Ethics and Scale: Punish or Discipline?

Freud's diagrams from 'The Ego and the Id' (1923)
Freud’s diagrams from ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I blame a lot of warped thinking on monotheism. It’s very blamable. You want all the power, you take all the blame – and monotheism has caterwauled for all the power as long as I’ve been alive.

But in this case, I can’t blame monotheism. Human ego, definitely. Excess privilege, probably.

The conflicts I’ve dealt with in the past year, possibly the past two years, have all involved someone doing something less than perfectly – and those who decided it was their job to hold that person accountable clamoring for punishment.

That’s the process as most of us have learned it. The problem is that every self-appointed officer of the invisible law only understood the metaphorical equivalent of the electric chair. Heads rolling. Hands cut off. Loaves of bread inserted … OK, stopping there. Part of this is the high people get from drama. It’s fun to say “heads will roll!” We don’t really feel that way – even though we insist upon it. It’s just fun to see some drama and destruction. It feeds our egos and helps us down that cocaine-like anger high that makes us feel oh so very smart as we become progressively more idiotic.

A sense of ethical scale has somehow completely disappeared. It’s prison or nothing, the death penalty or getting off free. Fire them! Shut it down! Just give up!

These are not workable extremes. Most are actually pretty fucking childish to ask for unless there really is a dead body lying on the ground or a reason to request a rape kit.

One of the more workable aspects of the US justice system is the concept of a punishment proportional to the crime. But it’s also not workable: punishment often just produces more aggression. Discipline, correction, re-teaching – those all consistently work better and do not wind up creating harshly drawn characters whose only skill set involves felonies. These methods are also less gratifying, especially when you’re riding an anger high.

This is also why I keep pounding that Paganism IS NOT ONE SINGLE RELIGION. IT IS HUNDREDS OF RELIGIONS, POSSIBLY THOUSANDS. When we’re dealing with the “Pagan community” we’re dealing with a (growing) sample of individuals who have self-selected to be part of a very roughly centralized community – centralized only by our willingness to communicate with one another. Druids, Wiccans, Norse worshippers, traditional witches – we form what we call the Pagan community. The Pagan community is not the whole of Paganism. Each one of these traditions named has their own way of handling things. But when say a Druid and an Asatruar decide to work together on a project the question becomes what – or whose – ethical rules apply?

So what do you do in a subculture that doesn’t have an enforcement system because it refuses to have any form of centralized authority?

There’s what I’ve learned to do, which is not the same as what others might do. Meting out punishment is not on this list. Focusing on the big picture is.

1. Encourage others to own their shit, usually by blogging about it. This usually falls on deaf ears/uncreceptive eyeballs – it’s easier to feel pious and superior when you’ve made yourself out to be the victim. Alas, on a social level, there are rarely single-victim crimes. Also, those that scream the loudest about being offended are almost always the ones to perpetrate the most heinous behaviors while shrieking their victimhood. It’s really quite tired. If such behavior is new in my experience with a person, I hear it out and consider past behaviors or conflicts I’ve witnessed. If it’s not, I weigh this particular ego stampede against what we’ve managed to accomplish together. If nearing accomplishment comes paired with said stampede (happens often) I move on.

2. Consider the Big Picture. What are ALL the consequences of a given action? Often enough, it’s better to let something faulty continue to run and make repairs then it is to just trash it altogether. This is especially the case if there’s no one else available to make a given vehicle move. Now if that particular vehicle drives into a wall and ends up taking out an entire fleet of vehicles, then it needs a shutdown. This very rarely happens. In a more gentle phrasing, to paraphrase Julia Cameron, “the ideas come after the work has begun.”

3. Own my shit. I do see a therapist. I choose spirituality to help me with my issues. You might choose something else that works for you, that lets you forget the whole “Who am I” and just be in it without any concern for your identity. I do spend a lot of time doing what I can not just to park my ego – but to watch where I’ve parked it. It’s a lifelong process.

4. Bring up issues not in reference to yourself but in reference to the project at hand.

5. Never, ever dismiss persistent conflict as a “personality conflict.” Personality conflicts are real communication problems. The people do not need to like each other – but they sure as hell better either agree on a common goal or at least on a task division that both are willing and able to fulfill while parking egos about how the other person does his/her job. In Pagan culture, almost no one gets paid, so performance reviews are well nigh pointless.

So what happens when someone does deserve consequences, social or legal? That, my friends is another blog post, for another time.

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