Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Owning Up: The best way forward

It comes up time and time again: in news articles, in interviews, in TV spots, in blog posts, in forum messages, even in tweets. A reasonable enough approach when confronted with depictions or portrayals which reflect negatively on a wider community, is to point out that "so and so's" actions are not supported by the group, and that there is nothing which condones such actions, from within the group. Wait, let me back up a little.

I'm talking about responsibility, or rather about the lack of it in a number of given incidents, typically involving some dishonourable action on part of a member of a given group, and the communities reaction to wider scrutiny as a result. As I said above, the most common tactic is to isolate the dishonourable member as an individual who does not reflect the wider membership, nor any of the teachings, philosophies, or messages of that group. They are labeled as "lone nuts", "fringe", "extremists" or "people who do not really understand X group". The goal, in any case, is to show how the individual(s) acted alone, and that the group does not condone their actions, and is therefore free from any blame or responsibility. The more glib version of this sort of argument, is known as the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. This fallacy establishes that to belong to a given group, one must abstain from doing X, as no one who does X could be considered a member of said group. The logical extension of this sort of reasoning is that groups can isolate their own membership for actions they deem as being dishonorable, sinful, criminal, etc., and by doing so shift any and all responsibility away from their group. The problem is then two fold:
  1.  1.The group effectively narrows who can be considered members by disqualifying any who may make them look bad, thus providing an illusory ideal which does not reflect reality.
  2. As a result of 1, the group will not examine itself and see if there is something internal which could have had causal influence on the actions of those (now) ex-members.
This isn't necessarily about any one group, and can happen with any group at all. I do have a couple of examples in mind though, to illustrate my point.

One of the most common examples of this sort of argument is found among a certain proselytizing type of Christian. When the history of Christianity is being discussed, for example, and is shown in a negative way this sort of Christian will explain away the wrong doing by explaining that "those were not REAL Christians, because no REAL Christian would do something like that." What this is trying to do is to disqualify those Christians who may reflect badly on the religion, even in a historic context, and in doing so show the moral superiority inherent in the religion. An attempt to show fallibility in such a way, will not only result in such evasive rhetoric, but will ultimately cause a deeper commitment to the illusory ideal the individual has for their religion. Any contemplation on possible sources for such negative actions/accounts within their own tradition will simply not occur.

Similar distancing and pretending occur among western Muslims who consider themselves moderates or liberal, when confronted with the reality of religious violence being carried out in the name of their religion. The most common refutation of culpability tends towards mentioning the dangers of Islamophobia, racism, "western" bias, etc. The second is to explain that "these people are extremists, and Islam does not condone X", attempting to remove any culpability on part of Islam as an organized religion. While I have no doubt whatsoever that xenophobia (be it Islamophobia, racism, etc.) can be a motivation for "speaking out against Islam", and trying to represent every adherent as a slavering, suicide bomber is disingenuous (and factually wrong), this does not mean that all criticisms can be explained away as such. The problems arise when reasonable criticism is deflected as being those above, even when it clearly is not. There exists a desire, on part of "moderate Muslims" to simply not address some fundamental issues within the religion: about the content of their religious scripture as justifying certain actions or beliefs, about some Imam's having very anti-western sentiments and encouraging such views among their members, about the crime of apostasy meriting brutal punishments, etc. What this willful ignorance does is engender a victimized mentality, while at the same time preventing any exploration or discussion of serious issues that need to be addressed. Again, by distancing themselves from the negative elements within their own communities, responsibility is shunned.

A slightly more complex issues arises in the case of Paganism, and the Pagan "community". Every now and then a news article will come along involving some heinous crime allegedly committed by a Pagan. Very often these articles will smack of poor writing, media bias, lack of research, sensationalism, etc. Often there will be protestations emanating from the online Pagan "community", and again the argument of "no Pagan would...", or "Wicca teaches that ..." is almost sure to follow. As Pagans tend to be highly self conscious, especially in regard to media portrayals, representatives from larger Pagan organizations may be approached, or will provide commentary on such issues if they can. While I do appreciate the desire to provide accurate portrayals of minority religions in the media as necessary, and that combating the idea of criminal activity being portrayed as normative with the teachings of a given religion, I worry that the same distancing which occurs in large religions, is happening as well.

The issue of complexity I mentioned above, however, is relevant to discussions about portrayal v. ideal v. reality among the Pagan "community". This seems as good a time as any, in case you were wondering, to point out that I've been putting community in brackets when it follows Pagan for a reason. The extent to which one can actually speak about something as wide and varied as Paganism being a community is very limited. If I were talking about a specific tradition, because even specific religion can be too broad a category, I would use the term community. As I am not, the idea of what constitutes a community when it comes to Paganism is nigh impossible to define. There simply is no consensus as to what does and does not qualify someone as a "Pagan", and so the idea of statements like "Pagan's don't..." or "Paganism teaches..." having any merit is at best foolish. This is where the idea of having people speaking for, or on behalf of Paganism becomes difficult; no one could possibly speak for everyone who self identifies as a Pagan, as Wiccan, as Druid, etc. At issue here is an utter lack of standard belief or shared values which is necessary for any sort of community to label itself as such.

Now, I am most certainly not trying to argue for the development of pan-Pagan values or beliefs, that boat sailed before I was even born. Or even within narrower, but still amorphous religions, like Wicca (or more properly neo-Wicca/Wiccanesque). No, what I am addressing is the difficulty in making statements like "Wiccans do not...", or "There is nothing in Wicca which...", and then believing such "facts" have any weight behind them. For such statements to have merit, they would require some means of internal regulation and consensus among those who identify as, in this case, Wiccan. The simple fact is that such internal regulation and consensus does not exist; even recent attempts to establish it have met with wide spread derision and claims of illegitimacy (i.e. "What give you the authority to establish such guidelines or principles?"). I'm not saying that such things need to be done, or that they would necessarily be positive; only that without some sort of authority or community consensus/regulation, discounting or trying to exclude individuals (or even groups) from being considered members of such "communities" is an impossibility. Mind, such attempts at separation within religions which do have centralized or common beliefs is still fallacious; in the case of Paganism (as much as we can speak about it) it is simply nonsensical. So when a representative of some Pagan group speaks to the media, how much authority do they have to even make such claims? If they are speaking for their own membership, of course they have such authority. If, however, they are speaking about Paganism as a whole, their authority is limited to their own definition and the inherent limitations of such a group.

So what does this have to do with anything?

As I said before responsibility and to be more specific, community responsibility. I'm not going to argue that lone nuts or fringe groups are imaginary, they do after all exist and are by their definition not indicative of a larger whole. What I do think is necessary, however, is that where an individual who is a member of a group does something dishonorable, rather than ignore the communities culpability in that individuals actions to first and foremost own it. Accept that someone who is a member of your community has acted in such a manner, rather than try to reverse engineer their membership into non-existence prior to their actions.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with explaining that such dishonorable action is not condoned by the community, or that the member by doing so has even disqualified themselves from their existing membership or will be made to restore their honour before being trusted again (if at all possible). What this does is to allow a community to act with integrity and avoid self deception, and portray itself as honorable in spite of the actions of individual members. It also allows for members to review existing positions, rules, etc. and see if they had any causal influence on the member in questions actions. Of course, for something like this to happen, there actually needs to be a community who has the ability to self regulate. In the case of communities which exist through little more than self identification, more care is needed when qualifying statements about any who fall outside the representative making the claims, authority.

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