Big Enough to Fail

15 Apr

When Kenny Klein’s arrest was announced a few weeks ago, I have to admit I was not at all surprised to hear that it had happened. Why? Several years ago I was in a bookstore one day with two friends and we were perusing the New Age section. One of Klein’s fairy tale books was there, and when one of my friends saw it it, she put it back fast. Then she told us that Klein used to beat up his wife.

Now here is the thing. My friend has never been a big name pagan, or even very involved in the greater pagan communities. She knew about this because of Usenet discussions back in the 1990s.

I had a bout of cognitive dissonance at this. How is it that someone who abused his spouse was also a praised and respected author and elder? In the discussion which ensued from his arrest, many people, including family members, came out to talk about being abused, and, startlingly, how they were silenced by other members of the community.

Hush used under Creative Commons license

And this is where I come to the crux of my discussion for the week. For a community with many roots in 1960s counterculture, and espousing an alternative to patriarchal culture, it’s sad to see the same models of the overculture coming into play. A reluctance to ostracize community members for abhorrent behavior and suppressing people who dare to voice that they were violated? Congratulations in emulating some of the biggest institutions in the world. The abused committed by priests of the Roman Catholic Church have become well known, but also the Hassidic communtiy and the Amish have had their problems with abuse.

While there has been some great and much needed discussion coming from this case (see Christine Hoff Kraemer’s erotic ethics and pagan consent culture, Thorn Coyle’s predators in paganism, and fellow PA blogger Shauna’s post here and the predators series on her blog), there have also been people raising a fuss at how the story first broke (comments I saw on Facebook and cannot find now) and apparently apologists (I have not seen this, due to a brain overfull with parental memorial planning) worried about how pagans would appear from this and maybe even trying to rationalize the matter.

This is unacceptable. How can we be a community which claims to hold the female as sacred and talk about personal autonomy and at the same time throw our support behind someone who has admitted to having images of pre-sexual children being abused?

Even worse, how can we have people more concerned with how we appear in the media over, again, someone who has admitted to having images of pre-sexual children being abused?

Are we that timid? That sophomoric to worry more about our image than a grave crime?

I’ve been reminded of what John Michael Greer terms the myths of progress and apocalypse. From his book The Long Descent:

“[T]he myth of progress. According to this story, all of human history is a grand tale of human improvement.

[T]he myth of apocalypse. According to this story, all of human history is a tragic blind alley.”

Greer goes on to discuss how rooted these two myths are in our current collective imagination. And that unless “we” are in a state of progress, we are inevitably heading toward apocalypse. But this is not so. Our mythologies were once full of stories chronicling the highs and lows of life, and that to be in a low state was not the end of the world. To apply it here, the fact that “we” have a formerly respected elder now charged with one of the most abhorent crimes imaginable, and that people opposed to our religions can use it as fodder against us, could lead to big trouble. Think of the lies about Satanic ritual abuse from the 1980s.

We know this is not true, in fact that it never happened. So why are we operating from a place where we think our communities might be ruined?

Maybe now is the time to take a new approach. The neopagan community (along with recon and revival religions) have some age now. Own properties. Participate in their larger communities. Have respect and legitimacy. We should collectively be able to stand up and say “this is not who we are. Further, this is not acceptable. We will no longer cover up, apologize, rationalize these behaviors. We will not silence the victims. We will respect our members, especially our women. We will say no.”

Looking at the progress/apocalypse mythos, yes this could be seen as a failure. But we’re also talking about humans. Following a different religion does not make us special, or better, or “more enlightened.” We make mistakes. We have the same problems as any other group. And maybe what we need to do, to show how we are different is to say no, to cut abusive people out of our communities.

(Incidentally, if you think that by honoring the female divine you are not capable of violating women, think again. Think about ancient Hellenic culture, where women were invisible. Think about India. Last year the BBC did an amazing documentary in response to the gang rape there called India: a dangerous place to be a woman. Watch it if you can find it.)

