Conflict, Mediation, and Victim Blaming

shutterstock_60329779Over the past weeks I’ve seen a number of Pagan leadership issues emerge in entirely separate communities. I wrote a bit about some of them in my Pagan Elders post. There are other communities that I’m aware of that have very similar issues, however. Specifically, I want to talk about that problem that seems to be the core of so many Pagan community conflicts. Namely, where Group Leader A and Group Leader B have a problem. Particularly the scenario where Group Leader B is acting in a particularly reprehensible way and Group Leader A is at a loss for how to deal with it.

In some cases, Group Leader A speaks out. Or asks for help from their peers. Now…sometimes this borders into the land of triangulation where one party is pitted against another, but sometimes it’s a genuine attempt to figure out how to resolve the situation. Either way, it’s heartbreaking to watch it play out. The conflict, in some of these cases, is not actually resolvable. Group Leader A speaks out, some people suggest mediation, others blame the victim. It’s so common I can tick off the phases of the process like clockwork.

I’ve seen it happen a few times recently, so I’m offering a generalized process based on a few different real life examples.

Local Leader Issue
Sometimes I get to hear about a local community’s issue with a particular local leader when I travel and teach. I can think of a few examples where I was teaching leadership workshops and, one by one, local leaders and group members would take me aside and say, “So, I have a problem with a local leader.” They’d outline the situation without naming the problematic leader in question, but–given I keep my ear to the ground, I figure out who they are talking about and I say, “Do you mean Group Leader B?” and they say, “OMG, yes. I didn’t want to badmouth them, but their behavior has been so difficult…we just don’t know what to do.”

Sometimes in a situation like that, I’ve had interactions with Group Leader B online or at previous events. Sometimes I haven’t. Either way, it’s like trying to pull together a portrait of someone from a rough mosaic of pieces. Sometimes the portrait is pretty clear, particularly when group leaders and members from various groups are telling a similar pattern of stories that are in alignment with poor behavior I’ve seen from that group leader either online or in person. While it’s all still “hearsay,” it gains legitimacy through consistency as well as through the lack of benefit to the people telling the story. If that many people come to me with a story about a leader, and they don’t have anything to gain by telling me, and in fact, they at first try to shield the identity of the leader they are talking about, that says something.

What Do You Want?
People usually want one of a few things at that point, either from me or just in general.

  1. How can I fix this leader and make them stop being abusive? or,
  2. Can you help mediate this situation and fix it? or,
  3. If there’s no way to fix them, how do I make them stop leading and hurting people? or, when it’s really desperate,
  4. Can you render a judgment against this leader so that they stop?

I’ll start with that last one first. I have no powers to render any judgments. I do use the power of my “bully pulpit” on occasion to speak out against specific leaders, but I typically only do that when I have the direct proof of horrific things they’ve publicly said or written, or, if I have some credible information including first-hand experiences. And, just because I speak out against a leader that I’ve named doesn’t mean I have any more power than anybody else does to “make them stop.” As I’ve said over and over–because the Pagan subculture has no hierarchy (since we’re a collection of hundreds of different religions and spiritual paths) there’s no “Pope” who can defrock someone, with the exception of a few specific traditions.

Therefore, the only power to remove anyone as a leader is really through the mob-mentality politics that run any poorly-managed consensus group, which is to say, the outspoken people, charismatic people, and the bullies all tend to have more power. Generally, it becomes a PR war and a popularity contest, the same as it does with government politics. It’s not pretty, and the “witch wars” of the past are part of why people are now so gun-shy about speaking up about a bad Pagan leader.

Fixing Them
As for “fixing” someone, there are really two basic scenarios, and it ties into mediation. Either the leader who is engaging in harmful behavior is doing so out of ignorance and, when they are confronted and they internalize the feedback, they voluntarily will work to shift their behavior. Or, the leader who is engaging in harmful behavior has some way deeper issues going on and they will never be able to change. Sadly, the latter type of leader will also have the tendency to engage the Jekyll/Hyde pattern common to abusers. That is to say, they may profusely apologize after they’ve done something harmful. And they may even mean it. But, they’ll continue returning to their default behavior.

Sometimes, you have to give someone the benefit of the doubt that they’ll work to change. However, knowing the pattern of abuse and the Jekyll/Hyde pattern, you can observe to see if things really are changing, or if they are just going back to their old patterns. Three strikes is generally a good rule of thumb.

