Tag Archives: conflict

Druid in conflict

I’ve seen too many occasions of Druids, or people in the wider Pagan community getting into conflict and results being messy, damaging and often aggravated by the wider community. Last year I feel we got it more right than not around Druid Camp issues, so, drawing on a range of experiences, I want to talk about how we handle conflict, because mostly we get this wrong.
Something happens. Usually the two or more people involved know what it was, but they may understand it in very different ways. Thanks to the internet, some aspect of the conflict goes public. One party will likely claim to be a victim of the other. The second party almost always then says that it is the other way round and they are the victim. Now, thus far what we have is pretty normal human behaviour in conflict. I’ve been there. Hurt, angry, in pain, suffering, maybe wanting to lash out, or get some justice, or even the score. It would be nice if even in our darkest and most wounded moments we all could behave like super enlightened people, but realistically, we won’t. Some slack cutting and patience with hurt people helps a lot. We all go there, sooner or later.

However, everyone not directly involved has a lot more scope for calm, clarity and reason. What do we do? We pile in, take sides, make accusations, and most often we demand evidence. We don’t seem to ask what on earth kind of evidence could be presented to us on a social networking website such that we would believe it. Often our own history and baggage comes into play, or our feelings about one or both people. Loyalty to friends is a good thing, but increasing the conflict in a situation is not, so if you are the friend of a person who is hurting, sabre rattling is not going to help them, and picking fights with those who are on ‘the other side’ will only serve to spread the pain, widen the divide, and reduce the hope of resolution.

From the outside, we cannot know what happened. It may be crossed wires and it may be that it could be fixed, with some intelligent intervention and a bit of good will. It could be honest misunderstanding, or confusion, or misinterpretation or a whole bunch of things of that ilk that do not mean either party is evil. Most often the problem is that two flawed human being accidently banged their shortcomings together. Sometimes it is clearer that there could be a genuine victim and a genuine aggressor, but when all you have is one word against another, that’s difficult to tell, especially which way round it is. There may be times when you think you know what you’re seeing. This is why we have the police and law courts and juries – a flawed system that cannot, it should be noticed, handle many of the conflict-of-story cases. But it’s what we’ve got, and trial by public speculation is not a reasonable alternative.

If there is a criminal issue, then you have to treat it like one and encourage the party claiming to be injured to make an approach to the police. If it’s not a criminal level of problem, then what you have is an issue to deal with. Anger and escalation can take you from a dispute into a criminal situation – threats, libel and so forth. No one benefits when those lines are crossed.

No matter who was right and who was wrong, you have two people with problems. Both will need help and support. It may be that one of them has done something appalling, but that doesn’t mean they need demonising. It means they need support from their community to seek help, learn, change, grow or make amends. Druidry is supposed to be about restorative justice. We need to look after the more deluded and messed up members of our communities, too.

So, when you hit a conflict situation, try and avoid using language that will inflame it. Don’t bother demanding evidence, that’s pointless and just makes people feel worse. They can’t give you evidence on facebook. Live with it. If the accusations have a criminal element, it should be a police matter, and it is appropriate and productive to say this. Then, if people are mouthing off, they may be startled into getting some perspective and if they aren’t, they will feel supported in taking necessary action. Where possible, encourage people to step back, and get calm before they do anything stupid. Angry hurting people make mistakes that they would not make as calm people. Try to establish calm.

If you are in a place to listen respectfully to both sides such that you can figure out what is happening and put it straight, there may be useful work to do. I mentioned issues around Druid Camp before, and that was handled well by the wider community, on the whole. Problems were aired and dealt with, all parties had good support, lessons were learned.

It is not an expression of modern Druidry to want to be judge, jury and executioner. It is not Druidry to enter a space of conflict and make it worse. We have to walk our talk with this stuff, we have to take care of our communities and deal with conflicts in responsible ways.

Taking a side

Collaboration has undoubtedly delivered more human success than anything else. None of us have all the skills, or all the knowledge. People who work in teams get something that is usually more than the sum of its parts. And yet, the idea of competition, or winners and losers is so much a part of our culture. The whole way in which capitalism works pretty much depends on exploitation, (I shall resist the urge to get all Marxist about this one). Business is all about win and lose, and competition drives the market place. We are told that competition is healthy and delivers the best outcomes to consumers. Frankly I’m sceptical about that one, not least because the definition of ‘best’ tends to be ‘cheapest and most widely available’.

