One of the knottiest areas of human interaction involves a game I’ve come to think of as “where’s the line?” At what point do you strike the perfect balance between respecting the freedom of others to make their own decisions, and defining your own boundaries so that you can live harmoniously with the inevitable differences that surround you?
The whole of politics from petty office gossip to elections that end in violent coups tell the story of this struggle. Who has the power? Who has what right to tell me what to do? Without someone to say “do this?” what crucial things, like road repair, might never get done? Without the basic right to say “no,” I risk having situations where my body, soul, health and anything that passes for property winds up for grabs. At the same time, others have the basic right to insist on a fair exchange of energy themselves: I can’t just go driving off with your car, take the stuff in your shop without paying for it, or do things to your body without your explicit consent.
The whole “free will” perspective of Wicca itself runs into limits that make this difficult because of the authoritative structures of some traditions/covens. While personal sovereignty is an ethic to discuss on its own right now what I’m discussing is social contract. This is the world beyond coven, or family, or partner: what agreements are we bound to keep, and what are we, on a social level, owed?
What right do we have to expect another person to conform to our ethics at all? Technically, none. Yet without some semblance of similarity in ethos, civilization doesn’t break down so much as it reduces all back to our tribal natures. As a person who prefers to see the world lose the tribal and gain the universe, I really want to see some minimal set of rules used as a modus operandi. The ten commandments popular among Abrahamists is the moral list that first comes to mind; personally, I think it’s too long, and could be reduced to “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t rape, tell the truth, keep your promises.” The rest always seemed excess politics to me, from telling you who you were allowed to pray to to how you were to conduct your marriage. I’d love to talk about this without referencing Abrahamic tradition, but it’s the West, so that’s what we all more or less know to establish a frame of reference for this discussion.
In Wicca, especially, we often look to “harm none.” It sounds simple, fits on a bumper sticker, seems like a lovely idea.
What’s harm? Who’s none? Did they mean “nun?” What the hell did the nun do?
Why the precise word “harm?” Why the precise word “none?”
And what about someone who wants to harm us? Sitting there and taking it goes against a lot more than ethics – evolution gave us a menu of fight or flight for a reason. What about a person harming themselves? Ah, that last one especially is where the ethical flow charts matter.
In Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz book series, I think in the Marvelous Land of Oz, he sends Dorothy on a tour of the land of the Fuss Budgets. Every person who lived in that land began every thought and statement with “What if…?” and followed it with an escalating, wild, ridiculously limiting fear. It led to people who did nothing but walk in circles, fussing over things that might never come to pass or over which they had little control in the first place. If you spend too much time concerning yourself with who you might harm, how you might get harmed, what might harm you… you render yourself inert. Arguably, you end up harming yourself.
Once you are born onto this earth, you are going to do harm. When you touch ANYTHING, set your foot down, inhale, you squash an amoeba, you consume a life, you make an impact. Ambulant life feeds on life – if you move, you must consume something living in order to continue living yourself. There’s a good chance that what you consume has objections to being eaten, even plants for those who, like me, subscribe to theories of plant sentience. ((I have no objections to going vegan or vegetarian. Most aren’t even obnoxious about it anymore.)) I’m sure my daily salad at lunch probably does take it personally, as does any cow, chicken or fish I consume. It is personal – I can’t live without consuming that life. I can’t live without them. When I consume these lives, they literally become part of my life. It’s bad for the gazelle (or aragula, or chicken cutlet) and great for the tiger. Plants can feed on life, and also feed on life after it dies – fertilizer often consists of old plants, old animals – you know, the stuff of organic matter.
I’ve heard it said about other situations, and it can be said of harm none: “Oh, that’s really an ideal. We don’t really expect you to achieve it.” Something about that makes me cringe, but that is how this whole harm none thing can play out, especially when interacting with others, especially others who do not share your worldview, or your ethics about not harming anyone.
