essay by anthea
Interestingly I'm writing this coming right off a post I did in someone else's journal about religion and how I perceived it to be unwise to cling too strongly to any belief system as the Absolute Truth.
I find that in a lot of communities which involve belief in things which are generally outside of any mainstream religion-- otherkin, furry, soulbonding, gateway/walk-in multiple systems-- a lot of things within the community tend to come down to a clash between Symbolicist and Literalist views. The Symbolicist view can generally be summed up as: "Yes, we're a system which includes soulbonds from games/books/tv/etc, but I don't think these characters exist anywhere outside of our head" or "Yes, we have an internal world where we see ourselves going when we're not up front, but I don't think it's a literal reality, just a place for us to visualize ourselves," or "Yes, I identify as otherkin/furry/etc, but I don't -really- believe that I'm nonhuman in any sense, it's just a useful metaphor for me."
The Literalist view, on the other hand, is "Yes, I have SBs, and I believe that the stories they came from happened in other realities, and they've come to me through that reality," or "Yes, I'm otherkin, and I believe I have a nonhuman soul in a human body," or "Yes, we have an other world, and I believe it exists somewhere."
It can get pretty unpleasant when outsiders stride into a community and demand to know which one you are, even if it's only out of their own curiosity. I've been on a forum, for instance, where several people got offended when a non-SBer wanted to know to what extent people believed SBs were real. It can get even nastier when it turns into an internal clash of symbolicism vs. literalism. Generally, it tends to go along the lines of the symbolicists believing that the literalists are ruining things for the rest of them, making them look like a bunch of quacks by professing belief in the existence of alternate realities, having nonhuman souls, or the like, the prevailing idea seeming to be that 'we need to keep these people quiet or be very vocal about the fact that we don't agree with them or everyone will think we're all kooks.' It can degrade to the point of mockery and denigration of literalists, presumably in an attempt to prove a point to outsiders who go out of their way to mock the community as a whole-- although interestingly, I've never seen it work. What it is is a form of scapegoating, of saying, "These people are the wackos, not us, and we'll pick on them just like you do to prove it, so you'll leave us alone!"
Except, of course, that these days I'm finding pure symbolicism vs. pure literalism to be insufficient to describe the complexities of the way most multiples, otherkin, SBers, etc. experience the world. While we have definite factions in our own system which lean towards one side or the other of things-- and I don't make a secret out of the fact that I usually lean towards the literalist side-- I also find pure literalism to be limiting in many ways, as much as pure symbolicism, where nothing can be acknowledged as real in any sense beyond an 'emotional truth.'
I believe that sometimes, characters are characters and stories are stories, that sometimes it is fiction-- and not 'just' fiction; just because something isn't literally real doesn't make it not worth honoring. There are a lot of stories we have that, when it comes down to it, I can't point to them and say I don't feel we created them on some level. I don't think that's a sin or that it demeans them, and one of the problems with pure literalism is that it seems to lead to the degradation of anything which is 'just fiction,' which isn't considered as real in some reality or other-- that it needs to be real to have any worth or value. It's like some forms of New Age religion where fiction is never fiction-- it all has to be a memory of a past life or a message received from another world. As other people have pointed out, it pretty much destroys any potential for imagination and creativity in human life, because in essence, it says that imagination -doesn't exist- -- that it's ALL visions of things that are real.
On the other hand, I find it equally binding to stick with the idea that "it's not real, but oh gee, isn't imagination a wonderful thing!" There are times when it's more powerful to interpret something as a reality. If pressed, I think you would find that the majority (not all) of strong symbolicists would admit that they would -like- to believe in the reality of things on some level-- that their symbolicism is, at least in part, a reaction to prevailing social attitudes and desire to make themselves acceptable, to believe they aren't kooks. There seems to be a big underlying fear among symbolicists that literalists are going to go a little too far and be a little too gleeful in sharing with the world what they perceive to be reality, like New Age channelers trying to tell the world the messages they were supposedly sent by space aliens and beings from higher dimensions.
Except, of course, that the vast majority of multiple systems who experience their other worlds as being more than emotional truth don't like to spread it around. It's not just because they -are- aware and very much so of how it's perceived by the dominant culture, but because it's usually a personal thing to them. Sometimes people will be up front and forthright about it not because they want to force the rest of the world to believe in the literal reality of other worlds, SBs, otherkin, etc. but out of desire to reach out to others in the same situation as they, who might be still unable to honor what they have as a valid thing and not something stupid or crazy, who want to believe in it on a level beyond the symbolic but are afraid to for fear of being perceived as a kook; and defend it not because they think it's going to convince their detractors-- it rarely does-- but to cut down some of society's presumptions for the previously-mentioned unsure, to tell them that no, it does -not- in fact make you an idiot to accept this on a more-than-symbolic level, if it doesn't affect your ability to function in regular daily life (and to show that it doesn't for them).
I think because this is often misinterpreted as trying to convince one's detractors, symbolicists and even literalists who are quiet about it often have a knee-jerk reaction to it. The reaction isn't because it makes them personally uncomfortable for this person to hold these beliefs (that seems to be more the province of those who cut it down in general), but because it makes them uncomfortable to think about how society will judge -them- if this is perceived as being representative of them.
All the same, I think it -does- need to be done, within reason, for it to be pointed out that society really has its head up its ass in many ways; and neither extreme symbolicism or literalism strikes me as a very liberating worldview, in the long run, where it all HAS to be one way or the other. There's also liberation to be found in having grey areas, areas of unsureness, or to hold the conviction that a world or person can be constructed through belief, and to see yourself as an active participant in that process.