For some of the leaders people have shared stories with me about, we’re talking 15, 30, 50 strikes. And that’s just the stories I’ve heard.

Red Flags
I have a whole series of posts on red flags here on this blog. Those posts are offered in a more logical order in my Leader Within book. But, it’s always worth talking about more to build awareness. Some red flags for me are how those leaders behave online. While I’m not in a position to diagnose a personality disorder, when I see a number of red flags of narcissistic behavior, that’s something I take note of.

It’s also worthy of note to me when I teach in a particular area and hear a lot of complaints about Group Leader B, and then out of the blue, Group Leader B contacts me (unsolicited) and starts complaining about Group Leader A, or a number of other members of their community. It’s also worthy of note when Group Leader B contacts me like that out of the blue and is suddenly very interested in talking to me only after I did a workshop for their “rival” group, and they have in the past ignored my attempts to reach out to them and talk.

Another thing that is worthy of note is when the people complaining about Group Leader B are doing so with compassion. They don’t want to harm Group Leader B, they just want to “fix” them. Or, if they’ve been around the block a few more times and have been harmed by the actions of Group Leader B, they just want the abuse to stop. They ask me,  “How do we stop them from abusing people?”

Observing Patterns
Again, none of these are things I can do a whole lot about other than observe and take note of the pattern. In some cases, the sheer volume of complaints about a particular leader does concern me. I tend to find that the truth points to itself, meaning, the folks that are doing unethical stuff tend to keep doing it and it creates a pattern over time.

But, I’m also not willing to speak out against someone by name without significant evidence.

For that matter, I have to hold an awareness of the difficulty when I’ve gotten to know the people on one “side” of an issue and I don’t know Group Leader B as well. However, when I get to know a group of people, I get a sense of their behavior. Actually, it can tell me a lot when a group of people complaining about Group Leader B are not, themselves, engaging in “red flag” behaviors.

There Are Two Sides To Every Story!
Well, yes, that’s true. And in many conflicts, both parties have made things worse. However, in situations where we have a Group Leader B who has engaged in a long-term pattern of abusive and narcissistic behavior, while Group Leader A may have reacted in ways that aren’t helpful and potentially exacerbated the situation, there’s no amount of “good” behavior on Group Leader A’s part that is going to fix the problem. Group Leader A coming to the mediation table with an open heart isn’t going to fix an abuser or a narcissist.

I have mediated/negotiated conflicts before where there was no “bad guy.” Where both “sides” were engaging in a downward spiral of behavior that just kept getting worse. Sometimes just as it helps in a relationship to go to a marriage counselor to get outside of the conflict and see how both sides are contributing to the problem, sometimes a mediator or negotiator can help point out those patterns from outside. Often the pattern is happening in all innocence. Nobody is Sauron/Voldemort/Darth Vader. It’s just a misunderstanding, layers of frustration and baggage, and anger resulting from that.

However…sometimes one side is, in fact, a repeat abuser. They may have also been abused, they may have baggage, they may have tons of reasons why they are doing what they are doing, but that doesn’t make it ok for them to continue to engage in the behavior.

Complain to Their Superior!
As Paganism grows more populous traditions, there are in fact groups that belong to larger traditions where, theoretically, there is a hierarchy that can censure group leaders under their banner. Here’s the problem. I’m aware of at least two big traditions that regularly fail to address problematic leaders. One tradition I know of likes to have a soft touch; they have eventually dealt with some of their leadership acting badly, but they let it go on for a really long time.

The other tradition that I am thinking of has had several direct complaints about some of their clergy, and they have refused to hear the complaints. I’ve heard of them berating complainers essentially saying that the complainer deserves the abuse for defying their HP/HPS, or that the complainer deserves the abuse, that the gods must have wanted them to suffer, things along those lines. I’m not currently willing to name those traditions as I’m still trying to gather more data. (If you have a story like that about a tradition you’ve worked with, shoot me an email please at ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com. )

In many other cases, I’ve essentially heard from tradition heads that once a person is made HP/HPS or the equivalent, that title can never be taken from them. In my mind, that seems irresponsible…but, that’s how some traditions are run. I have heard on one occasion of a midwestern Pagan leader who was acting so poorly her HPS stripped her of her title and took on her students so that they could finish up their degrees. However, that is really pretty rare to hear of that happening.