In the process of keeping to that unachievable ideal, I also must take into account how asking others to conform to my expectations or standards is in fact a form of harm. This is often negotiated by the social, or a literal contract: if I’ve taken a job, and I agree to take money for services, then I am also signing up for instructions on how to go about earning that money. I am, in exchange for payment, giving that person some right to tell me what to do. Yet in some cases – and this actually happens – the employer wants more than just the time I’m paid for. Some employers want a say in where I go in my off hours, who sees me, who I sleep with – even where and whether I go to church. To the employer, it’s at least justified as “rightness” – a need for “moral” employees, or a justification that employees “represent” a company 24/7, even employees that do not interface with the press.
The first half, where I behave a certain way for a certain period of time in order to get a paycheck to me seems reasonable – part of the social contract. But the second half, where I’m expected to conform my life and represent the company for 168 hours a week in exchange for my 40-60 hours a week work and 40 hours a week pay, that does not seem reasonable to me AT ALL. It’s the company, or my boss, royally overstepping the social contract and expecting me to conform my life to his/her wishes. It’s going into place that a person has no right to go.
Most of the time, I take it down to a question of who is harmed, with a distinction between hurt and harm. Harm qualifies as permanent damage: you’re not getting your life back, the money that was stolen, your leg unbroken. Hurt is temporary, used only to get attention/send a warning a signal and is NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES A HABIT OR INTENDED TO DOMINATE. HITTING SOMEONE TO DEMONSTRATE POWER OVER THAT PERSON, OR USING VERBAL VIOLENCE, IS A FORM OF ABUSE AND IS HARM, NOT HURT – THERE IS A DISTINCTION. I’ve smacked a man upside the head for trying to look down my shirt. (I’m Wiccan, not pacifist.) I don’t go around smacking him repeatedly until it becomes psychological trauma – that would be harm. But I’m also not going to just sit there telling myself to be good while he violates my person and dignity. Yes, I hurt him. I did not do harm. I have never had reason to smack that man again. There were a few males that got off on that, but that’s a whole consensual/kink thing that doesn’t really fit here. I have also been told the fatal, “I’m not into you.” It hurt me, but it was not harm – and in fact the best thing to do for the situation was to hurt me that way. Hurt feelings recover as long as we learn to distinguish between feeling bad and any sense of entitlement we may have.
This is what I did to someone else. This is what someone else did to me. This was the social contract, functioning in its way – I had to protect my boundary, and the person not interested in me (this was a LONG time ago) had to protect his. These are small negotiations, part of the daily dialogue/negotiation that comes from participating in culture, interacting with people.
But I’ve also had some BIG what are your rights versus what are my rights situations that have landed on me. For these examples, I am drawing from my experiences with death, and with addicts.
First, when my grandmother died. She was clear with EVERY grandchild and child that if she had a stroke and went into a vegetable state, there would be no “heroic methods.” She promised to haunt the ass of anyone who plugged in a machine on her. As things worked out, she did have a stroke, and I was called to her bedside. ((across three states and with considerable financial loss because of it)) She stayed alive off the machine until I was able to visit her bedside. Although I don’t think we were that close from looking back on our relationship – it was a lot of her telling me what to think and me ignoring her, the same as I do with my mother – there was a powerful moment involving my extra senses and ability to communicate. I was able to connect with my grandmother’s soul, and watch her body on the bed. At the time I did not understand the motions of a dying body, and I didn’t learn those details until my father died. Also, my grandmother, after years of farm life, abuse survival, nursing, breaking kneecaps twice and regaining her mobility 100% in an age where it wasn’t considered possible and apparently taking a LOT of vitamins, had a strong freakin’ body to leave behind. She’s been off any kind of life support for almost 72 hours by the time I got there, and dehydration hadn’t even caught her. The body moved, some looked deliberate, it still made noises, she was still active. But I could smell the death process, although I didn’t know that’s what I smelled at the time.
My sister asked me for a report as soon as I got back to my parents’ house about my grandmother’s condition. I told her that the body was still moving – and she jumped on that before I could finish by saying that the spirit was still right next to the body and quite firm in its original decision – and started carrying on about how we “need to get her on life support RIGHT NOW.” My grandmother wanted to die. She expressed her feelings clearly about it several times before her death, and pretty clearly to me during (although what I could have done about it surrounded as I was by a family that has no respect for me, if they changed their minds, I don’t know.) I reminded my sister how clear she was about her wishes, but my sister tended to draw from her emotions without much empathy or consideration for others was ready to raise a BIG fuss. Thankfully, neither of us had Power of Attorney, and she passed away before anyone could create further drama.
