In any field, you will find those who are outstanding. These are the Doers; people that believe in getting things done, and they go out there and they do those things. They work, they rally, they talk to people, they knock on doors, they practice, they experiment, and they dare. Sometimes they stick their foot in it and sometimes they fall on their faces. This is, I think, the most important element of Pagan leadership; that willingness to stand up in the field. And then there are people who seem to have made it their personal mission in life to be a lawnmower. Rather than spending effort on doing things themselves, they appear to be called to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to break down what other people build up, and it seems as though they’d really rather that nobody ever succeeded at doing anything. I call these folks the Don’ters. Why do these people do what they do? Where do they come from? What purpose do they serve? Why is it that some people feel the need to tear other people down rather than build them up? I never did understand it as a child. So I’ve read a lot of books on the subject, and I’ve done a little psychology study, and I’ve had some personal experiences in my years of non-profit societies, religious organizations and community-building that have given me ample opportunity to learn about the phenomenon first-hand. I’ve got some theories.
Understanding the Psychology of a Don’ter
Don’ters do not want you to succeed. The question is, why not? What is it that they have against you, or what you’re trying to do, that drives them to undermine, criticize and demean your efforts, or perhaps even you as a person, if they think that might be a weak point in your armor? I think they fall into a few general types:
Some of them think they’re doing you or the world a favor. They genuinely believe that if your idea or theory – or your self-esteem and character – cannot stand up to “criticism” (read: abuse), then it isn’t strong enough to hold water and so it should be abandoned. They sometimes call themselves “deconstructionists,” or occasionally “tricksters” (and yes, that’s the role of the Trickster, but the difference is in how far they will go and to what end they’re working). Or perhaps they think they know better than you do. Their theory is so much more sound than yours; they are better educated than you are; it didn’t work when they did it, so the whole idea is a failure; they are so much smarter than you; etc. Some of them are just pessimists and they think they’re saving you from a fall by teaching you to “be realistic.” These people genuinely believe they are helping you, or helping the world. They are trying to do you a favor, and they are very frustrating because they don’t understand why their “help” isn’t appreciated.
Some people are discouraged by the failures in their own lives and so they cannot stand to see others succeed in ways they did not. You’ve heard this theory before, I’m sure; the psychology of the school bully, perhaps. They bring others down to make themselves feel better. Closely related to this is the attention-seeker who wants to be noticed, and so rather than create something of importance themselves, they make a career out of being the Official Opposition (which is what the minority party that comes in second place in our elections – yes, we Canadians have more than two – is called). I call these people the “Deluminators” because either they are trying to extinguish your light or take it for themselves. In the first case, they really are out to get you, because if you succeed, and they didn’t, then they have no excuse for not succeeding, and (they believe) it calls into question their worthiness as human beings (what have you got that they don’t?). In the second case, they really don’t care if you succeed or not, but since they’ll create a nice big stink and explosion by harassing you, they’re going to keep doing so; and the bigger the stink and explosion, the better they like it.
Some of them are simply invested in opposing your idea because they view it as a threat to their ideas. For instance, there are a plethora of Pagans who are morally opposed to any form of organization because they are committed anarchists. For another example, there are those who are working towards greater acceptance of Paganism in the overculture who are therefore opposed to anything that takes Paganism any more outside of the mainstream than the personal practices they support – so magick-practitioners, hard polytheists, sex-positive groups, polyamorists, LGBTQ Pagans, pop-culture magicians and herbalists who use entheogens have all been the targets of such opposition (to name but a few). Some are afraid of, and threatened by, things they don’t understand. Some have much less pure motivations; they might be opposed to your group because they want to be the only group in the area, or they think you get too much attention and they want some! “Majority” factions, or the founders of any group, are often targets for this incarnation of the Don’ter. In any case, the Crusaders demonize you. They tell anyone who will listen how awful and horrible you and your group are. They swear that their opposition is based in righteousness and “concern for the community.” They waste no time or opportunity in listing your faults for anyone who will listen, some of which are likely to be gross misunderstandings or outright lies. Many of them genuinely believe they’re doing the Right Thing. But my choice of the word “Crusader” is no accident.
Some people just don’t want anything to happen if they’re not in complete control of it. They might think your idea or group would be great – as long as they were running it, so they could make sure to make everything happen just the way they want. The Control-Freaks often manifest as Antagonists in the Church; they want to run the show and so they are going to do their best to undermine, stagnate and stalemate everything you do – and you personally – until they get what they want. Often in systems without overt leadership, they assert covert leadership, in which they manipulate the group into doing what they want but never have to take responsibility for their decisions. These people are the natural enemy of consensus-run groups and must be guarded against vigilantly.
And some are simply Sadists. They like to hurt other people and bring them down for no better reason than it gives them a charge to do so. Their self-worth is based on conquests and on the defeat and preferably shaming of other people. I would like to believe that these people are a small minority, but I have met enough of them to know that sooner or later, if you’re doing something that matters, you’re going to attract one. They come like moths to a flame.
