Category Archives: community

Disability and loss of power

Disability is a loss of power. At the most obvious level, it is the loss of scope to do what is considered normal in the way the majority are able to do it. That in turn often creates a loss of opportunity. For many people, disability means poverty, it means a massive disadvantage in terms of economic power. It can also mean a loss of social power, as a result of being excluded or ignored. It can mean people feeling entitled to act in positions of power over you – speaking for you, telling you what’s best for you, what you need, what you are allowed and how much the healthier consensus folk are willing to budge to accommodate you.

What makes this extra difficult is that it can’t all be fixed. There are some disabilities that will keep you powerless and outside of things no matter how good the infrastructure is. If your problems are extreme and continuous, the loss of power can be absolute. There are times when we may need people to speak for us and to make decisions for us – for myself, if I’m deep in a panic attack, I often need other people to do things for me in the short term. To speak and act for me until I can speak and act for myself again. And then to give me that power back. To be unable for a while does not mean being unable forever, and if we don’t recognise how shifting these experiences can be, we take more power from people.

If we’re interested in inclusivity, then the power issues need considering. How do we give more power to a person who has lost power in this way? Listening is important. Being willing to hear what changes would help rather than being unwilling to inconvenience ourselves. The power to not be inconvenienced by change is a power held by people for whom everything is working just fine already. The experience of being exiled because nothing will change is a loss of power.

Speed is often a problem. Simply allowing people more time to respond, to deal with things and so forth can make a lot of odds. Many disabilities impact on people’s energy levels, their personal power and scope to get things done. Making a person move at a pace that they can’t move at further takes power from them.

We need to be alert to economic powerlessness, or the things we are doing become hobbies for the comfortable, and we can have no real communities. Poverty is not always visible or self announcing. Those who are not in poverty can have real trouble imagining what poverty means. Again, the people with the power are often in a position to ignore the problems of the people with no power, and to put their convenience ahead of inclusion.

If you have the power to exclude people by not trying to accommodate them, you have the power in a situation. Too often, people struggling for the means to participate are treated as though they have all the power, as though rights afforded to them mean a loss of power for everyone else. Accommodating someone is not a loss of power. Giving someone else the means to participate is not a loss of power to the majority, and it should not function to exclude anyone else. Too often, those who have power mistake being asked to empower others for being disempowered, and that’s not what’s going on.

It is so important to look properly at who has power and who does not. It is so important to know what kind of power we have and how that power impacts on others.

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Community is people

A community is nothing more than people who are connected to each other. A society is nothing more than the same thing on a grander scale. In some ways this is a painfully obvious statement, but it pays to come back to the essence of a thing. It is all too easy to see community as some kind of entity in its own right, controlled, if it is controlled at all, by the people who have set themselves up as in charge of it.

Community is just people. If we, as individuals choose to act, then the communities we are in will change. If we want robust, enduring, fair and safe Pagan communities, we can all work towards that, without having to do anything too dramatic at all.

There are two key things I think we can do to build community, Pagan or otherwise. The first is to look for diversity in our friendships. Where groups of people are homogenous, where it’s all the same education level, age, race, religion and economic class, you get funny little echo chambers that are cut off from the echo chambers around them. There’s a lot to be gained when we are friends with people who are not like us, when we welcome in difference and aren’t troubled by diversity. (This does not mean having to be ok with people who are not ok, hugging a Nazi is not required).

The second thing we can do is cross pollinate. Modern life is segregated, fragmented. We have our families, our neighbours, our work life, our social circles, and it is normal to keep these groups separate. However, strands of connection between groups is what turns a bunch of groups into a community. So, if the chance arises, take a neighbour to a moot, or a work colleague to a party, and so forth.

In terms of safety, we can all be part of the solution there, too. We can speak up if we see things that are out of order. We can tell people who are acting inappropriately. We can offer safety to people who tell us they’ve been mistreated. Putting your body in the way is a powerful thing, and that can be as simple as not leaving someone to go to the loo on their own. Making safe spaces means putting the safety of people who feel unsafe first. It does not mean jumping in for drama and bashing which can only create more conflict and increase feelings of not being safe. If it’s a police matter, take it to the police. If it isn’t, encourage people to behave like decent adults.

