–by Shauna Aura Knight
Pagan communities are fraught with internal conflicts. There’s that saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” We don’t need Fox News, or a judge ruling on a case, or a religious leader to tear us down. We do it pretty well ourselves. And there’s a thousand reasons for it, most of them done in innocence. Where is that path paved in good intentions going? The Underworld, I think…
Recently there was hubub about an editorial in Witches & Pagans; basically, an assertion that the Pagan PR response to the defamatory comments made by Fox News about Pagans wasn’t that big a deal and there were other Pagan issues that deserved more attention. And there were responses tearing that editor down for what she wrote and blasting her.
Recently there was also a backlash response to some of Ruth Barrett’s comments about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival; basically, she supported the “womyn born womyn” or “cisgender only” policy. Ruth Barrett, and others, have supported their stance with the idea that women need women-only space. You know, real women only, right?
Now, I can see how, in a generation or so, statements like that will be as faux pas as saying, “You know, we want white-0nly space. We don’t want to have to deal with sharing space with black people or brown people. We just want to be able to be ourselves, you know? White only, where we feel safe.”
The anti-trans argument is a segregation argument. That trans women are a “different” sort of women who can’t understand the experience of being real women and so shouldn’t be permitted to attend an event where they might offend “real” women.
Putting the long view on again–some day, we’ll just call trans women….women. Just like some day, gay marriage will just be…marriage. You don’t really hear people clarify, “Oh, that’s an interracial marriage.”
But as you might expect, a lot of people blasted Ruth Barrett for her stance, including me. And…there is another side to it. Ruth has been a fierce activist for women’s rights, and deserves respect for that work. And I’m sure it’s true that women who are victims of sexual assault are triggered by seeing women with male genital parts showering in the communal showers. As Melissa Murry said and I so often quote, it’s not an easy question, with no easy answers.
The last time I posted here on Pagan Activist it was about asking Pagans to be more ecologically conscious and to reduce their use of disposable items in ritual. And I took rather a lot of flack from Pagans, some of them event organizers who thought I was personally attacking them.
Pagan Community Building
All three of these scenarios are pretty common in our community. Someone in the Pagan community says something someone else doesn’t like, and they get blasted for it. But, how do we discern when to stand up and speak out? Part of activism is speaking up and standing up for what we believe. But, so very often, this becomes a fistfight of ego-bruising proportions that causes huge rifts in the community.
Starhawk often writes about how healthy dissent is important in a community. But, I see so few Pagan communities that are strong enough to sustain real dissent. For that matter, I see few Pagans with the communication skills to skillfully articulate dissent in a way that doesn’t tear a community apart. And I see few Pagan leaders who can sustain that level of negative feedback; as someone who’s had people tear me apart before, it can be hard to hear and work through. And all this is part of why I’ve devoted considerable time to teaching skills of Pagan leadership, community building, communication, and conflict resolution skills; because, to be stronger as a community, as a connected grouping of communities, we need to get better at this, or we’ll just keep ripping ourselves apart.
Before tearing someone a new one, have you thought through the issue? Is the issue really worth getting on your soap box about? There’s a spectrum of behavior here. On one extreme, you have angry loudmouths/toxic people who are never satisfied by anything and compelled to complain about everything. These are the folks that are referred to in the book “Antagonists in the Church,” often suffering from major personality disorders. On the other extreme, you have people who will excuse anything their group leader does in an unhealthy, cult-like codependence. I’ve seen both of these situations play out, and both actually still lead to a group exploding or imploding, it’s just a matter of when.
Discernment means checking in with yourself. Is this an issue that is just about you? Is it just about you needing to be right? Or is this a larger moral issue? Are you compelled by your ethics to speak out? There’s a difference between being an antagonist, and being an activist. But it’s sometimes a very fine line. For me, this kind of discernment requires me to know myself pretty well. What are issues that trigger me? What are things I’m personally passionate about? What’s my sense of ethics, what informs my ethics? What’s right and wrong to me? What’s right and wrong in the group I’m in? Does the group share my ethics and values or am I the odd duck out? When I’m triggered, what’s my instinctive reaction? How do I feel? When I’m angry, do I lash out?
