49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives
Canadian Paganism has a style all its own. Have a look at events, issues, celebrations, people, trends and events north of the border from the eyes of a Canadian Wiccan and Witch.
The Curse of Pagan Niceness
I was going to write about something related but different in my next column. But I read Shauna Aura Knight’s excellent post about her stance on the Frosts this morning, and the controversy she has encountered has encouraged me to change focus. It seems to me that much of the criticism and condemnation boils down to, "She's not playing nice." Well, here's the problem with "niceness." I must tread carefully to protect privacy so much of my language is deliberately vague.
One of our tradition members – an initiate of an initiate – contacted my husband and priest. She said that her teenage daughter had told her that her husband had sexually abused her. The couple have been married for many years; the girl in question is the man’s daughter genetically. The mother was, quite understandably, in tears. She wanted to know what she should do.
My husband said, and I nodded vehemently as I overheard the conversation, “You should go somewhere safe. And you should call the police.”
Since the man was out of town, the woman left her house with her children, and went to stay at the home of their high priestess and high priest. “We’ll call the police tomorrow,” she said.
We pointed out, “That’s good. Because we have to.”
In Canada, clergy have an ethical and legal duty to report child abuse. My husband and I are legally-registered Wiccan clergy; some of only a handful in our country because of much more stringent (and prejudiced) religious organizational laws. While the public at large tends to be more accepting of Pagan faiths in Canada, the authorities are not at all so. Furthermore, our area is very conservative. I have been dealing with schools, child welfare, and the police, advocating Wicca and Paganism for many years, trying to help parents fight to get their children back, trying to explain to school principals that they can’t forbid a student from wearing a pentagram unless they’re going to forbid crucifixes; and so forth. We really don’t need the negative publicity.
I point that out because I have recently seen this argument in commentary about similar issues1. And of course, none of it is relevant because the reputation of a group must ethically take a backseat to a person’s safety.
It’s a good thing that we did this. Even though the mother assured us that she would report it, we called the authorities as well and told them what we knew. Apparently the family was already on file; but not for this, meaning that she had not called. So child welfare called them; the police came and interviewed them. And when the father got back, the police were there to meet him and they arrested him.
I’m sure that there were those who would have preferred that since the family was out of the house and in a safe place, we had just “kept silent.” But not only did we have a legal obligation, we had a moral duty. “An it harm none, do as thou wilt” also means that we must stop harm from happening when we see it. Many Wiccans, in my opinion, seem to use the Rede as a way to rationalize keeping their hands, noses, and consciences clean. It strikes me as an excuse for cowardice, not as a genuine desire to not be “judgmental.”
I call it the Curse of Pagan Niceness. We are terrible at delineating clear boundaries. We want to be so accepting that we put up with all kinds of things we should not put up with. And we can make our community dangerous for the vulnerable because, in our efforts to not be confrontational or judgmental, we let abusive people get away with it.
There were troubling things about this individual that should have been warning signs; nothing you could distinctly put your finger on, but a lot of things that rang of “wrong.” Said individual was oddly comfortable with the idea of being present and in circle at his daughter’s skyclad initiation, which he was pushing for but the tradition leaders (us included) adamantly refused to permit. Said individual seemed very domineering especially towards his wife and family. Said individual had a disturbingly misogynistic way of talking about how he had a shotgun and no one was going to get near his daughters, and he wasn’t just joking around (we had a very long discussion about why this was inappropriate in a sex-positive, feminist tradition and that it deprived a young woman of her agency; we did not get through). The daughters were very secretive, showing one face to one person and another to another person. Later on we found some other disturbing information; the wife was fifteen years old when she got together with said individual; he was in his early twenties, and they married three years later; said individual had called his wife some very inappropriate, offensive names in front of other tradition members.
The high priestess and high priest of the coven were aware of all of these things that we eventually learned, and for about a year longer than we were. The high priestess was trying to be nice because “oh, he p*sses me off, but if we make a big fuss then the girls won’t come, and I like them, and they like the coven, and I don’t want them to leave.” The high priest did speak out against the offensive actions of the individual, but his defense was not strong enough because he was trying to be nice in that he gave this man the benefit of the doubt. “What part of ‘an it harm none’ don’t you understand?” he said to this person, when what he should have said was, “How dare you speak to anyone like that in our tradition! As long as you’re going to say things like that, you are not welcome at anything our tradition does.” Then he should have taken the wife aside and asked her how this man was talking to her at home.
We were trying to be nice, my husband and our partner and I. We saw things that worried us, but after we talked to them about it, asked questions and counselled them, we trusted that the high priestess and high priest of the coven, our initiates, were dealing with the situation, and at the very least they had their eye on it and were counselling the family and looking out for the safety of the girls. We should have followed up and demanded to know what they were doing to intervene. I especially was trying to be nice in that I didn’t want to step on the high priestess’ toes and undermine her authority.
Look at what all this “niceness” wrought. A beautiful, intelligent young woman whom I greatly admire and respect was deeply harmed. Our tradition, who should have protected her, failed her utterly.
It is my contention that more evil is perpetuated in the world by cowardice than by any of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. As they say, all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
It’s hard to be the whistle-blower. Probably due to the Satanic Panic and a tradition of secrecy, we react to whistle-blowers like a dysfunctional family; we flood them with condemnation because we see them as ruining the reputation of the family and we don’t enjoy the unpleasant truths they reveal. But we forget that the whistle-blowers didn’t cause the problem; they just reported it.
I am glad that our instincts told us to watch the situation, and I'm very glad that our tradition successfully created a space that she felt safe enough to disclose to, and seek refuge with. I wish we had done more, and earlier. I think this girl would have been really grateful if we’d been a little less “nice” a year ago, don’t you?
1. I tried to find the dialogues in question and I couldn't. I remember distinctly M. Macha Nightmare being dragged into the discussion. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for her recent departure from Reclaiming. But that's a speculation I can't confirm.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments