This has popped up a few times in various groups over the last few weeks so I think it’s time to explain my thoughts here.
Fundamentally, I believe that impact is more important than intent. Let me state that clearly here and now so if you don’t agree and think I’m not a person you want to follow, listen to, hang around with etc anymore, you can exit here and now.
The reasons I feel impact matters more than intent is because I feel that we very often inflict an unintentional impact on other people without even realising it. We can make a joke, not realising it hits someone at their core and they realise we don’t actually think of them as the same human as everyone else. We try to do the right thing and end up hurting someone unintentionally. (Check out this link for some more on the governmental issues with the law of unintended consequences: https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/540/handouts/french/unintconseq.html )
And we’re all done this, we all know this. But if, as the general thrust of Irish paganism aims towards, we are looking towards maintaining a healthy community and we are all working towards that goal, surely looking at the impact of our actions and statements is far more important than worrying and proclaiming our intentions. Look, I know, I hate admitting I was wrong or misguided or misinformed as well. I really bloody hate it. But that’s no reason not to admit it – it’s not worth harming those around me just so I can avoid a bit of discomfort.
Now I’m not talking about whether Angel or Spike was a better boyfriend for Buffy (it was Spike, obviously!) or whether Batman or Superman was really the better superhero (yeah, couldn’t give a damn about that one!), this is about upholding people’s right to exist and live their lives as they choose. While I don’t follow the Wiccan Rede (Do what you will an’ it harm none), and while I think there’s deeper layers to it anyway beyond the immediately obvious, there is a measure of this thinking here.
Why would you want to hurt someone else? To maintain boundaries? To return pain inflicted on you? To protect others? There’s all sorts of reasons we might intentionally aim to hurt someone. And to a certain point, I don’t have an issue with that. Where I do have an issue is retaliating for someone being who they are rather than what they did/do. For me this line is drawn in looking at people’s existence versus their behaviour. So, I would find it hard to tease someone or harass someone for their religion, gender, sexuality, romantic persuasions, etc, but teasing them over a shared experience, some historical fashion we both indulged in etc. Equally, if someone has inflicted real harm on me, I’d be looking more at appropriate reactions to the behaviour, not attacking their religion, colour, sexuality etc.
However, we all cross that line somewhere. It may be that what is a reasonable action to take or comment to make against someone who is of a majority religion may not be for someone who is not of that religion. For example in Ireland, the vast majority of people (70+%) are Catholic, although practicing Catholics would probably bring that figure a lot lower. So joking about Catholicism or having heated debates about the problems with the Catholic Church in this country or in the world, probably grand. No one here is getting discriminated against cos they’re Catholic. But if someone is pagan and they’re uncomfortable in their work or home life about disclosing that, then making leading remarks or calling them out on pagan leaders and their issues in places where people in their workplace or home might hear them, probably isn’t a good idea.
If you’re not sure about the potential impact of something, try asking. I can’t guarantee a polite answer or even an answer at all, but that as well will tell you something. If you make a joke and you think about it later and aren’t sure if it’s ok, ask. If you can’t ask the person themselves, ask someone who might know around you. Say something like, “Hey I did this thing or said this thing earlier and thinking back, I’m not sure if it was ok. Can you help me? Do I need to apologise?”
Now, of course, slip ups between friends are easier to deal with that public issues. A government cutting social welfare in an attempt to get more people back to work, but failing to follow through on offering either training or more job opportunities, thus leading to an exponential rise in the existence and use of foodbanks… Well, I’m not sure that can be considered an unintentional impact, but it’s certainly an impact. Reparations should be made – and bloody quickly! And those governments should be held to account or voted out. But that’s just my opinion. Not looking at anyone in particular there at all now…
So where does it leave us in every day life. Consider your audience. It’s easier for most of us to accept at a high level that all human beings are entitled to live their lives, exist, as they choose in relation to religion, colour, sexuality, gender, etc. But when it comes to imagining the unintended impacts of our actions and statements, it can be easier to consider a particular person, especially if we have limited experiences or dealings with people who aren’t exactly like us. (I appreciate for the more global nations this may seem ridiculous, but seriously, I grew up in rural Ireland in the 80’s, I was 10 before I met my first black man and in college before I met my first black woman. And my experience is not that unusual for the time. )
You may think you’re addressing someone’s behaviour (well, if they’d only dress correctly…) when in fact, that could be felt as an impact or attack on someone’s culture (that’s what’s fashionable/ acceptable in the culture they come from). The dangers and long term impacts of forcing people to conform to some uniform ideal are well documented. Don’t be that person.
And if you do find yourself acting in that way, step up and apologise. I’ve done this in the past and there are people gone from my life that I can never apologise to now. Learn from it. Do better next time. Assess, as best you can, the potential impact of your actions and statements. Consider why your need to get this off your chest is more important than the potential impact on the person you’re speaking to.
Learn to do better. We all need to do this, there is no perfect person in this world and we’ve all done shitty, horrible things. The trick is to do better in the future. And remember that your intention is rarely more important than the impact your actions and words cause.