This Conversation Isn’t About Just Diversity. It's About Engagement, Listening, and Growth.
By Ismail Ali
Part of The Psychedelic Diversity Conversation
Read the intro
“I require a society on the brink of social breakdown to be able to do my work.” – Terence McKenna
Engaging with diverse and underrepresented perspectives when talking about psychedelics promises to be rich and complex. Psychedelics offer a counter-discourse to more socially dominant perspectives, after all, and they are subject to many different interpretations. Sure – psychedelic subjects can conform to standards like the scientific method, Western epistemology, or academic diction. To many people, however, any discussion about psychedelic consciousness is nonetheless inherently outside of the mainstream and challenges the standard perspective society attempts to provide.
However, acknowledging the challenge that psychedelic consciousness presents to the status quo is only part of intersectional engagement. The status quo includes a pervasive, systemic, and interrelated web of restrictive, exploitative, and violent dynamics that seep into everything we do. Even and especially in the world of psychedelic consciousness, an ongoing critical dialogue about these oppressions is crucial for the movement to have a meaningful impact beyond the spaces in our minds. For true liberation, these dynamics must be dismantled, and their reproduction must be avoided.
Discussing misrepresentation, marginalization, and the importance of equal opportunity with people who have never been misrepresented, marginalized, or denied opportunities because of their identity is exhausting. Often, this exhaustion is compounded by the fact that the ones doing the discussing are people who have already been misrepresented, marginalized, and robbed of opportunities. Eventually, the garden of perspectives becomes a cacophony that is easier to detach from instead of engage with. The irony is that the discussion isn’t really about just diversity or inclusiveness. It is about engagement, it is about listening, and it is about growth.
In the spirit of these values, this piece intends to frame critical content in an accessible way. It is for allies seeking to understand the urgency and relevance of these challenging but necessary conversations, and offers a perspective that may provide a way to convert that understanding to action.
It is no surprise to indigenous people that their perspectives are not respected by many Western users of their medicine. It is no surprise to women in the movement that most of the panels organized at psychedelic conferences are made up of men. It is no surprise to people of color that it is difficult for other people of color to “come out” about their relationship to psychedelics.
There is a problem with asking people who are not in a room to talk about why they aren’t in that room. It places the burden of figuring out the solution onto the people who are dealing with the effects of those problematic dynamics, rather than on the people who actually own the spaces, curate the room, and gatekeep its entry.
For the movement toward psychedelic consciousness to be as transformative as it can possibly be, it is our obligation as a psychedelic community – especially those with influence and investment in the status quo – to be aware of our shortcomings and to challenge them head-on. As psychonauts, we take pride in our ability to be aware of our own selves - who are we to be tepid with our community’s progress?
This awareness must include being conscious of how our own gatekeeping acknowledges, privileges, and elevates certain voices while ignoring, challenging, or marginalizing others. It includes recognizing that non-engagement with counter-discourse is inseparable from participation in the status quo in its present form, oppressions and all. It includes efforts to integrate “radical” politics into our discourse as potential tools to cut at the root of the problems that plague society.
Researchers organizing studies can incorporate antiracist tactics by educating their teams about implicit bias in medicine and making efforts to include accurately-representative populations in their sample groups. Principles of economic and environmental justice can inform industry leaders in the eventual psychedelic market (or in the cannabis market of today) how to develop a system that is accountable to populations that are most directly impacted by prohibition or who have been robbed access to their own medicine. We can call out members of our own community that claim to believe in growth and transformation but perpetuate heteropatriarchal, white supremacist, or otherwise regressive and toxic behaviors.
Failing to radically include the voices of diverse and critical stakeholders, even and especially if the voices challenge our comfort zones, will inevitably result in an out-of-touch movement that is irrelevant to a significant portion of the population. Many of us are accustomed to our voices being undervalued. With the psychedelic renaissance in full swing, we have an opportunity to recreate social dynamics from the bottom up in a way that is authentically transformative.
So, let’s do it with some damn integrity.
So where does that leave us? What does this counter-counter-discourse look like?
Spoiler alert: I don’t know. However, I have some ideas, and three “visions” of critical counter-discourse follow. They are based on my own personal experience and interests, of course, and do not even scratch the surface.
Psychedelics & Social Justice
I implore that the American psychedelic community truly attempt to understand and elaborate upon the intersections between psychedelics and social justice.
One does not need a transpersonal epiphany to realize that we as a community have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us; however, the jump from observer to participant is not an intuitive one. Yet throughout history, social engineers such as Terence McKenna have seen insurmountable challenges as opportunities for growth.
Users of psychedelic medicine and sacrament have worked in the face of “insurmountable” challenges for centuries. From colonial domination of indigenous ideologies in the 1500s, to the War on Drugs of the 1960s and beyond, to today’s global whiplash toward fearful, reactionary nationalism, psychedelic communities are extremely well placed to support movements that challenge oppressive structures.