StrategiesObviously Don’ters are the enemy of any enterprise. You can’t get things done without belief, and it helps to have the support of others as well. Don’ters, even the ones with the best of intentions, undermine our efforts. They damage confidence – either others’ confidence in us or our cause, or worst of all, our confidence in ourselves and our ability to accomplish things. Even the ones who are “just trying to help” are a constant drain on resources, as we must pour more and more energy into the black hole of their pessimism in order to sustain our determination. Furthermore, they are as inevitable as time. Sooner or later – especially if what you’re doing makes a difference! – you will draw them to you. You should consider their appearance as a positive sign; it means that what you are doing matters.
“Don’t Feed the Trolls!”
I am sure your mother told you that if you ignore them, they will go away. If a Don’ter is loud and obnoxious, but not part of your group, the best possible thing you can do is honestly to ignore them. Attention-seekers do the things that give them the most attention. If they don’t get attention from you, eventually they will find something else to do. I realize this is much harder than it sounds. These types are usually the most annoying because they are the most likely to be the ones grossly misinterpreting what you said (which they often do deliberately) or telling outright lies. It’s difficult not to get your feathers ruffled and take people to task. But that’s exactly what they want of you. They want to have someone to attack, and they want you to be on the defensive, reacting rather than acting. You really don’t have any obligation to read every email or forum post that someone says in response to you, nor answer every phone call, nor associate with people who treat you poorly. Better yet, avoid people who are critics or gossip-mongers entirely, even if you agree with them, because sooner or later they will turn that barbed tongue on you. Ignore them, and do it pointedly. Yes, they will successfully bend the opinions of some who don’t know you against you before you’re given a chance. Seriously, do you actually care what such a foolish and judgmental person, who would base their opinion of you entirely on hearsay, thinks anyway? Think of it as a natural filtration system to strain out people you’re better off not knowing.
“Drive Your Enemies Before You”
On the other hand, if a Don’ter is part of your group, look immediately to this marvelous essay on “How to Prevent Your Coven from Being Destroyed” and get rid of that person as fast as possible. Do not have pity; do not give the Troll the benefit of the doubt. A Don’ter in a group is like a bad apple; her rot will infest the rest of the barrel. Or his pessimism and lethargy will be like a lead weight around the group ankle. Ruthlessly cut her loose as soon as possible, especially if you’re in charge. Don’t let the criticisms of “Gestapo tactics” or the like sway you. A scorned Don’ter is just like a child throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. Tell him to suck it up and take a hike. As Pagans, we try to be inclusive, but it’s not your obligation to put up with people who are being jerks.
“The Better Part of Valor”
Sometimes you can’t win. If a group is already poisoned against you, or if a Don’ter is in charge, just leave. There’s no point in continuing to expose yourself to their toxins, and this holds true in jobs, families, friendships, relationships, social or religious groups. Get away from the poison and preserve your self-esteem and your self-respect.
“Do Nothing Which is of No Use”
Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into pointless, circular arguments. If you’ve already made a point but the Don’ter insists upon misunderstanding it or missing it entirely, don’t bother to repeat yourself. It’s obvious they’re not listening anyway. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t clarify for someone who is legitimately confused and trying to understand, but there is a certain Perry Mason tactic (“isn’t it true, Ms. Aradia, that . . . ?”) that you should refuse to play with. This isn’t a court of law; and even if it were, that’s called “badgering the witness” and real-life lawyers aren’t allowed to do it. You ever hear that old saying that sometimes, when you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s hard to remember that the original goal was to drain the swamp? Don’t be distracted.
“Never Wrestle with Pigs”
Don’t allow triggering watchwords to inflame you, either. People use these for the same reasons that some people throw crockery in domestic quarrels; they are intended to make you angry and provoke an emotional reaction so that you will be off-balance, or they are intended to threaten you so you will acquiesce to their will. The Pagan blogosphere tends to view certain words, such as “patriarchal” and “capitalist” as swear words; we fear that getting a reputation as being a supporter of either of these will be as damaging in the Pagan community as allowing an accusation of being a “warlock” to go unchallenged used to be. The best way to deal with such tactics is usually to refuse to engage, and let your statements speak for themselves.
“In Death-Ground, Fight!”
Sometimes a Don’ter wants you to be silent. Most often these are the ones who work in secret, spreading rumors, insulting you (but never to your face!), and telling people who truly are in a position to harm you insidious lies. Then you must speak out and denounce the Don’ter loudly and publically. You have nothing to lose; all is lost anyway if you allow it to continue.
“Let Naught Stop You Nor Turn You Aside”
Above all, remember what you got into this for! Don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you set out to do. Don’t crawl back under your rock just because somebody wants you to, and don’t waste all of your energy arguing with naysayers when you could be spending your energy working at your goal. Sometimes, the Witches’ Pyramid is best: “To Know, to Dare, to Will, to Keep Silent.” After all, if you wait by the river long enough . . . Doreen Valiente said it best when she wrote in her Charge of the Goddess: “Keep pure your highest ideal; strive ever towards it; let naught stop you nor turn you aside.”
Next column: Changing Consciousness According to Will