Discernment requires we know ourselves really well, and that we are able to take a breath and look at the situation from a bit of a distance, so that we can make an informed decision about how to act. What happens if I speak up? What happens if I don’t speak up? Am I going to be the only one calling the Emperor on having no clothes?
Holding Paradox and Critical Thinking
A lot of debates and arguments I see in the Pagan community involve polarities, black/white thinking. This is either wrong, or right. I am either wrong, or right. And usually, if you’re “right,” that means I’m “wrong.” What if, instead, we could hold paradox? That possibly, you and I can disagree on something, and neither of us need be “wrong” or “bad,” but perhaps we can hold that we have different opinions.
Often, the polarizing happens during triangulation and gossip. Basically, person A has an issue with person B but instead of telling person B, they complain to person C. “Do you know what C did to me at the last ritual?” C, having heard of this first from A, assumes that A is telling the truth. C is then polarized against B. We’re inclined to believe what we hear from someone we know well, or from the first person who approaches us to tell us a story about a conflict.
Again, discernment, and critical thinking, means we have to look at all sides. What’s the other side to the conflict? What are the needs beneath the conflict? Is it a conflict where both parties could hold paradox? Or is there an irresolvable difference? Critical thinking requires us to check our sources. Instead of just accepting someone’s word, it’s important to fact check, which means asking the other party for their side of the story. Not just accepting, “Well, people say.”
I’ve had a lot of feedback offered to me in the form of, “I have heard people say that you are…” and then they refuse to divulge their sources. “It’s confidential.” Usually, this is a sneaky way of bolstering their opinion by making it seem like they have the weight of many voices. As a leader, it’s still my job to listen to and consider feedback like that, but I also consider the person’s agenda. What do they have to gain? Is this a power play? Or is this feedback about something I’ve done as a leader that wasn’t in alignment with my values, and I require a course correction and to apologize?
Ego and Egotism
Ego isn’t bad. Ego is the psychic bag of skin that holds the innards of our mind together into a cohesive identity. Ego has a job, and that’s to make us look good; ego wants us to have a positive self image. Egotism, I usually experience as a backlash response to deep personal issues around poor self esteem. In the Iron Pentacle taught in Feri and Reclaiming, this is referred to as the Rusted and Gilded Pentacle. When we have poor self esteem, it’s a hole in the ego. Arrogance and egotism is a poor patch-job on that hole in our ego. Most of the arrogant, egotistical people I see have really huge issues with self image. The more they fear they’ll look bad, the more they puff themselves up. Many of these folks, at the core, identify as a victim, feel like they are always under attack.
I understand it, because I’ve been there. Choosing to heal the old wounds in my ego, to develop better self esteem, to take responsibility for myself and my actions and my choices…well. That’s the work of a lifetime. But it’s this work that allows me to hear feedback and not immediately overreact to it. I can consider what’s being said. I might get pissed, I might get hurt, but eventually I can listen to it and check in. Did I do something wrong as a leader? Do I need to change my behavior? Do I need to apologize? Or am I listening to the sniping of an antagonist?
Or is it something in the middle; someone who has a genuine concern, because their own issues of self identity are triggered by something I said or did? Is it an ethical issue, a values issue, or an issue of a wound being triggered, or something else?
Communication and Conflict Resolution
There’s one tool I teach in my leadership classes that, if we actually all used this tool, I think most of the community conflicts would be reduced or even eliminated. Or at least, most of the needless ones. The tool is the Four Levels of Reality, taught to me at Diana’s Grove, and taught to them by Jean Houston.
- Physical Reality: What actually happened. “Pat stood 30 feet away from me in the circle and squinted.”
- Mythic Reality: We don’t see physical reality, we tell an instant story. “Pat glared at me.”
- Emotional Reality: The story we create in our head creates an instantaneous emotional response. “Pat hates me, they are glaring at me, I’m so angry at them, I’m so embarrassed.”