Further, for those movements to be alongside us, we must be alongside them. We must take on the burden of fighting for social justice as our own and show solidarity with communities that have been fighting for their own rights and freedom for decades, if not centuries. We need to do more than just talk about liberty – we need to show up for communities that have never had it.
The path toward a better world is worth taking, and it is worth taking today. Now. Let us jump off the brink of social breakdown and spread our wings upward, toward truly radical and transformative global impact.
Psychedelics & Religion
Inclusive conversations about access should include a variety of religious, spiritual, and metaphysical perspectives, including those that many in the psychedelic community often dismiss.
Non-scientific knowledge has been cherished for millennia and although it has been expressed in different forms, billions of people have been more than happy to accept metaphysical explanations for systems of belief and tradition. Knowledge articulated by religion and spiritual practice fill a void that scientific evidence does not. The psychedelic experience is often ineffable by definition, and it is a source of wisdom and spiritual resilience for many.
Despite the clear analogy between traditional religion and psychedelic experiences, I am constantly taken aback by how anti-religion psychedelic culture is. It is not unusual for many of my peers in the community to hold their ideologies in opposition to the religious traditions within which they were raised, or to disparage religious communities as backward or obsolete.
I do not intend to invisibilize the oppression religious forces have caused: religion has often served as the vehicle for state corruption and as a motivation for some of history’s greatest tragedies. I am not advocating for the dismissal of criticism toward any institution, Godly ones included. That said, a reductive approach that fails to differentiate between religious institutions and religious communities is short-sighted and unnecessarily adversarial, and fails to recognize an opportunity for collaboration. A cooperative approach between psychedelic and religious communities could have tremendous positive impact in the hearts, minds, and spirits of people all over the world.
In addition, religious organizations and congregations offer an experienced model of civil engagement, inclusion, and adaptation over time. Some religious communities have been at the forefront of social issues like criminal justice reform or marriage equality for decades and have cemented their role in progressive politics. We should learn from their experience and organize accordingly.
I grew up in a progressive, intercultural, and devout Muslim household, surrounded by a plethora of religious expression. Today I hold my culture, my religion, and my psychedelic practice in the same regard – they are each an authentic expression of full self. I hope that in the future, we can talk to our brothers and sisters in churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues as allies in the development and protection of spiritual practices of all kinds.
Psychonauts of Color
Finally, I would also like to use this space to call in people in this community whose voices are underrepresented in the discourse: psychonauts of color.
Many people in the psychedelic world rely on their education or research experience to determine their academic credibility. Although undoubtedly valuable, I believe that discussing psychedelics in the context of lived experiences by populations who have historically been marginalized can also provide its own source of valuable knowledge.
For some of us, our interaction with the status quo as people of color has played a part in the development of our identities, including our engagement with psychedelics. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent, reactive shifts in American foreign and domestic policy played a tremendous role in the development of my identity as a psychonaut.
After 9/11, the country my parents immigrated to seeking opportunity decades earlier – the idealistic country I thought I grew up in – began to directly target people of my identity and community. Like many young Muslims, I suddenly understood myself to be an enemy of the state and became disillusioned and frustrated with America’s Iraq-War-imperialism and PATRIOT-Act-“security.” Agnostic, depressed, and disillusioned after having lost trust in the system of faith that had so richly nurtured my development, I sought out spiritual alternatives to Islam. Then in 2006, after years of seeking, I ate psilocybin mushrooms.
That night, I experienced unconditional and loving affirmation of my whole identity for the first time. The glorious, generative energy and the spiritual resilience I developed during that experience has supported me to this day. Since then, my psychedelic identity has only expanded, and my passion for psychedelics as tools for healing, growth, and actualization has continued to crystalize.
In other words, my relationship to my identity as person of color – as a Latino Muslim man in a post-9/11 world – is directly impacted by my experience with psychedelics, and I am certain that I am not alone.
The Way Forward
As I may have made clear throughout this piece, I am not interested in participating in a movement that further cements problematic power dynamics, further entrenches systemic economic injustices, or further undermines attempts to dismantle oppression in all of its forms. I hope that these observations can help provide some concrete pathways to challenge and realign those dangerous forces as we all move forward.
The psychedelic movement is more than its shortcomings, and much of it is truly magical. Within that magic lies a rich fertilizer from where our culture’s growth can take root. Using our privilege to leverage our voices in spaces where we feel safe, even and especially when others don’t, is a crucial next step in developing our community.
We will continue to unearth challenges. However, committing to being patient and persistent with them will make developing a regenerative, just, and free world a lot easier on us all.
Thankfully, our experience as users and lovers of psychedelics has given us some practice :)
Ismail Ali earned his J.D. at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2016, after receiving his Bachelor’s in Philosophy from California State University, Fresno, in 2012. He is currently a Policy Fellow at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, where he is supported by Berkeley Law’s Public Interest Fellowship. Ismail believes that psychedelic consciousness is a crucial piece of challenging oppression in all of its forms, and that legal access to psychedelics is an essential part of a progressive drug policy paradigm.