It’s time for a new model. Instead of sweeping predators and creeps under the rug, we need to be honest. Get people help when they need and want it, and for those who don’t, turn our backs. Maybe we should enact something like weregild, or some other way of holding people accountable. We need to take action.

And we need to remember that if anything like this happens again, it’s not the end of the world.

Protecting our children

12 Apr

Clinton_VillageUnless we have buried our heads in the sand, we should all realize that our children can be at risk anywhere. As people of faith, we like to presume that those with a similar faith have similar ideals, similar morals, similar integrity – but this isn’t always the case. As was demonstrated in all too stark relief, quite recently, even those of us whom we consider pillars in our community can let us down dramatically.

In 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded us that It takes a village to raise a child. While some people, such as Bob Dole, who, during his RNC acceptance speech in 1996 criticized Clinton with the comment “… it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child”, the truth is that none of us acts entirely independently. We are all interdependent – even if we should choose to live alone, in a forest, as a hermit. We all affect the environment, we all affect the quality of air and water. And nobody can exist on Earth, apart from the influence of other human beings.

But if we choose to live in any city or town, and if we wish our children to be educated, culturally aware and to contribute in a meaningful fashion when they too become adults, it does take a village to raise a child. As parents, we cannot be child care providers, educators, physicians, opticians, dentists, playmates and each and every person and relationship that our children will need. To grow up healthy and educated, our children need relationships with many people – they need parents and friends and teachers and doctors and child care providers. While, as parents, we might satisfy some of these relationships, we cannot fulfill them all. This means that we will need to be able to trust other individuals to, at times, care for our children.

Recent events though, have shown us that our Pagan community is not exempt from the presence of predators in our midst. Even some people who we have come to trust as leaders are able to let us down. Like any other group of human beings, some among us are good, some are not. And the question that many of us are faced with is this: how do we know who it is that we can trust?

We might consider who it would be that we might trust with anything truly valuable. Who, among our friends might we trust with a great deal of money? There might be many we would trust with a few hundred dollars – but what about a few tens of thousands of dollars? When the stakes increase, we tend to be a bit more cautious, and the list of those we trust tends to diminish.

How much do we value our children? Can we possibly place more value on any amount of currency than we do on our children?

How do we insure that individuals with whom we trust our money are responsible with that money? One way we ensure that people are responsible with things of great value is to avoid entrusting such things to a single individual. If multiple people are responsible for a thing, then it is more likely that it will be treated responsibly.

When it comes to our children, we should avoid any situation that allows a single individual to have sole supervision of those children. It’s up to those of us who are parents to investigate any child care situation. With festival season just beginning to ramp up, many of us who are parents may be bringing our children to various festivals. Many of these festivals do have child care areas. It’s up to us as parents to look at these child care areas closely. It’s up to us to satisfy our selves that our children will be properly cared for. One way to do that is to volunteer at the child care area our selves. I know of few festivals that don’t seek out volunteers – and there is not much of a better way to know something about the child care area than to participate our self.

As a whole, groups of people – a village – are much more trustworthy than single individuals. The village also is able to handle situations that would be much too difficult for a single individual. If there is only one or two adults watching a group of children, and an emergency situation happens, that may well be too much for such a small group of adults to handle. Consider the situation where there are two adults and 10 children – if one child takes ill, that means that one adult will be caring for nine very concerned children – it’s not an optimal situation.

As a rule of thumb, there should be one responsible adult for every five children, plus one further adult. If there are five children or fewer, that means two adults. With six to ten children, there should be three responsible adults. If you find that there are too few adults for the number of children, again, volunteer!

Even better though, recognizing the value of collective action, find other parents who share your concerns – prior to the event, and work together. Recognize the value of a village and work with other parents and the event coordinators to insure there is proper coverage for the child care area. If the particular event doesn’t have child-care, consider organizing something with the help of other parents.

