Seekers and Guides: How to Recognize an Antagonist

Waving the Red Flag by Julie Gentry (public domain image).
Waving the Red Flag by Julie Gentry (public domain image).

Antagonists, who brew destructive conflict, are a plague upon any religious group.  In my last article I detailed what an Antagonist is and the characteristics that define them.  In this article I’m going to lay out the various ways in which you can identify Antagonists.  Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

The bulk of my work in these articles is drawn from Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk’s excellent book Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict.  Dr. Haugk, himself a pastor and a clinical psychologist, has written his book to address Christian congregations specifically, but his work applies equally to any group, particularly religious or philosophical ones.

Red Flags

Haugk lists a number of identifying characteristics of Antagonists that he calls “Red Flags.”  While not all people who wave the red flags are Antagonists, most Antagonists do wave around these flags, and they almost always wave several of them at once.  More often than not they wave them early, vigourously and proudly.  I list these as he does in his book with some modifications specifically with the Pagan community in mind, in descending order of severity.

Previous Track Record

The most clearly identifiable flag is a previous pattern of behaviour.  If someone is constantly involved in Witch Wars in any group they’re involved in, you can bet they’ll likely be a problem in yours; and people who have been problems in your tradition before will likely become problems again.

Parallel Track Record

If a person has been a problem in other groups, they might well become a problem in yours.  Perhaps you’ll hear about some problem this individual caused at work, the sci-fi convention or the medieval recreation group.  Often they’ll even brag about their Antagonistic behaviour in other groups, conveniently waving their red flag right under your nose.  You would think that Antagonists would keep such things quiet so they can remain undetected, but often their “grandiose natures,” as Haugk puts it, compel them to believe they’ll enjoy everyone’s wholehearted support, thoroughly convinced that nobody else could possibly disagree with them.

The major challenge in noting these first two red flags is the difficulty of determining who was “in the wrong” from an outsider’s point of view.  I think we Pagans find it especially difficult because many of us are outsiders in various ways, so we have a natural tendency to sympathize with the underdog.  As a result we tend to believe the “persecution narrative” that Antagonists present, and it’s almost impossible for us to distinguish, until it blows up in our faces, whether or not we’re being told the whole story.

Nameless Others

A personal pet peeve of mine.  Criticism is normal, expected, and important to effective leadership.  Even when the criticism is not valid, the fact that it was offered openly might indicate healthy trust.  However, when someone offers you criticism and indicates that “several others feel the same way,” that’s an immediate warning light.  Often the Antagonist has made up these “Nameless Others” from the ether in order to give “greater weight” to their opinion, validate their own feelings, or threaten you.  If they haven’t, the Nameless Others may be followers of the Antagonist.

Even if they do exist, that’s immaterial to the importance of this warning sign.  People who are not Antagonists don’t need to enlist “backup” from the beginning of the conversation; that already indicates that they are marshaling forces to create two sides (or have gathered in the “opposing camp.”)  If you’d like an acid test, respond by asking casually, “I’m sorry to hear that!  Who are these other people?”  Non-antagonists will likely give you a few names; Antagonists will more likely answer, “They came to me in the strictest of confidence.”

Predecessor-Downer

Be wary of people who begin their applications to join your group with tales about the awfulness of previous Pagan groups they’ve been involved in, especially if most of their complaints revolve around impuning the character of the previous group’s leadership.  If you happen to be in a situation in which you’re assuming the leadership of an existing Pagan group from a predecessor (less common in Paganism but still possible, particularly in Pagan non-profits) be equally wary of people who tell you how much better you are than your predecessor; especially if the remarks go to character rather than actions and behaviour.  Most people aren’t completely good or evil in their leadership, and while horror stories do exist, they are usually the exception rather than the rule.  Someone complimenting you on one hand and badmouthing someone else on the other is waving a blindingly bright red flag.

Instant Buddy

I’m really susceptible to this one because I’ve been an outsider for a long time, and I get lonely and I am eager for friendship and inclined to extend my trust until it’s proven that I shouldn’t have.  And it’s pretty common in the Pagan community too, so it can be hard to distinguish.  But be cautious of anyone who is too friendly too quickly.  These folks spend a lot of time with you probing you to get acquainted in a hurry (often swearing up and down that you two are just like peas in a pod, you have “so much in common!”) and immediately adopt you as “family by choice.”  But that friendliness will turn into contempt when the claws come out.

Gushing Praise

Anyone who is effusive with glowing praise that tells you how wonderful you are is likely to be equally effusive with the nastiness later.  Perhaps they have unrealistic expectations of you and are disappointed when you don’t meet them. It’s amazing how many people I’ve met who come looking for gurus, and even when you tell them not to expect perfection from you because sooner or later you will fall short, they insist on doing so.  Perhaps they grow jealous of the persona and image they’ve built up around you and they look for opportunities to deflate you.  I’ve become so paranoid of this that I even have difficulty accepting an honest compliment.  And don’t discount it as a warning sign even if they speak to everyone that way and it’s not just you; I made that mistake in recent years, much to my current chagrin.