Community is us. It’s the choices we make. It’s what we do. We all of us have more power than we are using, in all probability. We all of us have scope to be part of the change we want to see. If we can help each other be the change, almost anything is possible.


Heroes and Monsters

I suspect most of us want to be heroes. We want to be the sort of person who stands up to the bully, tells the abuser they are out of order, maybe even the person who punches Nazis. There’s a great feeling to be had when you’re fighting the good fight, righteously doing the things that need doing. It feels powerful, and exciting, and wonderful. And you get to kick someone else while holding the moral high ground.

I’ve been the monster in this scenario, several times now. I’ve been the bad and wrong thing that deserved kicking, and I’ve had people kick me when from my perspective, I was already down and bleeding. I’ve had people kick me and tell me how proud of themselves they were for standing up to me. I’ve had people attack me for talking about depression, anxiety, pain and despair. I’ve been told what an awful, mean, bullying, unfair, unreasonable sort of person I am. I’ve had people try to cost me my day job on that basis. Were they right? I wondered at the time. I tend to take criticism to heart, because I’m nasty and unreasonable like that.

The desire to be heroic can leave a person wide open to certain kinds of manipulation. I’ve seen it done. And I’ll pause and salute the courage of one person who, having realised they’d been manipulated into attacking me, came back and apologised.

It’s easy to tone police the vulnerable person whose language you dislike rather than going after the system oppressing them. A notorious problem when white feminists deal with women of colour, for example. It’s easier to go after the ally who isn’t completely perfect than to go after perpetrators of the problem. It’s easier to go after people who have no power, than to go after the ones who do. Safer, too, because the people with no power can’t really defend themselves or do you any real harm, whereas those with power, can.

It’s important to look at what we’re being persuaded to do when the opportunity comes along to be heroic. Put your body in the way of the fracking machines? That’s heroism. Call out an actual bully who has the power to harm you? That is brave. The odds are if you wade into a fight, you won’t know everything that’s going on. If you’re on the bully-kicking team, and the bully just lies there, whimpering, if you knock down without consequences, if your righteous indignation looks poised to wreck someone’s life… pause and look at that power balance. Ask whether the response is proportional. Ask whether you’re sure the person you’re taking apart really deserves that.

Taking down abusive people who are in places of power is difficult, hazardous work, and often has a high cost for those doing it. If the takedown feels safe and easy, if the ‘bully’ can’t really do anything to stop you, if you can shame and blame and hurt and humiliate them with impunity… there are questions to ask.

Of course it is true that people with no power can be mean, spiteful, horrible and so forth. Is the first port of call on discovering this to trash them in every way possible? Or should we be trying to talk to them about what the problem is? Should we consider that education, insecurity, inexperience, incompetence might be part of the mix, rather than malice? Should we try to help them not do it again rather than going for psychological warfare?

Because the thing is, it takes very little effort to call someone a bully, especially if you have no reason to fear them. I’ve been called a bully for saying no, for disagreeing, and for not co-operating. I’ve been called a bully for complaining about how I was being treated, when I found that treatment unkind. For people who are really wrapped up in their privilege, a challenge to comfort and ego will be re-branded as bullying. It is not bullying to tell men that women are afraid of being raped. It is not bullying to prevent one person using another person as a resource. But these are things that I have seen called out, because some people can’t handle discomfort and prefer to blame the messenger. Feeling discomfort is not the same as being bullied.

If we want to tackle bullying, we have to do so by not perpetrating it. It’s easy to go in guns blazing, and when you do, it is easy to blame, shame hurt and humiliate people who have been victims all along, and that really doesn’t help.


Leadership and conflict

This is a scenario I’ve seen play out repeatedly in Pagan organisations, and which I assume happens other places too. It invariably causes a lot of trouble and distress, and I am absolutely certain that it could be handled differently.