If we’re uncomfortable with the child care system, then there should be no reason to leave our children with them. It might be that we want to attend a particular workshop, but for whatever reason, we’re not 100% comfortable with the child care situation. But we can’t deceive our selves with the notion that “because this is a Pagan event”, the child care will be okay. It’s up to parents to put the safety of our children first – we need to trust our instincts, and it’s far better to miss a particular workshop than to put our children at risk. Whatever the situation, it should be the safety of our children that comes first.

So taking care of our children at festivals is something that we can do, but what do in other situations we do when we have suspicions about a particular individual?

There are some groups that seem to advocate for immediate action against someone the moment an allegation is raised. But it’s important to remember that an allegation is not proof. Certainly some allegations can be more credible than others, and when a serious allegation has been made, we certainly should not simply dismiss it.

If there are any unaddressed allegations of harm to children, we shouldn’t trust those individuals with the care of children. We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that an allegation implies any misconduct, but we also need to consider the safety of our children. Those of us who are in positions of leadership need to take such allegations seriously. If we are in a leadership position, it’s likely that we are mandated reporters.

In 27 states, members of the clergy are mandated reporters – this means that if we have reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected, that we who are clergy are mandated to report in these states. In 18 states, ANY person who has reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected is required to report.

But there is a difference between a legal requirement to report and a moral duty to report. We may not be a mandated reporter in our locality, but if we suspect some sort of child abuse – do we just let it go? Do we pretend that somebody else will do the reporting if the suspicions are sound?

If any of us has any legitimate reason to suspect the abuse of children, it’s up to us to do something with that suspicion. By “legitimate reason” I don’t mean that we simply think someone looks creepy. But when our children tell us that someone has made improper advances, we need to listen to them. And if it’s clear that those advances are repeated, that is a legitimate reason. If touching is repeated, or obviously not accidental, that is a legitimate reason. If we hear from children that someone has tried to take photographs of them while naked – they are asked to remove their clothes – or asked to perform some sexual act – that is a legitimate reason. And when we hear that, we need to act.

What form should that action take? If we are the leader of the group or event, we call the authorities, and we insure that person stays away from children until the allegations are addressed to our satisfaction. If we’re not the leader of that group or event, we speak to the leadership with our concerns. It might be that we are told “Oh, that individual is just eccentric, but doesn’t mean any harm”. Remember that all too often, this is how a number of people who harm children have been perceived. It’s up to us to take action at that point and tell that person in leadership that there is legitimate reason to take action, and that we will be calling the authorities our self, and then we need to do what is safe for our children and remove them from that situation.

But there are times that we can go too far. We can’t allow our selves to take direct action against individuals based on nothing more than rumor. A rumor isn’t legitimate evidence of guilt. Taking to Facebook or the Internet and destroying a person’s reputation with unproved allegations is not the way to address things. People are sensitive when it comes to our children, and allegations of child abuse don’t easily go away. A public charge of such a crime, whether it is legitimate or not, will likely permanently destroy an individual’s reputation. When we have legitimate suspicions, we deal with them, but we need to be careful not to destroy people based on nothing but rumor.

This is the job of our village – to build a healthy community – to take care of our children, to collectively insure that nobody harms them, and to foster a community that will not tolerate predation of any sort.

If you would like to see a summary of the laws regarding reporting, one can be found here:

Pagans, Mental Health, and Abuse

9 Apr


There’s an elephant in the room. Pagan communities allow completely inexcusable behavior by leaders, teachers, and group members. There’s a range mental health issues (particularly untreated mental illness) that we don’t talk about that add to this problem.

You’ve probably heard about the arrest of Pagan author/presenter/musician Kenny Klein for possession of child pornography. Following his arrest, many Pagans came forward alleging that when they were teenagers, Kenny sexually abused them.

We have a huge problem in our overlapping Pagan communities. We enable unacceptable behavior from participants, leaders, and teachers. In my observation, this is the root cause of at least 75% of groups that explode/implode.

