Deconstructing Pagan Authoritarianism
As a Discordian, I often feel it is not only an obligation, but occasionally a duty to undermine, question and, if necessary, personally destroy authoritarian systems of control and coercion. Sometimes I do it out of deep-seated distaste, sometimes out of boredom and sometimes for profit, but that is another debate.
Furthermore, I subscribe very much to the views of the noted child psychologist, Jean Piaget, who considered that socio-cognitive conflict was a critical part of the learning process. While researchers have rushed to note that this does not necessarily mean confrontation or opposition, these are in fact important facets of socio-cognitive conflict. If we wish to learn and evolve, it is only through disagreement and conflict that we can ever hope to mentally improve ourselves.
Therefore, when I see groups who not only approve of creating an authoritarian system that stifles this dissent, but that it hypocritically takes this position under the mantle of some philosophy or religion, I get somewhat annoyed. And when I see groups or individuals giving out advice on how to perpetuate this state of affairs...well, that has to be answered. Especially on the internet, where such advice may be put to immoral use, even if that was not the original intention of the author. Such an article would be, for example, How to Keep Your Coven from Being Destroyed by David Petterson (aka Eran). Under the guise of saving covens from villainous trolls, he gives very sound advice on how to maintain systems of control, and his work has been fairly widely disseminated.
I intend here to critically analyze his arguments, both in order to show this is in fact the case, and to highlight the authoritarian strain that it helps legitimize. A follow-up counter-essay may follow, but for now, this alone will do.
Eran starts off by laying out what he sees as “the problem”. Namely that
We've all seen Covens fall apart, or larger umbrella organizations torn by internal strife. Sometimes, this is simply part of the natural cycle of creation and dissolution, an outworn group dissolving to make room for new growth. But at other times, a group with much promise can be damaged or destroyed while seemingly still young and healthy.
There are a number of problems here, right off the bat. Firstly, there is the false distinction between a “natural cycle” of strife and the (presumably) unnatural once he dislikes. What counts as natural, and what does not? As you'll find out from the rest of his article, what he means by not natural is that it was an intended outcome, or one that arose from purposefully created strife. However, can we really say that is not natural? Purposefully created strife may be the product of legitimate grievances that can be resolved in no other way. Since humans exist in a state of competition as well as cooperation, any conflict resulting from that must be 'natural', if we are using the most widely accepted definition of the word. A similar vein of thought might conclude that any group that did succumb to internal strife lacked the necessary legitimacy to make it effective anyway. A group with solid foundations and that has not sought to create grievances should be able to deal with a level of internal dissension. If it cannot, there is clearly a crisis of legitimacy going on.
Secondly, his comment about groups that seemed to be young and healthy. Firstly, its an anecdote, which should make anyone suspicious right away. Secondly, how do we know his perceptions are not faulty? A coven may have many problems or structural weaknesses they wish to hide from outsiders, in hope of attracting more members, attaining certain goals, etc etc. Unless one has intimate knowledge of the group in question, how can one come to a conclusion about its actual potential? It seems very...convenient to lay the blame on some outsider, some scapegoat.
The process by which this happens sometimes seems mysterious and incomprehensible. At times, it's impossible to clearly see what went wrong. Looking at the tragedy after the fact, it seems as if everyone did everything right. There were, perhaps, misunderstandings and miscommunications. But most of the people involved honestly and sincerely tried to understand everyone's point of view, and they did all the correct conflict-management and conflict-resolution kinds of things. But somehow, everything they tried simply made matters worse.
There is an inherent presumption here that the divide or problems are surmountable, that the group can be “perfected”. Sometimes, no matter how sincere a person is in their beliefs, and no matter how much they want to end the conflict, this is impossible due to irreconcilable viewpoints. You have heard of irreconcilable ideas, yes?
It's almost enough to make you paranoid, and wonder if there's a cowen plot to break the will of our most dedicated and ethical people.
Yes, its the devilish tricksters, the Cowan, out to break those of the Old Religion! Ahahahahaha! Or, possibly, you have a problem with taking responsibility for problems that arise in your community and constantly make references to external agents as being the problem. I know which I think is more likely.