“I Gotcha”

It can mean nothing but trouble when someone goes out of their way to catch you in an error or trip you up on technicalities.  For example, they may publicly ask you a question when you know they already know the answer, or they may deliberately read more into a statement than you clearly intended.  A particularly Pagan variation of this is the Lore-Nazi, who seeks to prove how much smarter they are than you by pointing out how many books (especially anthropological works) contradict your opinion or belief.  A variation people have recently noticed on the internet is the Concern Troll; I dealt with one of those in my comments section recently.  Another example might be asking minor sticky details about the specifics of an initiation; which subtly implies that it might not be valid because it might not have been done “properly.” These sorts of questions are intended to force you into an admission of error or a defensive response, not to find information.

Red Flag by Xoan Seone (public domain image).
Red Flag by Xoan Seone (public domain image).

Extraordinary Likability

Boy, have I ever been hoodwinked by this one, and more than once!  These people are so charming and accepting that you immediately feel comfortable around them, and see no reason to withhold anything in a relationship with them.  Even if situations happen around them, they seem to be so good-natured and harmless that others usually get blamed.  But your trust is misplaced.  Usually their betrayal is a complete surprise and is so wounding it may cause long-term damage.  Because you’ve trusted them with personal information you may never have trusted to anyone else they can wound you better than anyone you’ve ever known.  The best ones are so good at playing the “good guy” card that other people outside of the situation don’t believe you when your story and theirs differs, and you may even start to doubt yourself.

I know it’s a hard thing to be told to be suspicious of likable people.  I would like to distinguish here between someone you connect with right away, and people who are well-liked.  If you want to examine this further, watch out especially for people who are loved by absolutely everyone around you, except that there are several significant people from their past with whom they no longer speak.  And remember, this red flag needs to be accompanied by several others to bear close watching.

While not every Antagonist is mentally ill, it’s worth noting that psychopaths are often very popular and well-liked, and people are astounded and disbelieving when the truth of their nature comes out.  It’s one of the factors that contribute to victim-blaming.  The reason they are so charming is that they genuinely have no internal conflict or guilt to struggle with.  They absolutely believe they are the righteous party in any conflict, and we can sense their sincerity.  If you’ve been taken in by such a person you’re not a poor judge of character, but the quite normal instincts that tell you when people are engaged in wrongdoing have given you a false signal here.

Coven Hopper

Beware of a person who moves from coven to grove to tradition to community because they were dissatisfied with the other coveners, the High Priestess, or decisions made within the group.  Often they’ll loudly proclaim how hard they’ve struggled to find a good group or a proper leader, and finally they’ve come home!  You’re probably no more wonderful than any other leader who has “failed” them in the past.

Liar Liar

Beware of people who lie, especially if they lie habitually; even if it’s about something innocuous; even if it’s little white lies intended to spare someone’s feelings.  A common source of bovine feces in the Pagan community centers around imagined authority, experience, or special “chosen” status.  It might not seem that important that someone claims to have been a High Priest from the year they were first initiated into the Craft (which isn’t the same thing,) or that someone claims to be descended from an ancient order of Druid families back from the time of Brian Boru, but “flexible truth” is one of the warning signs of an Antagonist.

Aggressive Means

One of the warning signs of an Antagonist is using aggressive, extreme, unethical or combative means to accomplish their goals.  Examples I’ve recently seen include leaving a tradition completely over a personality conflict with one of its leaders (and later claiming to have never left); and publicly announcing a new tradition splitting off from an old tradition, but keeping all the same people and practices, in order to rid themselves of some “undesirables.”  Vicious language impeaching the character of another is a hallmark; as opposed to reasoned, careful statements in regards to a situation or a person’s stance on an issue.

Flashing $$$

This is less common in Paganism than in other religions, I think, since we rarely have churches that can receive large donations, but flashing money around conspicuously so that everyone can see how generous they are is a warning sign of Antagonists.  Pagans who engage in this tend to do it in more subtle ways.  For instance, the ritual is always at their house, which is immaculate and filled with expensive things, and perhaps a beautiful yard and a swimming pool.  Or maybe they always just provide the candles and the incense without asking anyone else to chip in (but find a way to point that out.)  Or maybe they buy beautiful robes for everyone in the coven.  It’s always nice to have a lovely place on private property to do ritual, and it’s always nice to have lovely things, but this person might try to “cash in” on their generosity later in order to manipulate a situation to their liking.  The risk of this is one of the reasons I believe that the financial burden of putting on events should be shared by everyone.