The moral dilemma here was a common one: this was my grandmother’s body, her health, her life. She made it clear that it was HER decision, and after living a life where people often did their damnedest to help themselves to her decisions, death was going to be HER way and no one else’s. My sister, and possibly some other family members, were convinced it was wrong and felt her decision was very MUCH their business.
I stood on the side of my grandmother. Some of us go on about the right to life, and I think that “right” is questionable just because of the way life functions. Life can’t be artificially created, but it can be artificially extended. My grandmother didn’t make this decision when she was depressed. It was not a symptom of clinical depression, nor was it clinical depression’s final symptom, suicide. She was a nurse, with a reverence for life if not for human dignity. She fully understood what she was doing and why she was doing it.
I believed in honoring her wishes. Her death did not harm my life, and grief happens on its own terms – extending her life would have only led to a different form of grieving.
The next situation where this came to pass was when my father developed leukemia. This, I’m not ready to talk about quite yet, but again it came down to his wishes versus their very real impact on his family. His decision had greater consequences than my grandmother’s, and I hope to write about it with considerable thought in a few years. It’s not quite time yet, and not just because I have finally moved out of grieving for him.
The third situation is actually one that has crossed my path frequently, and one that is always more complicated than After School Specials made it out to be: addiction. First, addiction is always, ALWAYS paired with denial, so if you are an addict something insanely stupid has to happen to wake you up. But if you’re around an addict, you also run into an issue: you must, once you recognize you’re associating with an addict, determine exactly how much and what kind of shit you’re going to tolerate.
In my case, both run-ins involved alcoholics. The easy way to tell an alcoholic: take the person somewhere fun that does not serve alcohol. If the person starts complaining because a drink is unavailable, you’ve got an alcoholic. I have yet to see this diagnostic fail.
It’s not actually the alcoholism or liver damage that bothers me. The US does not have social healthcare, and the strain that fat people, criminals and welfare recipients put on it is a myth. ((Just read the whole blog behind this link. Really. Most “research” on these subjects is in the same vein as the stuff from the 1850s-1970s “proving” African Americans had lower IQs. No, fat people do NOT damage the environment. Nor do most of us sit on our asses playing video games or eating ice cream.))
Your own body is yours – I may privately object to some things you do with it, and I may cringe at how you treat it, but what you do and how you live in yourself is your decision and yours alone. To use excuses such as “concern about your health” is just dominance and shittery masked as “virtue.” I hope, most days, I’m too honest for that crap. If you want to drink yourself into cirrhossis that is your choice – you and I will both know you’re not doing it as an expression of happiness, but unless you’re buying the booze with my money, it’s not my business.
However, when it comes to what a person does or might do to others while drunk, I think I damn well do have a say in what another person does. A person who is a happy drunk, who just swills the beverage and keeps the silly to him or herself, that’s fine. If that person also hands off the car keys while swilling, it’s totally fine. That’s a “oh, you’re drinking and it’s none of my business.” That said, if you do something mean, obnoxious or invasive when you are drunk, you are just as accountable as if you are sober. Drunk is not a valid excuse, because it’s always something you wanted to do before you got drinking, and used the drink as an excuse. That’s just disrespectful to the people around you and to the artistry behind the alcohol. I enjoy a good drink – not being drunk.
If you get drunk and do things to others, and I somehow have to deal with the consequences 0r worse get stuck babysitting you or trying to prevent even worse consequences, then I damn well do have a say in your behavior. It’s not what you’re doing to yourself that I care about – your body is yours. But what you do to others while you’re damaging your body matters a lot.