This article covers potentially triggering topics. Continue reading

The Ugly Side of Womens’ Health Care

3 Apr



written by Lauren Ouellette-Bruchez

This week has been full of controversy in both politics and Paganism. I had a few different items in the works for my Pagan Activist blog contribution but it appears that the Gods had other plans in store for me. Let it not be said that they don’t have a keen sense of timing.

For those of you who may be squeamish in regard to matters of ladies reproductive health, you may wish to jump ship now because we are going to become very well acquainted over the course of this post. You have been warned.

Continue reading

Washing the Stink out of Politics

31 Mar

My father is in local government for the small town in Pennsylvania where I grew up.  His position is appointed by the elected town council so we didn’t have to deal with campaigning to keep his job, but this did mean that, at the whim of the council members, he could have found himself unemployed.  Luckily, he’s good at what he does and various members of councils for the last few decades have kept him in the position he’s held for much of his adult life.

I remember while growing up that his stories of council meetings and the issues that they dealt with were fascinating in a lot of ways.  Here was a group of people working together to try to solve the problems of my own little home town.  Back when I never imagined ever moving away from home, I always thought I’d run for council one day and be one of those people.

Continue reading

Dogmatic Foodies

24 Mar

roundtableHere at Pagan Activist, we cover the issue of food frequently. That’s because 100% of Pagan Activist authors eat food.

Author’s here have a variety of diets. I eat paleo. Jason eats vegan. Soli eats traditional. Debra avoids GMOs thus avoiding processed. Our commonality? We all want to eat as healthy as we can.

Whose health are we talking about when we use the loaded word “healthy”? If the discussion is about Earth’s health, some argue eating meat isn’t healthy for Mother Earth. Some argue eating grains is the real detriment. Still others lament at the high carbon footprints of trekking vegetables from below the equator to above it to feed the wealthy north is the real culprit.

Continue reading

Cognitive Dissonance

17 Mar

Not-ListeningNo matter how good your ideas are, people may just not be listening. And it’s not really their fault.

The brain has a lot of work to do. Right now it’s processing signals from your eyes and constructing a conscious image of the world. It’s also scanning that information for signs of danger. If it sees any, it will trigger your fight or flight response and then deliver the danger message to your conscious mind. It’s taking in auditory and other sensory input. It’s building up a map of your body and its exact position in relation to other objects in the world and constantly updating this. It’s monitoring your body for any signals that something might be wrong. None of these things are simple. If you’re reading, you’re also constructing meaning out of text-symbols and engaging in abstract thought.

There’s only so much work it can do, and anything it can do to lighten its processing burden, it will do. Something it does not want to waste time on is revisiting things it already knows to be true or false. That’s why when you contradict someone’s beliefs, they tend to ignore you. The brain considers the matter settled. It doesn’t have time to reevaluate all of the thousands of facts it has accumulated on a daily basis.

Knowing this has helped me not take it too personally if someone doesn’t believe me about something, even if I’ve painstakingly researched it. It’s not necessarily a sign that the other person doesn’t like me, or that they’re particularly belligerent or willingly lying to themselves. It’s just that it takes a lot to convince the brain that it’s time to let go of old concepts.

It’s called cognitive dissonance when evidence conflicts with our beliefs. It’s really uncomfortable and the brain wants to end the dissonance. You can do that by examining the new evidence carefully and either changing the old belief or discarding the evidence as faulty. But more often we ignore the evidence. We say it’s untrue or irrelevant, rationalize it away, or just plain forget about it. Or, worse, we’ll dig in our heels and do more of what the person is hoping to talk us out of. And that’s true for the best of us.

I’m sure we’ve all run into cognitive dissonance in others. It may have seemed like stubbornness or hypocrisy. Maybe it’s Pagans who worship the Earth but don’t recycle. Maybe it’s people who passionately hate wolf hunts but eat cows. It’s a lot harder to see in ourselves, but I assure you, our brains are also trying to conserve time and processing power.