Note Taker

If someone is taking notes at Pagan movie night, the potluck after the ritual, or when someone offers an off-the-cuff opinion on a contentious issue, they are likely an Antagonist in the making.

Portfolio

Occasionally Antagonists make impressive portfolios to record “evidence” of their charges, and they often gather this paperwork long before any Antagonistic attack commences.  Much of it is filler but it looks intimidating.

Snark

Haugk calls this the “Kentron” flag (which means “stinger” or “goad.”)  This person consistently uses sarcasm, derision, or cutting language disguised as a joke.  They usually think they’re the height of wit.  So do others (unfortunately).  Please note that this differs significantly from affectionate teasing or even gentle satire.  This red flag is cruelty and sadism disguised as humour.

Different Drummer

I often call this the “rebel without a clue.”  We have more than our fair share of this sort of behaviour.  By definition Pagans are counter-cultural, so we often don’t see this troublemaking tactic for what it is.  This Antagonist goes against the established order for the sake of it.  If your tradition always calls quarters starting in the North, they’ll do it in the East.  If you always had the CUUPs meeting on Friday night, the Antagonist recently elected to organize that will change it to Tuesday night.  If the opening ceremony of the blot has always involved the sacrifice of a pig to be roasted and eaten, they’ll tell you they are vegans, they think sacrificing animals is cruel and wrong, and the newest historical research doesn’t support animal sacrifice among the Norse anyway.  The Different Drummer Antagonist is often proud of their independence, saying things like “I’ve never been a good follower” and “I guess I’m just not a good soldier.”  Their attitude is generally that rules are good for other people, but they’re not “other people.”  And of course we Pagans prize our individuality and our independence; but joining a group involves a certain degree of accepting the things that make the group what it is, so if it’s a trend, it’s a red flag.

Pest

Perhaps the persistent newbie with incessant questions, the Pagan who’s been around for a few years who constantly offers suggestions, or the covener who insists on calling every night just to chat for an hour is socially awkward and means well.  Gods know we have more than our fair share of “socially awkward!”  But it might indicate the kind of deep persistence that is the calling card of an Antagonist.

Cause (Crusader / Activist)

Okay, don’t get me wrong.  For many of us, activism is an important part of our faith (me included,) and obviously by itself, being an activist for a cause does not indicate an Antagonist.  Nevertheless there can be a correlation between those who promote causes and those who behave Antagonistically.  I guess the big question is how far a person is willing to go?  (See Aggressive Means).  And it likely means nothing unless several other red flags are also present.

School of Hard Knocks

Many successful people have had to fight their way through numerous obstacles and great adversity to get to where they are, and that’s worth respecting.  But a large number of Antagonists seem to be carved from this mold.  The ones most likely to be Antagonists tend to be inclined to flaunt these sorts of accomplishments conspicuously.  Again, it means nothing without other red flags.

Situational Loser

In any dispute there will be one side whose wish was realized, and another side whose wish was not.  It’s probably worth it to pay more attention for a while to the side that lost the argument because this is often a triggering event to unleash Antagonism.  It means nothing without other red flags, however.

Once again, I will note that one or two of these red flags probably mean little.  It’s only if several of them appear together that you should register concern.

Warning Signs of an Impending Attack

If you’ve been keeping your eye on people exhibiting a lot of these red flags and you see these signs, consider sounding the alarm:

Early Signs

A chill in the relationship: When a dormant Antagonist begins to change their behaviour towards you, such as not inviting you over for dinner on Friday when that’s been your custom for months, or not saying hello to you at the festival, or not showing up at the Esbat for a few months in a row; or perhaps suddenly speaking to you in ways that are sarcastic and condescending, that’s probably a signal that you should batten down the hatches.

Honeyed “concerns”: As Haugk says in his book, “I have a concern” may be a way of saying, “I am very angry,” and a person who practices red flag semaphore usually means that.  This first message is only the first move.

Nettlesome questions: The red-flag person starts asking a whole lot of picky and petty questions, hoping to catch you up or to engage in Concern Trolling.

Mobilizing Forces and Pot-Stirring: “To wage an effective campaign, an Antagonist must gather support and create discord, conflict and doubt.”  There are any number of ways to do this: calling just to “check some things out,” talking to other group leaders about a particular leader’s activities, whispering during rituals or over potluck, asking around if anyone else shares their “concerns” about the group or its leader(s).  They spread rumours that are full of destructive gossip which strategically attack key people.  They call unofficial meetings.  As a result of their activities others may also develop critical attitudes and be carried along in a tidal wave of discord.  The sheer numbers involved can make us seriously doubt our abilities and wonder if perhaps there is something wrong with us and our leadership.  It’s good to wonder this, but don’t be too introspective if the source is a red flag waver.