In the beginning, two people get into conflict. Most usually this starts privately, but because both people are members of the same group, it either gets taken to that group in some way, or spills over into it. It can be a falling out, a communication breakdown, it can be one person harassing or bullying another. At this early stage, it is seldom possible to see the shape of the thing from the outside.

A person, or people with leadership roles and power say “ah, but it didn’t happen on our boards/facebook page, or at our event so we aren’t responsible for sorting it out.”

Where there is bullying, at this point the victim has no choice but to leave while the perpetrator often stays. I’ve said it before and will say it again – doing nothing is not a neutral stance, it is a choice that supports and enables bullying and abuse.

Where there is conflict, it may well spill out into the wider group. Leaders may not pile in, but friends will. You can end up with two sides and a deepening divide. You can end up with more people leaving because they don’t like how it’s been handled. If it really goes pear-shaped, you can tear the entire group apart and bring it to an end. By which point it most assuredly is on the boards, facebook page, and at any real world events and it is night on impossible to bring it back under control or sort anything out.

I think the problem stems from the current human fashion of seeing our lives as fragmented. What happens in one aspect of our lives, we suppose, won’t impact on another. I’ve seen this logic implied even when the police have been involved. We come to our Pagan groups as whole people, and if we fall out with other people, it has an impact.

I think one of the things that leadership means, is stepping in when things go wrong like this. Step in as soon as the problem is visible, and listen to all parties. If it’s the sort of thing that calls for police involvement, support the victim in getting the police involved. If someone is out of order, tell them – explain to them what’s gone wrong and why and what can be done about it. If communication has broken down, be the bridge, get things moving again. If it’s the kind of thing people should just be able to deal with and get over, listen to both side and tell them this, and it might help. People are more likely to accept that judgement if you hear them out first. A little witnessing and taking seriously can do a lot to deflate a conflict if you get in early.

Community does not mean giving up on people as soon as things get challenging. Community does not mean ignoring bullying. It does not mean turning a blind eye to problems. If we’re a community, then problems arising within the community affect all of us, and we all have some responsibility to respond, regardless of whether we lead. As for leadership – that doesn’t mean getting to do the things you want to do and ignoring what people want from you. Good leadership means looking after your people, especially when things go wrong.


What makes a good community?

I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about how we might do a better job as Pagans of being a community. So, here we go again!

Modern Pagans often only assemble to do Pagan things – moots, rituals, festivals, camps, conferences… I think this is true for people of other faiths too, in the west at any rate. We don’t live in our faith communities, our lives are fragmented and we do different bits of it with different people. Our Pagan ancestors lived together. They worked together, celebrated together, dealt with sickness and injury together, grew food together, and ate it together. They sold their wares to each other, married each other, gave life to the next Pagan generation together, raised their young folk together. We don’t do that.

For me, one of the defining qualities of a real community is that it has depth and breadth. People are involved with each other’s lives, interdependent, and connected in multiple ways. Now, with the way the world works at the moment, we can’t have Pagan villages to re-enact ancestral lifestyles. However, we can do more to create threads of connection between us.

Communities need to come together as big groups where people may only be loosely affiliated with each other. They also need to be able to hold within them many smaller groups, sometimes overlapping, where people are more closely involved. There has to be some room for fluidity – movement in and out of the big group, and movement between small groups, with new small groups forming at need and ones that are no longer needed falling away.

For a while when I lived in the Midlands, I think I managed something that worked on those terms. There was a moot, a folk club, a local ritual group, and a bigger more centralised ritual group drawing from a wider area. There were several meditation groups, the people who made the wicker man each year, and numerous musical configurations overlapping with those groups. It wasn’t all Pagan, but the Pagans tended to be the core of a lot of the things going on. It had a real energy to it.

It’s very difficult to run that as a top-down operation. I don’t recommend it. This kind of breadth of community works better and is more sustainable when it occurs in a more organic way. Key to developing it is good communication so that people can get involved with various aspects. It is really important that most of it does not end up too cliquey and exclusive. It also depends on no one being too power-hungry. If there’s someone who runs The Moot and it is their moot and the only moot in town, a new moot running on different terms for different people may cause unrest and trouble. If there’s someone who thinks they alone should run ritual in the area, or someone who objects to the Pagan knitting group as too fluffy, it can be hard work getting things sorted.