The cool thing is that knowing about cognitive dissonance can encourage us to take a moment and reflect before we toss out uncomfortable ideas. It can also help us take a breath when a friend, loved one, or a stranger on the internet ignores the world-changing information we’re trying to share with them. The brain doesn’t want its world to change. You have to give it a good enough reason to try, because cognitive dissonance really is painful. If your worldview has ever shifted you know how hard it can be.

Something to keep in mind is that the person doesn’t evaluate your evidence, decide you’re right, and then decide to keep believing something false. The evaluation never happens.

We’re even more likely to dig in our heels if someone contradicts a belief that’s important to us, or that challenges the way we view ourselves. This comes up all the time when discussing animal rights. Let’s say a person is really compassionate or loves animals. If you recommend veganism she may feel like you’re slighting her compassion, and now she’s no longer listening. And let’s face it, a lot of times we really are slighting her compassion. A lot of activists do this. I know I have. Have you?

That’s why shaming almost never works. We often use shaming tactics because we hope threatening a person’s self-image will motivate them to change, but it’s because self-image is so important that people resist.

Is it just me or does human communication often seem counter-intuitive?

Finding Their Motivation

I was vegetarian-leaning long before I became vegetarian, and later fully vegan. Nothing about my opinion towards animals changed. So what did? I turned 18 and then finished high school. I felt empowered to make my own choices. If people didn’t want to cook vegetarian for me, I was now in a place to do my own shopping and cooking. It was as simple as that. I didn’t feel powerful enough to act the way I wanted to act before. But that’s not what I told myself. I told myself we need to eat meat; that humans and animals have a sacred predator-prey relationship in the web of life; that my becoming vegetarian would never affect anything. For a while that litany was a constant meal-time ritual. Instead of saying grace over a meal, I made excuses.

So it’s not always immediately obvious why a person does what they do, even to themselves, or what they might not like about your suggestions. I wanted to be vegetarian since I was 14. When I was 17 and started hanging out with vegetarian friends at the Theosophical Society, I told them I admired vegetarianism but could never handle the commitment. Within a year I had made that commitment, have kept it for over 13 years, and intend to continue. I didn’t talk myself into it. I didn’t have an awakening – I’d already had that when I was 14. I simply felt ready. So maybe sometimes that’s the way you’ll be able to help someone who’s going through cognitive dissonance. They may already agree with you to some extent, but need help feeling up to the challenge.

Other than a few accidents or a few slip-ups as I was transitioning, I haven’t eaten meat since I became vegetarian or animal secretions since I became vegan. But I sure do eat a lot of corn chips. And ramen, candy, soda. As it turns out, it was pretty easy to structure my life around compassion for others, or to put it another way, around duty. Turns out, I’m not as willing to do it for my own health. I felt great when I was briefly eating by the Eat to Live diet, a diet low in fat and salt and centered around leafy greens. But my own health wasn’t enough to motivate me.

Maybe what I need to do is reframe the way I view my own health. Remind myself that the more energy I feel, the more good work I can do in the world. The more fun I can have with friends and family. Make it relevant to what’s important to me, not what seems like should be important on paper.

So maybe your passion is recycling. Someone you’re talking to may not really be concerned about plastic going into landfills. After all, covered-over landfills are kind of cool. They don’t look toxic; they’re big hills that you can stand on and survey the surrounding land. They have pipes spouting fire. Fire! But maybe this person is really into efficiency, and you can point out the inefficiency of constantly grabbing new resources when the ones we already have can be reused but are getting tossed in the dump. Maybe they’d care about the damage done when extracting new resources, and how reusing could prevent some of that.
It comes down to knowing your audience. I’m not suggesting you sit down and give them a litany of reasons to do whatever it is you want them to do. No one wants to sit through that. You have to know the person you’re talking to and what motivates them. Unless of course you have a blog, or a book, or some other platform and can explore these things in their own segments.