But, Mediation!
I recommend mediation a lot, and people rarely actually do it. And–when it works, it’s a great thing. But here’s one problem that a lot of people fail to take into account. Mediation is not at all appropriate in situations of abuse. A mediation gives the abuser access to the victim. One of the hallmarks of abuse–whether physical abuse or emotional abuse–is confusion. The abuse victim is groomed and programmed by their abuser to behave in a certain way. The Jekyll/Hyde pattern of lashing out and then apologizing creates a triggered response.

I’ve fallen for this myself. In fact, it was after a mediation with my ex fiance that I got back together with him for round 2 of abusive relationship Bingo. I later found out that he lied at our mediation session to gain sympathy. It’s worth pointing out that, while mediation is ordered by the court in a number of divorce proceedings, mediation is not allowed in cases where there are allegations of abuse, because it just allows the abuser to suck the victim back into the cycle.

Don’t get me wrong. Mediation is a great tool…when it works. But mediation isn’t going to work with:

  • A repeat abuser
  • Someone with one of the major personality disorders or another untreated mental illness, alcoholism, or other addictions
  • Someone who is just a real jerk and unwilling or unable to look at their behavior

Victim Blaming
So here we come to the problem. When abuse victims speak up about Group Leader B, people who are sucked into Group Leader B’s charisma are going to defend Group Leader B. There are tons of reasons for this, and that’s a whole separate blog post.

However, people who are theoretically neutral are often going to dig into Group Leader A, or anyone else who speaks up about Group Leader B.

Here are some victim-blaming comments that are so common it’s like they come off a script. The sentiment isn’t always wrong–and often folks mean well–but in cases of abusive behavior, you can see where this becomes problematic.

  • “You’re just stirring up trouble.”
  • “If you’d only engage in mediation with them.”
  • “You’ve already made your decision, you aren’t coming into this with an open heart.”
  • “Stop tearing other leaders down! You are destroying our community!”
  • “There are two sides to every story.”
  • “You have responsibility in this too. Stop blaming everything on them.”
  • “I can see you’re not willing to give mediation a chance.”
  • “Why can’t you just get over the past?”
  • “Let bygones be bygones.”
  • “It’s time to move forward and stop blaming them.”
  • “You’re just engaging in a power play. You sicken me.”

As you can see, those sentiments on their own aren’t necessarily bad–and most of us say these things on autopilot. But, put yourself in the abuse victim’s hot seat. You know about the abusive behavior of Group Leader B, and you’ve just spoken up about it publicly because you feel you cannot hold your silence, and you don’t want Group Leader B to hurt anyone else.

Try reading these things out loud from that mindset and see how they feel to you personally.

But What Actually Happened?
So often, the problem boils down to the old “He said/She Said.” We can’t know what Group Leader B did…until we can. When we see a repeatable pattern of behavior, I believe it’s our responsibility as a community to bring scrutiny onto that person. To check it out, to see what we can find out about it. While Paganism isn’t a hierarchy, we deserve better than the justice of the bully/mob and a popularity contest. Our victims don’t deserve to be blamed. That’s not what I want to see in the broader culture, and it’s not what I want to see in my own Pagan back yard.

How do we get past this? Well…right now, all we have is accountability. And what I mean by that is, not looking away. Not saying, “It’s not my problem.”

When a group leader, teacher, or author has done something that is really blatantly reprehensible, like Christian Day, a reasonable response is to cut ties with them. To stop supporting them by buying things or teaching for that person. To stop putting money into that person’s hands.

When a local leader has continued to engage in some questionable behavior, it is worthwhile to try and find out more about what has gone on. Try to find out from multiple sources. I find that the best data comes from people who have nothing to gain; when it’s not “Rival Leader A” making the complaint, but group member C, D, E, and F, none of whom are going to gain any special benefit from telling their story. In fact, they’ll probably be victim-blamed if they speak up and yet are still willing to do so. It’s worth keeping an eye out for Group Leader B and watching them, watching the pattern of their behavior.

Don’t follow the mob, the court of the popularity contest, in either direction. Watch with discernment. Learn if you’re susceptible to the Jekyll/Hyde pattern of abusive behavior and apology. If you find yourself willing to keep making excuses for a group leader because of “all the work they’ve done” or just because they apologized, think about that for a moment. Does the positive work they’ve done diminish the harm they continue to engage in?

There aren’t easy answers for these questions. But, if we continue to talk about it, solutions will begin to emerge. I think right now what is most important is that Pagans become aware that there are these problems, and that no, there aren’t easy fixes. Mediation isn’t always the solution–even though I wish it were.

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