A while back, Isaac Bonewits published a review of a book which explored this subject. The book is called, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict, by Kenneth Haugk...Isaac highly recommended this book, in spite of it being written from a Christian perspective and intended for a Christian audience of ministers and lay leaders....For a modern Witch or Pagan, reading Haugk's book frequently gets tiresome, because Haugk honestly views conflicts within Christian groups as ultimately being the work of the Devil out to destroy the True Church. But putting aside the Christian apologetics, there's an amazing amount in there which is useful and incredibly insightful.
Again, I can see a number of problems here. You are essentially taking your model for conflict from an absolutist and somewhat paranoid interpretation of Christianity, which lays the blame on the Devil. The only difference between yourself and Haugk is that he uses the Devil, and you use outsiders. The form is otherwise exactly the same, an original and totally committed source, external of course, that creates all this conflict and disorder.
Here's a very important insight: Such conflicts don't "just happen." The really destructive ones, the really vicious fights which tear apart Covens or larger groups, conflicts which break the spirit of the most dedicated Elders, these conflicts aren't accidents, and they aren't the consequence of simple misunderstandings or miscommunications. No; they happen because particular individuals made them happen. There is a class of personality traits which makes certain individuals crave conflict.
How convenient. I suppose blaming it all on a personality type means you can avoid the need for any sort of self-analysis or critical questioning of your own handling of the issue. Also, the conceit that such conflicts are always planned is incredible. As someone who has experience as a conspirator and instigator in some conflicts, I like to consider myself an actual expert in the area. And I can tell you this much: there is no such thing as a single, original cause of any fight. A vicious and destructive fight can be totally sincere and honest, or it can have multiple origins, some legitimate and others done for self-gain, or other reasons entirely.
The personality traits they possess can be identified, and their techniques can be thwarted or rendered ineffective. To handle them properly takes prior knowledge and preparation, however. It also requires a willingness to take firm action, and to freely exercise your legitimate authority as a Coven Leader.
Presumably, any technique that works on such a personality obviously bent towards conflict and destruction would undoubtedly also work on anyone who raised legitimate problems or issues which a Coven leader decided they did not want to address or resolve. After all, if they are not good enough to work on such “dedicated” individuals, then they are worthless, and if they are good enough, then they have multiple applications.
How useful that it also allows the Coven leader to exercise their “legitimate” authority over others. How is any sort of authority legitimate, least of all within religious groups? From whence does such authority derive? Do you have control with the consent of those you exercise power over, or is it based within your religious structure, your “advanced knowledge” or indeed other factors? Many covens are susceptible to nepotism, corruption and the Big Fish in a Little Pond Syndrome, all of which don't sound especially good sources for authority at all.
Since this is a religious context, I'll also give some thoughts on the theology of it all. Regardless of how Haugk views the matter, as Witches we needn't see it as a conflict of good vs. evil, but rather as a case of treating the people around us in the ways which are appropriate to each individual person. Nor is it a case of a cowen plot, but rather of processes which are entirely natural, though discomforting - in the same way a plague or a flood or an earthquake is entirely natural. Though the Gods of Nature throw such disasters at us, we needn't stand passively and merely accept the destruction. If you live on a floodplain or geologic fault, you can, and should, make proper preparations to minimize how badly you'll be hurt.
But wait a minute, you just said above that this is not a natural process? So which is it? Are these people part of a natural system of universal checks and balances on autocratic jerks, or are they not? You contradict your opening statements, which makes the coherency of your train of thought suspect.
And if you build your house on a floodplain or geological fault line, then you're an idiot, or you have to accept the element of risk in your actions. I mean, if we're going to extend metaphors here.
Really destructive conflict is caused by people who are driven to engage others in unwinnable contests. Such people generally have very low self-esteem, little regard for those around them, often a rather loose grip on consensual reality, and frequently possess a fair measure of paranoia. Their low self esteem makes them want to tear others down, in order to make themselves look better by comparison. Having little or no regard for others, they won't care about the damage they cause, and frequently won't even recognize they've caused any. Being unable to distinguish reality from their own rich inner fantasy lives, they will be very convincing liars, because they honestly believe the incredible things they say. And their paranoia is often justified; when they act on their inner drives, they start causing damage, and people stop liking them. Paranoiacs frequently do have many enemies, and few friends.