Meddling: Antagonists preparing for attack meddle in things that are not their concern.  One of the signs that caused me to hit the alarm button recently was that another leader in my tradition, who was in my upline, began asking me nettlesome questions about a dispute I had with a former student whose coven left the tradition in a huff. Since this person had never before asked me anything about how I was training my students or what I did within my coven, I saw it for what it was — the first stage in an attack.  And unfortunately I’d missed a lot of other warning signs, and a key connection between two Antagonists, so they’d had plenty of time to marshal their forces and sow discord.

Resistance: An Antagonist about to launch an attack will often throw a spanner in the works for the sake of gumming up the machinery.  They might openly deride the leadership or the group, or they might be conspicuously absent (and let everyone who will listen know why they were absent).

Red Flag Warning by Peter Griffin (public domain image).
Red Flag Warning by Peter Griffin (public domain image).

Later Warning Signs

No Antagonist behaves in the same way, but as the attack commences you’ll see many of these patterns:

Sloganeering: Antagonists use emotionally charged slogans to sow dissent, such as

  • “Lisa is a good witch, but she’s not good for our coven.”
  • “You’re a racist! (or gender-essentialist, or misogynist, or homophobe, etc.)”
  • “You’re too young to know what you’re doing.”
  • “You’re an old fossil!”
  • “You’re abusive.”
  • “You’re an Oathbreaker.”
  • “What kind of priestess would abandon her spiritual children?”

It’s amazing how often this is a case of projection in action.

Spying: An Antagonist might do everything from asking friends to check up on you to staking out your house. More commonly these days they might record all of your Facebook activity, or the times of day they can find you on Twitter.

Misquoting Scripture: You would think that this would be less of an issue in a faith-group that has no Holy Book, and obviously Haugk was speaking of misquoting the Bible to serve one’s own ends, but I have seen this surprisingly often in the Pagan community.  The most common form is to accuse someone of violating the Ardaynes or the Rede.  Another is to accuse someone of breaking the Nine Noble Virtues.  A really popular one is to use the Charge of the Goddess or the Book of the Law to justify horrible, unscrupulous behaviour.

“Judas Kissing”: An Antagonist often claims to be your friend, but they’re just “doing something they have to do.”  Or they are sweet as pie to your face and spread horrible gossip about you behind your back.  If you wonder why your friend would betray you so, just keep in mind that this person was never your friend.  For a time you were useful, and when you ceased to be useful they disposed of you.  I remind you once again that psychopaths are often so good at pretending to care about other people that no one has any idea that they don’t.

Smirking: Before I even knew what was going on, I knew something was up because I saw the Antagonist recently and she kept smirking at me through the whole last event we were at.  I doubt it was even conscious, but Antagonists stirring the pot often smirk when they think they’re winning.

Pestering: Antagonists will often call frequently on the phone, send numerous Facebook messages or linger around after the ritual so they can “just have a quick word with you.” One person I dealt with invited herself to a personal discussion I was having regarding setting up a group at someone’s home to talk with me about petty details related to another project.  Later on, when I was aware there was a dispute between us and called her on it, she informed me that she would be showing up to pick me up from work “so that we could talk.” I declined the invitation.

Writing Messages and Posts: Antagonists frequently send letters, messages and other communications.  Dr. Haugk recommends responding with a brief “thank you for your concern” letter at first.  He recommends against responding to them by refuting their accusations point by point, which serves only as fuel for the fire.  I tried refuting rumours by turning a spotlight on them, only to have people get angry at me for “making a private matter public.”  I think the best solution for this sort of thing is to ignore it entirely if possible; though of course it’s not always possible.

Pretense: Antagonists portray themselves as the underdog, garnering public sympathy and rallying opposition against you.  This is unusually effective in the Pagan community, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned.

Lobbying: Antagonists lobby small groups within the larger group to create doubt about one or more leaders.  New members are particularly vulnerable to this.

As a final, personal note: not everyone who opposes you is an Antagonist.  It’s generally the ones who leave you with a sense of perplexity and confusion; a feeling that their attack was entirely unfounded and completely out of nowhere.  When you’re on opposite sides of an issue and disputing it, usually you can kind-of see the opponent’s point, even if you disagree with it.  Another hallmark is the personal nature of the attack.  Antagonists will attack you and your character personally; but even the most hot-headed opponents in dispute over an issue will argue against your actions or behaviour, not your character.  Finally, the dispute will suddenly be puffed up to become a mountain when it was a molehill.

Now that you know what to look for, perhaps you’ve started to recognize Antagonists in your life, past and present.  So how do you deal with them?

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