The moment you set up sides, and decide that there’s an us, and a them, then its not long before we have to win and they have to lose. Once we’re looking at a win-lose setup, then ideas about compromise or consensus are right off the table. We aren’t looking to agree, we want to win, score more points, get more things, come out on top. Our culture tells us that when we win in this way, we have achieved something. We are superior to the losers. Cleverer. We deserve our success and can take pride in it. The losers deserve to have lost and deserve the humiliation and practical consequences of failure.

Our judicial systems are adversarial, and that sets up not just assumptions about the kind of outcome that’s desirable, but a structure in which the win/lose arrangement is pretty much the only thing you can get. When it comes to situations of human error and tragedy, this means that people fight to win, which means fighting not to be blamed, and therefore not taking responsibility, and therefore vital lessons can be easily not learned. As with what so often happens when medicine or infrastructure goes wrong and kills people. This is not my definition of a good win at all.

When you get into a conflict situation and you get that conventional ‘win’ and watch the other person lose, you have the option to be smug and self righteous. You have all the cultural support imaginable to kick the person who is now down. Or perhaps you get the hollow feeling that you were playing the wrong game all along and that what you have is really another form of lose.

In a win/lose scenario, the more that’s at stake, the more important it becomes to seem right. Being right is a secondary consideration. Winning comes first. In war, the first casualty is often said to be truth. It’s just as probable in other forms of human conflict. Where we want to win, and where winning is more important than how we get there, honour doesn’t get much of a look in. Truth is likely to be further hidden beneath piles of obfuscation and perhaps even self delusion. We want to believe in ourselves as righteous winners, after all. That’s what it’s all about, allegedly. Except that way lies a mire of mistakes and emotional self harming, a total lack of scope to make good changes, and a whole range of methods to entrench and escalate hostility. Again, I have to say this is not my definition of what ’win’ ought to look like.

What I think is this. When people draw lines and take sides, rally round flags and declare enmity, there is only one available outcome. To some degree, everybody is going to lose. Often not just the people involved, either. We lose in our humanity and understanding, in our capacity for making something better. I want a win that takes everyone forward in a good way. Or failing that, as many people as possible. I want wins that are about truth, compassion and best outcomes for everyone.

In conflict we bemuse

I was deeply affected by a recent post on Cat Treadwell’s blog http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/thedarkpaths/ , where she talks about experiencing conflict scenarios with people who are aggressive towards her. Recognising the isolation, fear and other painful things that may underpin such behaviour, she pondered what to do in such scenarios. The more dedicated a person is to service, the harder it is to turn away from people whose negativity harms them and anyone who comes close enough to be infected by it.

I know that at present, I’m not equal to that kind of service. I don’t have the resources of energy or the depth of equilibrium called for. I’m not prepared to compromise my health and viability to tackle problem people. Mostly I deal with people who bother me by keeping away. And sometimes I recognise that calls for a calculated form of selfishness on my part. Compassion can be exhausting, and I am a finite being. But, so many wrongs in the world derive from the fears, mistaken beliefs and unsustainable habits of people. Turning a blind eye is a means of condoning. Whatever we may feel about not wanting to control people, there’s the issues planetary crisis and not tolerating cruelty to consider. Sometimes, it’s necessary to act.

How do we discern between rightful action, and action motivated by vanity, pride or a desire to control? How much wanting to redirect is merely self importance? Every time any of us get the urge to call another person out over their behaviour, this is something to consider. Never, ever get complacent about it. Holier than thou as a mindset is seldom very holy at all. It’s so easy to see the surface and not see what lies beneath. Another thing that touched me in Cat’s recent blog, was her desire to understand and to heal, not to browbeat.

Taking the time to understand can often foster compassion. If we see the fear that underpins the shouting, the raging insecurity that has someone behaving in a controlling way, we have more scope for handing it gently. It’s easy to accidently reaffirm the mindset – anger, resentment, resistance, can all turn out to be what the awkward one knew would happen. If we reinforce the world view, we help entrench the problem.

