity. Even in communities that have nothing to do with it, such as the toki pona language community, you will find infrastructure laid out to "accomodate" their beliefs, implicitly and explicitly validating them as truth.

Plurality is an identity that essentially posits that several real people may inhabit the same brain and body. Not in a "I have different personalities that sometimes surface" fashion, but explicitly as separate, fully formed people with their own consciousness. Its medical basis, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or as it used to be known, Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), is a real and documented thing: is is an observable fact that some people insist they are multiple people, and assign them names and identities.

But whether that is a matter of hallucination, a delusion born from trauma response, essentially whether its assertions are true or not, and what consequences arise from that answer, are not questions the medical community is united on. After all, there are such things as delusion, psychosis, paranoid episodes and such that are objectively false beliefs. There are also people speaking in tongues or claiming to read the future or other people's minds. Their mere existence does not mean that those delusions should be validated or affirmed to be true just on account of them really believing in it, though.

The well-earned distrust against doctors once again here led to massive reaction into the other direction, decrying scientific research into these ideas or a healthy dose of skepticism as bigoted by nature, akin to conversion therapy, or even eugenicist. The progressive community has been bent on affirming all possible viewpoints as true just on account of them being held sincerely by someone they "feel" might be a minority. "All experiences are valid"; but are they, really? Is the paranoid episode of a schizophrenic real? Yes. Are their world view and beliefs at the time of said episode true? No! Is them taking medication to suppress such episodes an expression of "eugenics" or "conversion therapy"? Hell no!

The sudden influx of young people and teenagers identifying as "plural systems" is telling, especially because it is limited solely to specific online spaces, such as unfortunately, the web revival. It is extremely easy, given the proper priming and a desire to fit in, to convince oneself that one is actually multiple people in one body. Especially given the fact that both the queer and "plural" community tend to think very highly of themselves and embrace rather unique aesthetics, the concept of a "cool kids' club" that an impressionable, isolated young teenager wants to desparately fit in and be part of, is quite fitting.

How do I know this? Well, I was one of them. For multiple years, I have talked myself into believing I was a "plural system". I have structurally mistaken completely ordinary phenomena for proof that I was, in fact, multiple different people: for example, the fact that I had different thought patterns in different emotional states, or that I acted differently based on social situation. Whereas other people would simply accept "well, of course I act and think differently at a punk gig compared to my grandma's place", for me it meant that I must be multiple people! I gave them names and backstories, ascribed personalities and opinions to them, and I genuinely believed in all this being completely real and tangible. In retrospect, that phase was definitely born out of a desire for affection, attention and belonging. I thought plural people were, well, really cool. The ones I knew were queer and trans, with cool hobbies and great aesthetics. I wanted to fit in, I was desperate for community. And therefore, I believed in it.

Constructing identities and characters is just plain fun already as a creative exercise, but when people around you genuinely believe that you are that character and that it is all true and a valid, real identity, suddenly it takes on a completely different dimension. It is not uncommon to meet "plural systems" who claim to be hundreds of people, each of them nothing but thinly veiled OCs like you would encounter on DeviantArt or Tumblr in the early 2000s. Or consider "fictives" or "fictionkin", who are supposedly fictional characters who genuinely exist in your head as real people. You can claim to literally be a Greek God reincarnated and stuck in your body, or Artemis Fowl, or a character from your favorite anime. And instead of just being a cosplayer or someone obsessed with a character, people treat you like and believe you are the actual, real thing.

You can very easily see how this whole dynamic may impact a young, nerdy teenager looking for purpose, affection and attention in an identity crisis.

One time I was down with a nasty sickness, I simply didn't have time or energy to put thought into that whole identity circus. I just wanted to lie down and slowly cure the affliction that caught me off guard. Sleep, eat, headache, repeat. And, surprise, what did I notice? As long as I didn't consciously think about it and kept reaffirming that concept in my head, the so-called "plurality" did not even show up as a phenomenon! I just kept existing as a consciousness. That was the moment I noticed that it was all a giant delusion that I put myself through. I know for a fact that I am not alone in this experience. And since this false self-diagnosis genuinely hurt me and people around me, there is a reason and motivation to look into the validity of the entire concept from a psychological standpoint, no?

The case for opposition

What harm does it do to let people identify the way they want? Well, for starters, marking other people as problematic and using progressive social pressure to exclude someone from communities is a form of violence. Violence is always a tool, and it can be a righteous one; like for example, how we call out racists as problematic and use rules and "cancel culture" to exclude them from society as far as we can. That's a good thing and a valid use of violence. But it's a first-strike, pre-emptive offense strategy. It's definitely and decisively a combat tactic used against enemies.

That's why this post may sound harsh: because the "plural community" at large is on the offensive, not the defensive. They're the ones leveraging that social violence to intimidate and make such claims first. They're the ones treating skeptics as enemies and want them to be excluded and isolated from communities on grounds of that supposed bigotry. They're elevating their convictions to the status of "if you do not affirm this, you are a bigot". Not all spiritual communities do this.