It takes a lot of people with will and patience to make a real community. It takes people who are not willing to be told what to do by people who want power over them. It takes a willingness to nurture diversity, make mistakes, give up on ideas, try new ones… and as we argue, negotiate, experiment, and evolve our way through various forms and configurations, we stand a chance of becoming something a bit more recognisable to our ancestors.


Zombie Catharsis

At the weekend we played zombie football. You might think that an odd topic for a Druid blog, but for me it is a good way of celebrating the dark part of the year. The decay. The way death is ever present in our lives.

Preparing for zombie football means making yourself look as undead as possible. That’s fun in its own, gruesome way, and it also a safe way of staring your own death in the face as you try to make yourself corpse-like. And then you get to meet up with your friends and see what they are doing to look horrible and deceased.

We favour the shambling, stupid zombie model. This means that the football is slow. Lack of coordination isn’t an issue. Being unable to pass the ball well isn’t an issue. Scoring and saving goals – well, we shamble the right way and see what happens. It’s about being a good zombie. What results is an hour or so where a bunch of people shuffle outside together. The bar for being able to join in, is very low. It really isn’t about the winning. And anyway, football always wins, and the zombies lose.

In normal circumstances, participating in a sport requires you to be fit and healthy. Disabilities involving clumsiness, poor energy, lack of co-ordination, lack of speed, strength, stamina are many. Physical sports you can play with a bunch of people with more and less normal bodies are not numerous. Zombie football is a fantastic and very silly answer to all of this.


Pagan Community – matters of access

To be a proper community, we need plenty of spaces people can access without having to pay. Many other religions have advantages over us in this regard – having physical spaces people can turn up to with a paid clergy on hand. Many other religions set the bar far lower than we do – a person need only show up to a church to be included in a service. Modern Paganism doesn’t recruit and fundraise in the way some religions do, which is also why we don’t have the infrastructure. I like us better for that, but it does mean we need to be careful about access.

I’ve been in and out of an assortment of big Pagan groups over the years. I have paid my way over the threshold, and, once in have usually felt some degree of belonging and involvement. Every time I’ve left somewhere, I’ve noticed how easy it is. How ‘community’ evaporates when I can’t, or won’t pay to carry on there.

In more local contexts, participation has often meant being able to afford to access the venue. Can I afford to go out for an evening? Do I have the clothes, the money for the door or a half of something? How am I going to get there, and back and who will take care of my child? For most of those questions, physical energy can be as much an issue for me as the financial cost.

The internet has given us a lot of space where people can meet. Many Pagans are still geographically isolated from other Pagans, and it is only via membership of the big groups or participation online that they can connect with other Pagans. However, the quality of online spaces isn’t what it could be. It’s very hard for a new seeker to tell what’s reliable and what’s wishful thinking, what’s trustworthy and what’s a bid to get into their wallet or pants. There are far more people who want to learn than there are teachers – that’s been an issue for decades. Much as I love the internet (here we all are, after all) there are things that can’t adequately be taught long distance and that need the energy and magic of being in the same place.

There are lots of reasons to set the bar high with access to our working groups. If you want to do serious Pagan stuff, then constantly having to educate newbies can be a real distraction from that. Not everyone wants to teach. Too much fluidity in a group makes it unstable and stops it feeling like the safe and intimate space many of us prefer for ritual. There isn’t really a space in a Pagan ritual for lay Pagans, you can’t be stood in a circle and not be an active participant, it just doesn’t work. So we can’t have the same casual attitude to people rocking up that a Christian church might have. What works for them doesn’t work for us.

I don’t think there are many widely applicable answers to the question of making the Pagan community accessible, and not dependant on jumping through hoops. It does however help to have slightly permeable edges to groups and to do the occasional public facing thing that allows the curious to make contact and have a look. The more groups are able to be a little bit available sometimes, the easier it is to answer this need without creating too much work for anyone.