There’s a lot to be said for doing, and saying the unexpected. Take a second to consider what kind of response the words or behaviour seemed intended to elicit. Then do some other thing. There are people who will push you away because they believe no one can love them. There are people who will shout at you so that when you shout back, they have a justification for hitting you. There are people who will make you lose your cool so that they can mock you, or will try to make you lash out so they can prove how unreasonable you really are. Often, once you start looking, the intended reaction becomes transparent. Do some other thing. Smile. Laugh. Wish them well. Compliment them. Get them on the back foot by refusing to conform to their world view. Seed an idea.

Lots of people have tightly held stories about the way the world works, and will cling to them regardless of evidence to the contrary. Some people have an amazing capacity to reinvent experiences in order to make them fit. A person clinging to a perspective may react negatively to someone whose very existence challenges belief. Pagans frequently fail to conform to other people’s stereotypes. This alone can lead to resentment. Sometimes just being who and how you are will constitute an affront to people whose tidy little perspectives cannot fit you in. Some people will try and take you down, take you apart, just to make you fit. People who have given up on their dreams tend to detest dreamers. People who believe the world is an ugly place resent those who can see beauty. People who are jealous and fearful resent those who are generous and free. Those who think that power, money and social status matter feel threatened by anyone who can be happy with very little. And on it goes. If we let them diminish us, we let them win.

I think sometimes, the most compassionate thing we can do for some of the people who come into our lives, is to fail to live up to their expectations, and thereby fail to make them comfortable. The shaking of complacency, the challenging of beliefs, the refusal to play, are all very powerful ways of encouraging other people to rethink things. And it’s an approach that keeps us on our toes too, keeps us honest, and stops us falling into other people’s traps or trying to make them do anything at all.

Building fairer systems

I’ve mentioned before that I have a Stone Age village in my head, and I use its imaginary shape to play compare-and-contrast games with modern life. In the imaginary village, people live in a community where they are, to at least some degree, known to each other. Reputation is important. When there is conflict, the honour and usual truthfulness of those involved would be easily considered. In my imaginary village, there is a culture of honesty and people would feel ashamed to speak in a misleading way for personal gain. (In my authoring life, I write fantasy some of the time, I have a wild imagination.)

We tend to live in far larger groups than this. Get into disagreement or conflict and the odds are that either those involved, or those arbitrating, have no idea who you are. Your reputation will probably not have reached them. They won’t know if you are habitually honest, or shifty, whether you have a history of excellence, or ineptitude. More often than not, that context is vital. Anyone can accuse anyone else, of anything. Much of the law includes ideas about whether it was deliberate or not. There is a world of legal difference between things done by accident or mistake, and things done deliberately. But without anyone knowing who you are and how you usually behave, how is anyone to judge?

As we live so remotely from each other, we need the law to be distant and impartial. But in that distance, we lose a great deal.

In the Stone Age village in my head, there are of course proto-druids, wise folk who make the hard decisions and who are trusted to find the way through. I wonder sometimes how we, as modern druids, would fare if asked to hold the same kind of responsibility? Would we be able, willing or capable of making life and death decisions for other people? I feel uneasy about that as an idea. I think I could work for reconciliation and peace, but I do not imagine I would be comfortable if I had to judge people. Especially not where that judgement would bring significant consequences.

So many problems in this world are caused by accidents and mistakes rather than malice. So many of these accidents and mistakes are underpinned by lack of understanding. There are, for example, a significant subset of domestic abusers who have no idea they are doing anything wrong. They’ve grown up in a culture of male dominance, they believe women want to be pushed around and told what to do. They know that earning the money means they should rightfully have all the power, and so forth. The last thing such a person needs is punishing. It’s probably not even their fault they think this way. What they need is educating. So too do all the women who think it’s ok for their men to hit them if they are ‘bad’ and that their sons should be raised as indulged and petted princes who will go on to expect the same from their wives in turn.

Punishment seldom fixes anything. The Stone Age village in my head cannot afford to lock people up. Prisoners are expensive, you have to keep an eye on them and feed them, it doesn’t work. There is death, exile or restoration, and these are the only options. It is better for everyone if the person who messed up can be taught to do better. Your village is stronger for this process.