I question Eran's psychological credentials. For starters, this is taken directly from the description for paranoid personality disorder. Does Mr Eran have any proof that such people actually suffer from such a disease? What is his evidence? Or is he just using mental illness as a particularly nasty and underhanded slur against people who upset the status quo? Surely if these people are sick, then they deserve our sympathy and medical attention, not scorn and belittlement.
I of course question the entire psychological profile put forward here. Again, from personal experience, those who are most suited to creating real, debilitating conflict are usually very sophisticated and adept in social situations, and have a very good grasp on social dynamics and human behaviour in general. They would have to be, in order to create the sort of problems that tear a Coven apart. Unless it was a very weak coven in the first place, of course, in which case my criticisms about legitimacy apply.
All this makes them very guarded and closed-off and secretive, though they'll frequently hide behind a carefully-constructed mask of outward friendliness. One such person was overly fond of the most famous quote from Machiavelli: "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." That kind of deceit and duplicity is something to look out for.
A Machiavellian personality is nothing like paranoid personality disorder. Goddamnit, if you are going to pretend to diagnose people with serious mental illnesses, as least keep some coherency in your argument. Such a person would likely tend towards psychopathy, because while they can understand and model their behaviour according to social expectations, they themselves feel no real compassion, benevolence or sympathy because of that empathy.
And again, we are assuming a priori that there is some sort of mental issue going on here. I find this pattern of implicit dehumanization of critics both worrying and somewhat disgusting. Some people enjoy conflict out of boredom. Have you never seen two cats start a fight simply because they can? And, as always, it overlooks legitimate or accidental conflicts entirely.
In a Pagan context, it wouldn't be appropriate to use this imagery of Eternal Conflict. We'd do better with an image more in keeping with Pagan myth and symbolism.
Something like "Shiva" or "Kali" would be an improvement. After all, destruction is a natural process, though one which we don't want to stand too close to, if we can help it. But then, destructive people get most of their strength from the fear and worry they can inspire in their targets, and putting on them a label like "Kali" gives them far too much power. Better still would be a term which, while not minimizing the danger, doesn't give them more respect than they deserve. The Books of Raoul say, "Every ecosystem needs maggots," and so I've heard the term "maggot" used effectively, though that seems to go too far the other way. A word I've chosen to use is "troll."
Wow...hate Hindus much? Both Shiva and Kali have very important roles within Hindu cosmology, ones that are mirrored elsewhere by deities like Coyote, or Hermes, or Eris. I note the objection to the use of the names of the destructive deities isn't the implicit insult to other religions either, but to not give them too much credit or power. So instead you steal an internet phrase.
In much of European mythology and folklore, giants, trolls, and ogres are embodiments of the forces of Chaos, natural forces which often batter at the walls of civilization or even at the orderly forms which Nature Herself creates. Chaos is not an "evil" force. It's simply the flip side of the creative impulse. Seeing destructive people as chaotic rather than as evil helps to place them into a useful and meaningful Pagan context. Of all these chaotic embodiments, trolls are sometimes among the strongest - yet they also have an unintentionally comic side, as we're reminded by fairy tales such as the "Three Billy Goats Gruff," or modern stories such as Tolkien's "The Hobbit". Trolls can be easily outwitted, if you know something about them, for sunlight turns them into harmless boulders. An understanding of the true nature of destructive people is the sunlight which renders them impotent and ineffective.
Oh wow. This is incredible. You're actually being serious here. If we're going to talk folklore, then fine. To extend the metaphor, yet again, the giants of Norse mythology were a destructive force because the Gods denied them immortality. They jealously kept the apples which granted them immortal life in Asgard, and refused to share their powers. The hierarchy between the giants and Aesir looks a more likely cause of conflict than anything else you care to name. But after all, you've already decided those who engage in conflicts are mentally ill, so I doubt rational arguments will sway you much.