I can’t help but feel that learning your Paganism from Facebook groups and chat rooms, and the odd blog, or even books, is probably about as good as learning all your sex style by watching pornography. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you will certainly pick up. But, odd things may happen to your expectations, and you may get some unhelpful ideas about how the relationships work. There is more we can do to make internet and book experiences more real and grounded, and less like magic-porn.


Am I in the wrong?

At one extreme are the people with little or no self esteem who take every criticism to heart. At the other extreme are the narcissists who reject any negative feedback. Sanity lies between the extremes, but how to find it? How do we decide when we’ve got it wrong? If we can’t identify our mistakes, we can’t learn, grow or change. Mistakes can be wonderful teachers, and permission to make mistakes is key to breaking into new things. The person who takes every failure to heart and the person who can’t bear criticism may find it equally difficult to take risks around getting things wrong.

It wasn’t what I intended! This is a very common way of resisting negative feedback. Intentions matter, but they don’t reliably define outcomes. What we meant and how someone else experienced it don’t necessarily align. If you meant well and got it wrong, this is often a good opportunity to find out how someone sees the world differently to you.

It’s not my fault! Maybe it was an accident, and if that’s true, it’s worth flagging up. It’s also worth paying attention to blaming and shaming, because in cultures where the buck is passed, no one can get to the bottom of a problem to prevent it reoccurring. If it’s all about punishment then people can’t be honest about mistakes. We all make mistakes – lack of knowledge, inability to predict all the variables – these are the usual causes. Some leeway for mistakes is essential. That said, the idea of it being a mistake is not a get out clause for all shortcomings. Perhaps we could have done more, tried harder, researched better…

You’re just making a fuss! This can be the classic way of negating someone else’s experience when their response isn’t convenient to you. And sometimes of course it is true, and the person complaining is just someone who likes to nit pick and find fault. Check the power balance between the person complaining and the person on the receiving end if you aren’t sure how to respond, and be most careful with the person who has least power.

On the other side of the issue, people with poor self esteem are easily persuaded that it was their shortcoming, poor judgement, lack of care etc that caused the problem, even when there’s no evidence to support the idea. The sort of person who can end up apologising because they said ‘ow’ when their foot was trodden on, and it wasn’t like the other person meant to stomp on their toes… A low self esteem sufferer who is in a blame culture will likely just keep internalising the blame and never builds self esteem as a consequence. This is a hard thing to unpick, but it calls for recognition of your limits – you can’t magically know everything, you aren’t so psychic that everyone else’s preferences and needs are visible to you, and you aren’t, ever, the only person who could have done something differently.

People who wish to blame others are often quick to draw extra people in. They don’t deal with a problem by trying to solve it, instead they make accusations and point fingers and enlist support. Their main aim is to prove it isn’t their fault and this matters more to them than sorting things out. The person who wants to sort things out may shoulder more responsibility than is fairly theirs because that way they can change something, fix something. From the outside, this can look like one righteous person – the accuser – and one guilty person – the fixer. Blame and bullying often go together. Blaming someone and making them responsible for things beyond their control is a standard abuse tactic. Enlisting everyone else to confirm the blame and uphold the position of the bully is also a standard abuse tactic. When we focus on who was wrong, and who to blame, any of us can be drawn into supporting an abuser, not necessarily with any awareness that this is what’s happening.

It takes a certain amount of courage to face down a mistake. To look at it, own it, make sense of it and sort it out. It’s a vulnerable thing to do. We may look bad. We may pay a cost. But, I’d rather take that road any day than blame someone else for the sake of covering my own arse. I’d rather deal with the consequences of my errors than pretend there isn’t a problem. What I need to stop doing is co-operating with buck passers, people who always want more, and people who can’t take any responsibility for their share of the problem.


People we pretend to be

We all put on masks, take up fictional identities and dabble with ideas of who we could be. Sometimes it’s a response to the company we’re in – your work persona may not be your Friday night social life persona. Sometimes it is a more deliberate process – role play games, computer games, acting, writing, cosplaying, and other such events can allow us to be people we otherwise are not. It’s a relatively safe way to explore who we might be, or to play out the fantasies of who we wish we were.