Prison costs a frightening amount of money. It clearly does not work as a deterrent. Nor does it reliably turn offenders into better adjusted people. Often the reverse. Education is a whole other issue. Where interventions like the Freedom Program for domestic abusers are allowed to step in, there are significant success rates. Reliably, they catch the people who got there out of ignorance, mistakes, lack of understanding and all those other things that are not malice but make trouble. In just the same way that driving courses which explain to people the cost of accidents, the probability of causing death by speeding, and all the facts around dangerous driving, often have an impact that mere punishment never could.

It comes down to whether we want to fix things, or whether we want a system that takes an eye for an eye. Education is not punishment. If you do get the wrong person, it’s not a disaster and they too might learn something they can use. We can’t, in the current social structures we have, know each other well enough to really make fair judgements. But if the consequence of gross error, negligence or malice, is training, that might be less of a problem. It would probably cost less, and do more good. After all, if someone hurts you, one of the most helpful things they can express is an intention not to do it again. There’s a justice in preventing repeats, and a hopefulness inherent in trying to do better.

Fighting trousers or bending reed?

I’ve just read Jo’s excellent post http://octopusdance.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/meh/ where she talks about achieving detachment so as to be more in control of our emotions, and our lives. She makes some very good points about the ways in which our desire to be in control of things and people we have no control of, can prompt really unhelpful emotional responses. I’m sat here nursing a bucket load of those – fear, anger, resentment, fear, more fear. I’m not good at situations where I feel entirely unable to control what’s happening in my life. I’m very tired of facing situations where assorted official bodies have the power, at least, to strip me of every last thing I care about for reasons that have a lot to do with their subjective views and my failure to be quite normal enough. Meh indeed.

In my teens I explored Tai Chi and a little Taoist philosophy. One of the ideas I encountered was of yielding rather than resisting. It underpins the Tai Chi discipline. We bend, and by doing so, overcome the force and aggression of others. In not fighting, we triumph. Now, compare that with what we get in the Celtic myths, full of strident warriors out doing crazy heroic things. Cu Chulain tied to his rock and fighting until he dies. Macha running the race that kills her. And even Rhiannon, offering to carry all comers as she takes punishment for a crime she never committed, doesn’t seem to be yielding so much as enduring. My impression of the Celts is of a proud people who, when challenged by life, faced it down or died trying. Often the latter. Assuming the mediaeval tales are any kind of insight into Celtic mythology, they suggest an ethos all about doing what honour demands, and dying if needs be. On the whole that’s easier to do when your enemy is also holding a sword, or happens to be a wild boar. Trickier when you are fighting against the hideous tides of paperwork, red tape, crazy laws, kafka-esk systems, a society that doesn’t have room for you, or any of the myriad other things a modern druid can wind up banging their head against.

The scope for going out into the world and fighting injustice with a big weapon, is not what it used to be.

While I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself a ‘druidry and something’ druid, there are other influences. Aside from the Taoism, there’s existentialism in my head, and post modernism, green politics, a fondness for rationalism, a profound respect for humanist and atheist thinking and probably a lot more. Inevitably I am to some degree a product of my own times, and my own reading.

Do I bend in the gale to avoid breaking, or do I make like a Celtic warrior and fight to the death? Nothing I am up against will give a poo either way. It’s a case of do as you’re told, or be harassed, threatened, and legally forced to comply. There are a lot of situations in which a person has no legal right to decline, or to hold an opinion. There is yielding, or being flattened. The pragmatist in me does not see a great deal to be gained in being flattened. The powers that be are indifferent to heroic gestures, or principles other than their own. I know of people who have given their lives for causes they believed in, and I have a depressing sense of how much difference that makes. Being alive, and continuing to make a nuisance of yourself appears to be more productive.

Being a druid is of course not entirely the same as being a Celtic warrior. There’s the whole peace angle to consider for a start. Usually there are other paths aside from direct conflict. Sometimes conflict is the only way. All I can hope for is the wisdom to figure out when to be a Taoist and yield before the unstoppable forces, and when to be a Celt, and dig out the fighting trousers and refuse to go quietly.

I owe the idea of Fighting Trousers to an excellent chap called Professor Elemental, who you can find on youtube, and, should. Today is not the day for donning the fighting trousers. Tomorrow, who knows?