23 September 2019

Our Community Has a Power Structure Problem

This post is going to be a soapbox speech about something that’s bothered me about the Pagan/Magickal/Occult community for a long time - how our traditional power structures are ripe for abuse.  Feel free to skip it if it’s triggering, but otherwise please give this some thought.  We’ll be back to our regular witchy shenanigans next post.

I’ve been an active member of the greater Pagan/Magickal community for about twenty years now and I’ve seen some shit.  I’ve been part of groups large and small, functional and totally whacked.  I’ve seen groups rise and fall, and the fall is almost always as the result of people behaving badly.  The very secrecy, mysticism, and exclusivity that can make a group feel “special” are the traits that make our community so very susceptible to abuse of power - and boy do a few bad apples take advantage of that.

A lot of Pagan/Magickal communities base their structures either on hierarchical lodges/covens or psuedo-equal communes.  The former tends to raise leadership into cults of personality, while the latter can lead to extreme group think.  Hierarchical groups are particularly susceptible to manipulating followers into doing the bidding of the leaders by promising power or secret knowledge if they “go just one more step.”  This can be as simple as acting against one’s better judgement or go so far as fiscal, sexual, or physical abuse.  Pseudo-communal groups look like each member is supposed to be equal, but almost always have a core council or “in group” that really controls the group mind and can exert extreme pressure on members to conform in toxic ways.  I’ve seen this result in members being pressured into sexual situations with which they were not comfortable or truly consenting.  The lack of transparency in the inner workings of communities can shield potential abusers.  Further, the mysticism that elevates leadership (particularly the priesthood) during sacred ritual can give those leaders a sense of power and - for lack of a better word - holiness during regular hours that they can abuse.  It’s shocking what the vulnerable can be manipulated into doing with the promise of “belonging” or being made to feel special or “chosen.” 

One of the greatest strengths of our communities are that they are (or should be) welcoming to people that are not readily accepted in the mainstream.  This means that a lot of the people entering our communities are particularly vulnerable to predators that can, at first, make them feel good about themselves.  (There’s a big “senpai noticed me” vibe when it comes to being singled out by leadership in a lot of our communities.)  It is a sad fact that victims of abuse and manipulation are often extremely vulnerable to those presenting themselves as saviors.  A lot of predators in our communities are very good at looking like they’re empowering people while actually grooming them for manipulation.  Our failure to protect our most vulnerable members from predation is the greatest failure of Pagan/Magickal communities. 

While the great majority of Pagan/Magickal leaders have the best of intentions, those that don’t really ruin things for everybody.  The problem is that it’s hard to tell at a glance whether a leader is genuine or problematic.  A person can have good ideas and be a predator.  A person can be a great writer and be a predator.  A person can be a great ritualist and performer and be a predator.  A person can be magickally potent and be a predator.  This means that individuals MUST practice good judgment and use their common sense at all times.  Just because the leader “says so” is not a good reason to do something, nor is “everyone in the group does ‘X’.”  It is also important to remember that misuse of power is a spectrum that runs from minor issues (like making people feel pressured but not compelled to agree with the leader) all the way to full on felonies.  Leadership that starts with minor infractions can escalate the more they get away with the little things.  Even leadership that begins well intentioned can become corrupt as more power is given to them.  Of course, it’s also possible for community members to abuse their leadership - making transparency even more important.  It is imperative that community members are aware of the behavior of their leadership and fellow community members and hold everyone to the same standards of conduct.  Clearly established and enforced boundaries are good for everybody.  

The big difference between a mostly functional and a problematic community is boundaries - does everyone know them, are they enforced, and are they enforced equally.  Well established and respected boundaries are a critical part of any relationship and are even more important when the relationship involves a group.  Get multiple people in a group and you will always have multiple opinions on just about everything.  Knowing what conduct is expected and what is discouraged or forbidden is critical.  Make sure everybody knows what’s expected of them up front and make sure everybody actually behaves themselves.  No blaming the victim, no exceptions for your favorites.  Actions have consequences.  This is kindergarten people.  Sure, some rules are badly written but you should see all of them before you’re expected to abide by them and be given a chance to air your concerns.  Healthy boundaries are what allow different people to interact with each other peacefully.  In a perfect world everyone would be sincere and guided by their best selves to behave well.  We do not like in a perfect world, thus we need boundaries.

The Pagan/Magickal community needs to do better in protecting our members from the abuse of power.  We need clear boundaries that are actually and equally enforced.  We need transparency in our processes.  We really need to stop establishing cults of personality around every person that can perform a decent ritual or write a semi-coherent blog post.  Individually, we all need to exercise discernment and common sense in our own behaviors.  It’s time for the community to step up and take responsibility for our weaknesses and actually do better.  There is way too much appalling behavior being permitted out there and it’s eroding the entire community from within.  We need to do better.

A few resources:
Characteristics of a Cult
Seven Signs You’re In a Cult
Warning Signs of Cults and Dangerous Leaders
Psychology of Cults
Signs of an Abusive Relationship

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