I am aware that this rhetoric sounds similar to e. g. transphobic arguments against so-called "cancel culture". But the central difference to rightfully obligatory "beliefs" in progressive spaces, such as the conviction that gender is a social construct, transgender people are a real thing, or that human races don't really exist, is that the latter ideas are scientifically valid and as far as we can tell factual, while there is no basis for plurality's ideology other than claimed experience or self-identification. It is, essentially, simply an individual belief. It is entirely right to demand that people "believe" in the validity of a trans person's gender, because there is a scientific basis supporting the concept of gender as a socially constructed, not biologically determined, non-rigid convention. To deliberately ignore those findings in order to divide the population and hurt trans people is bigotry. It's bad because it's wrong and also causes harm. But as far as we are concerned, the presuppositions of the ideology of plurality have no basis in fact; they're entirely subjective and unverifiable. It is valid to hold those beliefs as a personal identity in the same way that it is okay to believe in God, reincarnation, astrology or to be superstitious, but it is not okay to elevate those beliefs into a status of "believe-this-or-you-are-a-bigot"; because we should at least hold our expectations of others to a standard of truth.

An individual plural person can be cool and this is not aimed at them. It is only an issue if they make the adherence to their personal beliefs and spiritual experiences into a 'good or problematic' litmus test, let alone want those ideas to be obligatory-or-else in progressive spaces. Progressives have a duty to defend the expression of identities and faiths, but they are not obligated to agree with them let alone make their affirmation into an obligation. We defend a Muslim's right to believe and practice their religion personally, but we do not (and they shall not) require either ourselves nor anyone else to believe that their religion is true in order to be considered a good person. Anyone would kick a devout person who demands everyone to affirm their identity as the reincarnation of Ramsesses in order to validate their feelings out of a community, even if others' disbelief hurts them emotionally; so why do we afford preferential treatment and a status of verity to other unverifiable spiritual beliefs just because they claim it as their identity?

The good, the bad, and...

Plurality also can be and is often a thin veil for abusive and irresponsible behavior. If you emotionally or physically abuse your partner, just blame someone else in your head. If you struggle with housework and lack the proper motivation to clean your room, why attempt tried and true accountability or organization methods when you can just claim that you're "out of spoons" or have undiagnosed ADHD, and that everyone who tries helping you enable yourself is a bigot? If you lack the emotional maturity to handle your own emotional outbursts, why not simply claim that the currently active person in your head is a literal child throwing a tantrum? If you want to keep watching your favorite TV series late into the night despite your roommate wanting to sleep, why not claim that it's the comfort show of a new headmate and that you need this now or else they're a bigot? Or, inspired by the abusive ex of my first girlfriend, if you violently sexually and physically assault your girlfriend, why not claim that you're a literal predator animal stuck in a human body who can't help themselves?

It's all awfully convenient for someone who wants to shirk all possible responsibility and claim an imaginary friend as the cause like a toddler.

If you consider the opposition to scientific skepticism, the unverifiable claims on how the world works, the shunning of all opposing viewpoints, the peer pressure and the preying on impressionable lonely teenagers, plurality can be rightfully called a religious online cult or, more diplomatically, a new-age religion. It has the same (lack of) right to exist that other religions do. But it should definitely not be taken for granted or affirmed as true as part of the "package" of progressive thought! The same, by the way, goes for so-called witchcraft (yes, even if it's PoC transfeminine witch covens), indigenous religious practices, reincarnation, esotericism, astrology, and all other demonstrably false or unverifiable ideologies.

The cult-like behavior ruined a small independent social media site, Crabber, for example, one that I was a very early adopter of. A short lived Twitter clone, it quickly rose in popularity after I posted a link to it throughout other queer and neurodivergent communities. Tons of plural people joined from that initial link and formed their own section of the community. From a cozy little place it quickly turned into a drama hotspot, with them banding together to pressure the developer into implementing features they deemed as litmus tests of progressiveness. They all brought their friends over, who dominated discourse and pushed everyone else out like a second class citizen because they were implicitly treated as not cool enough or even problematic for not being plural-and-queer like them. Eventually, the site died because the developer couldn't keep up with the moderation demands.

We need to kick those religious beliefs out of the progressive world view. It's okay to believe in witchcraft, reincarnation or plurality just as it is okay being a Christian or a Muslim in the web revival, but progressive spaces desperately need to stop affirming those beliefs as true just because they're uttered by people who look cool, progressive or simply attractive. And that is what it boils down to: if you're a good looking, confident, leftist member of a minority group with a strong belief system on social media, people are inclined to defend your subjective experiences as uncriticizable fact. It is not bigotry to not believe in plurality or witchcraft, and we very quickly need to stop treating it as if it was.

Scientific skepticism and inquiry are not the enemy. As a trans person, I am happy to see more research into it, because the pursuit of knowledge and how the world and the human mind works is fundamental to the functioning of a society. I am fully convinced that gender is a social construct and merely a convention with no basis in biology, and that that claim holds up to scientific scrutiny. I therefore do not see science as a threat, but as an ally! If there was a different way to treat dysphoria than transitioning, I would be happy to support that endeavour. Knowledge is a means unto itself.

And, as a closing note, if there will eventually be new scientific evidence for the actual truth of multiple separate consciousnesses in the same body, I will change my opinion on this immediately. I will then defend that fact and its affirmation in progressive spaces. I will consider the denial of that truth to be bigotry. But as long as it simply is a personal spiritual belief similar to how some religions believe in rebirth or reincarnation, I will defend only their right to believe and express it, but staunchly oppose any attempt to make that belief into a part of the overall progressive world view or shun people who happen to not believe in it.