Secondly, conflating chaos with destruction and evil, opposed to order? What is this, Christianity 101? I think a generation of avant-garde artists want a word or two here, not to mention several thousand Discordians. Chaos is value neutral, and can as often lead to creation as destruction, since its primary element is that of change. Order can easily be as oppressive as chaos, if not more so, because with oppressive order, the possibility of change or difference is removed. Classical Greece is a perfect example of creative chaos, and the Roman Empire a perfect example of oppressive order.
Thirdly, will you please make up your mind? Are trolls scary and uncontrollable, mentally ill individuals who can reduce entire communities to strife, or are they easily dispatched? You can't have it both ways. This is starting to sound like a Bush speech, hype the threat, then promise the supposedly easy cure. Which of course begs the question no-one ever asks, that if the cure is so easy, why is the threat so dangerous?
Frequently, trolls are unaware of the damage they're causing. A cornered mongoose doesn't really want to rip you to pieces; it just wants to get away. So too, a destructive person will usually deny wanting to cause pain. .... This is the key in a nutshell: trolls are not healthy people, so they can't be expected to act in mature and healthy ways. And treating them as if they were mature and healthy is like treating a cornered mongoose as if it was a beloved housecat. The results are not pretty.
A mongoose or a plague-carrying flea is not likely to change into something else. Neither is a troll. Unless you are very, very skilled as a counselor, nothing you can do will help a troll get healthy. In fact, things you'd normally do to help other people will just make matters worse. If you are understanding and patient in response to a troll's dishonest or destructive acts, what troll learns is: dishonesty and destructiveness is rewarded by patience and understanding. This encourages the troll to continue being dishonest and destructive.
Ah, pseudospeciation at its best. Trolls are not only mythological creatures, they are mongooses, and plague-bearing fleas. And, just like terrorists, they cannot be negotiated with, since they are supremely irrational (except when they are being deviously Machiavellian and manipulating people into doing their bidding, one presumes).
Because trolls need conflict, they are very practiced at it. Experience is a good teacher, and most trolls will have had an enormous amount of experience by the time they are old enough to join a Coven. If you wind up being the target of a troll's attacks, fighting back is not a good idea. Trolls are very, very good at turning any frontal assaults to their advantage. They are even better at finding and manipulating more subtle responses. One of the most powerful defensive tricks they have is pretending to be the victim. Once you respond - in any way, regardless of how measured and controlled your response is - they begin telling everyone they know about how mean you are, and how cruel and vicious and vindictive you're being. It's a good way to turn your own friends against you, and begin making you feel isolated and paranoid. This tactic has the additional advantage of turning attention away from whatever unethical acts the troll was doing in the first place.
Unless of course, they weren't involved in any unethical conduct, and they really are a victim, that you are victimizing. This paragraph says to me “ignore anything the so-called troll says! Everything will be a lie, they can't be trusted!” So much for the truth winning debates, instead the solution would seem to be isolation and ignoring the points raised. Again, avoiding the necessity of, oh, perhaps taking a critical look at yourself and your role in the conflict or drama.
So, patience won't help; retaliation won't help; love and support won't help. Explaining the situation won't help, and neither will proposing solutions or compromises, nor will mediation or engagement in any sort of dialogue. If you wind up in any dispute or argument with a troll, doing any of these things will simply make matters worse, and will probably result in incredible pain. Yet these are exactly the approaches you should use with most people who are not trolls. Most people are healthy. Trolls are not, and should not be treated as if they are. Trolls are not healthy; they won't get healthy, they don't want to get healthy, and keeping them near you will eventually let them harm you.
WE DO NOT NEGOTIATE WITH TERR-UH, TROLLS. So you may as well not bother engaging any person who is causing any sort of minor upset, since they are a troll (supposedly). The only thing that can be done is to remove them as soon as possible, and ignore anything else they say or do. Only then can our pristine and perfect world can be restored.
That is part one of both this essay and my response completed. The next should follow shortly.
Read the rest of his essay on his blog.