Since I find I’m most willing to do things out of a sense of duty, it helps to remember my larger goals and think of smaller things as part of them, as duties. Other people might benefit from thinking in terms of bringing a sacred vision of the world into being, like Starhawk suggests. They might be inspired by the goal of personal excellence, being their best self, or helping others be their best selves.

If you’re trying to reframe your own passions in a way that appeals to others, it’s important to still have a genuine conversation instead of a canned speech. Something else you can do is actually listen to them if they bring up objections or counter-points. Sure, you may have heard the objections a thousand times, but they weren’t there for all that. You’re expecting them to sit and listen to what’s important to you, have an open mind, and be convinced by the evidence. All while they might quite passionately disagree with you or have some strong other reason not to listen. Will you do them the same courtesy?

When someone behaves in a way that we find abhorrent, it’s so easy to conclude that they don’t have any values. But people do have values. (Even sociopaths value themselves, but that’s an academic point. I’m not suggesting we can get through to everyone). Whatever worldview you’re trying to promote might be completely relevant to their values, but since your values are different, you might never have seen it that way. It’s a good opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective.

In other posts I’ve mentioned that I kind of hate that humans don’t just calculate what’s best and then do that. I resent that we have to find out people’s motivations, engage their passions instead of presenting a topic in symbolic logic. Then I remember that I talked myself out of what I thought was right for four years. My initial reason for going vegetarian, and then finally feeling powerful enough to do it four years later, was entirely emotional. And as Sam Harris points out in his book The Moral Landscape, to be convinced by logic, we have to emotionally value logic. We’re emotional creatures and I’m learning to accept and embrace that. That acceptance, including an acceptance of cognitive dissonance, has made me much more at peace as an activist. Instead of resenting human nature I can work with it. I’m not as angry all the time.

Embracing some facts about human nature – that we all make decisions emotionally, that we have values even if we seem belligerent or rude, that we want to do the best we can but might have some obstacles in our way – helps me come from a place of love and service instead of judgment. And as I’ve said before, I think people can really hear that in your voice and in your writing. I’ve also accepted my own foibles and that I need to renew my commitment sometimes. To veganism, by watching videos of animal agriculture that are emotionally hard to watch. To helping people be their best selves, by listening to psychology podcasts and writing blogs like these. Sometimes there’s nothing so inspiring as a deadline!

Speaking of deadlines, when you have an activist conversation with someone, do you expect change instantaneously? I had been 18 for some months before I went vegetarian. Heck, I’d wanted to do it for four whole years. Sometimes people need more time to let it sink in, more time to contemplate it, more time to deal with cognitive dissonance. Getting inappropriately mad or judgmental isn’t likely to motivate them, at least not in the direction you want. Do you want to be an inspiration or a task-master? You don’t have to support x behavior, but you can respect someone and how hard change can be.

If you’re an animal advocate, you probably didn’t just suddenly start loving animals one day. You probably loved them for years, and that love blossomed into veganism – probably vegetarianism first. I liken this to a Buddhist teacher’s thoughts on relationships I learned in an episode of the Interdependence Project podcast. This teaching says that in a relationship, it’s not truly love until about ten years into it. Before that point you may like them, and you may love the way the way they make you feel, but that’s not the same as loving them. I agree, but I am still perfectly comfortable calling it love much earlier. Why? Because there are many types of love. A younger love may still be very self-involved. It might not be unconditional yet. But it can still be something wonderful and important to you.

Telling someone, “You don’t really love your spouse yet,” is insulting. Telling them, “Just wait. If you work at it, it gets even better – more committed, more about the other person and less about you,” isn’t an insult. So if you’re vegan and tell your friends, “You must not really love your cat because you eat cows,” it’s not going to accomplish very much. But it’s not an insult to say their love for animals could use some deepening. Couldn’t all love use some deepening?


Cognitive Dissonance


An Animal-Friendly Ostara

As I write this, Ostara is right around the corner. For those who celebrate Ostara, Easter, or similar festivals, here are some ways you can make your celebrations friendlier for the animals.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,678 other followers