The first time I confronted this “I’m drunk and don’t care who I hurt!” insanity was when I was in college. My acquaintance Scott knocked on my door at 2:30 in the morning, his car keys in hand, bombed out of his mind and wanting to drive to the Burger King. While I wouldn’t have missed Scott terribly if he’d taken himself out that way – his treatment of me was usually fine, but of women in general was pretty crappy – I knew if I let him go out that door, he might actually kill someone, especially since he refused to let me (or any other woman) drive. I eventually woke up Scott’s roommate and he, being better at drunk person than I was, got Scott distracted from his attempt to drunkenly murder any unfortunates in his path. I was never happy with how casually my friends treated the situation – Scott could have actually killed someone, and in terms of what your’e not allowed to do to others, killing someone because you’re drunk and selfish is extremely high on the list of “very bad things.”
I still get twitchy when people insist on drinking and driving. I don’t think you have any business behind the wheel unless your bloodstream is 100% clean of alcohol. I think the lives of those who cross my path are that important. Even the lives of people I don’t like. I realize that sometimes, this isn’t possible – but it still makes me nuts.
Later on, after I transferred schools, I dated an alcoholic. He liked to use his drunkenness as an excuse to start “play fights.” He also refused to go to coffee shops or the dry casino, because it made him feel like he was “on the wagon.” His behavior was embarrassing, but I could ignore it (or quietly disappear) until he started doing things that violated my boundaries and that violated the boundaries of others. One night, I asked him to get me some lemonade because I wanted to sober up and still had a nasty taste in my mouth. He had the lemonade spiked – he was so obsessed with the “status” of alcohol that he wanted to keep me drinking after I clearly told him I didn’t want to be drunk anymore. Since there’s a point where alcohol consumption turns into alcohol poisoning, I see what he did as an attempt to harm me for his own amusement/gratification. On another occasion, he literally chased a bouncer around the floor trying to engage him in a “play fight.” He was harassing a man in his workplace with his drunken antics.
Since then, I’ve been around a drunk who likes to pretend he’s not violent – and then drink rum (or something else) and go on long verbally abusive rants about how the whole world sucks, threaten to kill pets and scream at people for imagined offenses. He justifies the behavior while he’s sober because he “really feels that way.” He complains when he’s somewhere he can’t get alcohol.
It’s not the alcoholism that bothers me. He can drink all he wants – I’m not paying for the booze, or for the results of the inevitable organ damage.
But his behavior has nearly gotten people around him arrested, made them fear for their pets and made me actually fear for a friend’s physical safety on multiple occasions. He may claim he drinks for enjoyment, but he’s not enjoying himself nor is he remotely enjoyable when he’s drunk – and when he’s drunk and “enjoying himself,” he does it by trying to belittle just about anything that’s crossing his path. I’ve always found hipsters tiresome because they always think they’re clever, but they don’t hold an irritating inflammable chemical to this guy. Sober, he was a bit whiny but often insightful. Drunk, he took a 70 point IQ hit and screamed constantly for his mommy to change his diaper.
I don’t care that he drinks, or that anyone drinks, does drugs, practices autoerotic asphyxiation, whatever. I care, however, about what a person does to others or to me, using drinking/substance use as an excuse for the result.
If you can use substances without spilling your physical or mental crap over other people, I support your right to do with and to your body what you will. But if you can’t contain your emotional or physical crazy, being drunk is not a valid excuse – and I do think I, the law, and society should have a say in what you do when you’re on something that leads you to do to others.
The situations of death and drunkenness are extremes. Other examples are far more minor, and this list could go on forever. For me, the point where I have a say in what you do with yourself is when what you do to yourself does to me – especially in situations where everyone’s going to have to live with the consequences.
But death is trickier. Death is personal. When I’ve had to choose, I’ve supported my loved ones’ right to die, even with loud objections from other family members. Even knowing what the death would do to me, what it would cost me, how it would harm me.
These are the Big things, not the little ones of “How dare she wear sandals without painting her toenails?” type behaviors. These major events, the addicts, the departed, the relationships lost – these are the big things that inform me on the smaller ones, that help me recognize the difference between tolerance, apathy and cowardice, that help me distinguish between real concerns and petty needs for control. I’m sure this will come up again. This is not just about my values as a Pagan, or my values within myself – it’s about how they mix with the other values out there. After all, I think human relationships do amount to one giant chemistry experiment.