I know a number of Druids who started out playing Druids in games. On the other side, I don’t know anyone who has become a ninja or a great military leader by playing computer games.  I know I tested my notions of honour and appropriate behaviour extensively in role play games as a teenager, it helped me figure out who I wanted to be. People use other forms of creative identity to let out the parts of them that can’t otherwise find expression. It may be that many authors of horror and violence are able to be perfectly lovely people because they’ve found a safe space for that part of themselves.

I think it’s worth taking this stuff seriously. Who we pretend to be can all too easily become who we are. So many people get to their middle years and find that their roles – domestic and workish – have become their identities and they don’t much like how that’s working out. Pretending to be someone you aren’t can wear away at your soul over time, and those who hide to fit in can pay a hefty price for doing so.

Who we pretend to be, and the spaces we create by doing so, have massive consequences in our lives and the lives of the people around us. I offer examples – the set of people who are all pretending to be professional and businesslike to operate in the same workspace. The group of people who are living their Pagan identity for a weekend at a camp. The group of people in a pub who are imagining how they’d live if their brand of antisocial politics got into power. All of these things form our lives, and can colour our sense of self even when we tell ourselves we’re only playing at it. The people we pretend to be can take over our lives, and may not take us in the directions we wanted to follow.

I’m wrangling with this a bit on the steampunk side at the moment. Most of the people who get into steampunk want to play with the extravagant period dress. It’s just that this is often about jamming on the fashions of the rich. I don’t want to play at being upper class. I don’t want to be part of that wealth and class system even in an imaginary and often subversive context. I’ve been looking at images of working class women from the Victorian era, the shawls and the bonnets, the absence of bling and glamour. I’m trying to find a way to be that lets me honour my investment in being a working person, and a thinking, creative person.

It’s good to pretend and play, adults need it as much as children do. I think we all play dress up and pretend to be certain kinds of grownups in situations, and sometimes it feels to me more like a child pretending to be a grownup. And often it feels good to take off the grownup uniforms and get back into my mud and tree seeking attire. It’s important to know when we’re pretending, and to know who we’d really be, and when we’re putting on a costume, and when we’re putting on our real clothes. I suspect there are many people for whom the work attire is a costume, and the velvet cloak, the pith helmet, the goth dress or the elf ears are much more the real self.


Not so nuclear families

Children start learning from the moment they arrive in the world – if not before then. What they see and hear, feel, touch and get to do starts, from the first moment, to shape their sense of the world. What is normal, and what isn’t. What’s ok, and what isn’t. These are often not things their parents have set out to deliberately teach them but things that are absorbed from their impression of the environment. To offer a more dramatic example, there’s evidence that the children of holocaust survivors experience something akin to inherited trauma.

We all have our oddities, neuroses, weaknesses, flaws, bad habits and so forth. The child growing up in a nuclear family spends those first few years in the world created by the parents. Those oddities become normal. Anything dysfunctional about the parent can become how the world works for the child. The parent who cannot show affection or give praise creates a child with low self esteem all too easily. The parent obsessed with washing, or weight management, or anything else you can think of, creates a world in which those things matter, and it is normal for them to matter. The parent who thinks boys are more valuable than girls, or who normalises domestic violence, or fat shames their child – there are so many possible examples of how a child can be set up for disaster here.

Having regular access to a number of adults has to be the way to go. The child who sees many adults will not be so persuaded that their own parent, or parents are exactly how the world works. They will see diversity, they will hear it, they will know more than one opinion is available. If they see their parents with other adults, they will be less persuaded that their parents have godlike powers, or natural authority, or are infallible or anything of that ilk. They may find people they can better identify with than their own parents. Given an array of models to emulate or reject, the child has a far better chance of finding their own identity.

Of course there are issues of power and control here. Show a child that your way is not the only way, and they might not want to do it your way. Show them that you can make mistakes, and they won’t think you’re right when you make mistakes. Let them see other parents in action and they might question how you parent. But if parenting is more about protecting the fragile ego of the adult than it is about raising a healthy child, it is pretty much a certainty that there will be problems.