- Essential Reality: Why is that the mythic reality we chose, the story we wrote? Why didn’t we think, “Pat is squinting at the sun,” instead? Essential Reality is our core issues of identity and self esteem, how we frame the world. If we assume that everyone actually hates us because no one has ever really liked us, that’s essential reality. It’s our core identity, but it’s an identity that can be changed. This requires a lot of personal work. If you find you approach everything as a victim, that people are out to get you, that nobody likes you…that might be some areas to consider doing some personal spiritual work.
Poor self esteem and poor self image are at the root of many of the conflicts I see. Person A and person B have a massive argument because both are so petrified of people seeing them be “wrong” that they can’t fathom backing down. Ego’s job is to keep us feeling positive about ourselves. And…if I’m wrong, then I’m “bad,” right? And if I’m “bad,” then I’m a bad person, and nobody will like me, right? Then I’ll die alone.
Doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just how it works for some of us. And the irony is, by being the jerk who has to be right all the time, people really do start to dislike us and withdraw from this.
Take this from my personal experience. I used to be the self-loathing jerk who had to be right all the time. I’ve done a lot of personal work around this. I still get my hackles up sometimes, I want to be “right.” But I can usually head it off at the pass. I am a lot more confident in myself than I was 10 years ago, and it allows me to not rise to the bait of the “I have to be right” folks. It allows me to hold discernment about how to respond to a disagreement.
The Four Levels tool offers two potential roads for personal and group work. The first is exploring your mythic responses, and the essential reality under them. It offers the potential to create a new essential reality for yourself, heal the old wounds that are driving your actions and responses.
However, there’s also the external work of checking in with people directly. If Pat is squinting at me, and I’m not sure if Pat is glaring, or what, it’s pretty simple. I can go and ask Pat, “Hey, in Circle you were squinting, were you glaring at me or just squinting at the sun?” Maybe Pat says, “Just the sunlight, sorry!”
Or maybe Pat says, “Yeah, I was really pissed at you because you…” and then you have an opportunity to address the conflict.
But, most of you won’t ever do this.
If we actually directly addressed things, most of the conflicts out there would dissolve without drama because most conflicts are over us making up stories in our heads based on our past wounding. But given our passive-aggressive culture, we’re taught to not bring anything up until we’re so pissed off that we can’t hold it in anymore and we blow up in a fit of temper.
For me, part of being an activist, and someone who is empowered to bring up the voice of dissent in groups I am part of means doing my own ruthless personal work to know who I am, where I stand, to heal the wounds of my past and to hold discernment for the issues I’m bringing up. Sometimes I realize that something I’m bringing up is just “about me” and I don’t need to speak up; I’m not standing in alignment with my values, in my integrity, if I speak out when it’s actually about my own issues. Sometimes, I realize that the cost of not speaking up, is not calling the Emperor out on their lack of clothes. And that isn’t standing in my integrity either.
Sometimes only history can tell us the “right” of our actions.
For my part, I have the discernment to hold both perspectives offered by the editorial in Witches & Pagans. I see the author’s point, and, I also think the Pagan PR response to Fox’s comments was also important. With Ruth Barrett and other Dianic and Feminist voices speaking out against Trans women being included in women-only events, I feel that this is a civil rights issue, and it’s only a matter of time before our society catches up to what’s right, just as states are slowly legalizing gay marriage, and as once upon a time, women were given the right to vote, and people of color were given legal equal rights.
I got torn apart by people who disagreed with me that Pagans should stop using styrofoam and other non-ecologically-friendly items, and some of that feedback hurt. But, it’s the voice of dissent that needs to be heard, even if it’s unpopular.
I’d like to call on each of us to learn how to communicate more skillfully. To read books like Nonviolent Communication to learn how to give more effective feedback, to read books on leadership and community building, to learn to have respectful discourse, to do our own personal work to become the people who don’t fly off the handle at the slightest insult. To learn how to build and strengthen our groups instead of tearing them apart from the inside.
Only when we come at activism, and standing up, from a place of ethics and integrity, is the dissenting voice going to have the kind of impact we hope for.