Saturday, 23 May 2009

I was only following orders...

A number of events, both national and personal, set me thinking about the nature of responsibility. Nationally in the UK, the scandal over MPs expenses and the way this group of people wrote their own rules, policed their own system and, at best, turned a blind eye to the excesses of others has shown just how out of touch it is possible to become – out of touch with the aspirations and moral behaviour of ordinary people. Many MPs have been blaming ‘the system’ for the problems – blithely ignoring the fact that they devised and approved that system. In essence they are using the old “I was just following orders” excuse. With the added twist of being the people who gave the orders in the first place.

There have been rumblings of doom about the damage this is doing to democracy. Not the fact that elected representatives had their noses in the trough for so long, but that this is now being revealed. It won’t harm democracy, because this shows that we simply don’t have democracy in the UK. The political system is corrupt at all levels.

And this corruption stems from an inability to take, or wilful disregard of, personal responsibility. “It was the system.” “I was just following orders.”

At a personal level I encountered, and foolishly dipped my toe into, a discussion about whether or not a ‘teacher’ should charge for their teachings. Given the context – religion/spirituality – I was inclined to agree with the original proposition that they should not. There was a lot of strident input to the effect that should NEVER charge (it turned into that sort of discussion, peppered with capitals). But I did have questions. Surely someone who is making the effort to prepare teaching materials, who is taking time to clarify their own thoughts and write them down, should at least not be out of pocket.

Things got awkward, because I refused to see the issue in black and white. I was told that people can only be ‘symbolic’ adherents if they take teachings from a book; that prisoners got what they deserved; that (grudgingly) concessions ought to be made for the disabled. When it descended to the level of someone saying that if you wanted recompense for materials used, things like toilet paper, I left the discussion.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it never ceases to amaze me how unpleasant some online discussions can become. I wanted to explore the issue, but it was evident that because I was perceived to be taking a different stance to the person who first voiced the opinion I had to be jumped on and insulted. I don’t know why. I had assumed that as the discussion was about teaching, the basic idea of learning through debate might have filtered into this group’s collective consciousness. Clearly, I was wrong.

It seems to me (and I may be wrong) that these people were not thinking for themselves. They had received a teaching and accepted it. They were just following orders. Why? Should they not be taking responsibility for their spiritual path, thinking things through and supporting their stance with coherent propositions that take into account the complexities of the real world?

To be honest, I find this kind of zealotry to be frightening. It speaks to me of a high degree of immaturity and insecurity. It also speaks of an abrogation of responsibility.

I agree with the sentiment of the original proposition. If someone has an insight into spiritual matters, I believe they should share that and not profit financially. But that is a guiding principle, not an absolute. Not just because it would be unfair for the teacher to be out of pocket, but because it denies that the pupils/adherents (call them what you will) also have responsibilities.

The teaching/learning relationship is just that – a relationship. No teacher possesses absolute truth. No teaching is beyond question. No pupil should accept without question. This does not mean that questioning will not lead people back to the original teachings, but every person who learns has a personal responsibility to ensure that what they learn satisfies their own intellectual and practical exploration of the world.

Equally, pupils should not ever treat a teacher as a guru. It doesn’t matter how clever they are, how insightful. They are human. If they are a good teacher they will not dictate their teaching, but guide others to understanding. If they are a great teacher they will accept the possibility that what they teach will be rejected, as long as it is rejected honestly. If they are a good teacher, that won’t happen; good teachers are the ones who help others to teach themselves, not the ones who gather little groups of nodding donkeys about them.

One of the responsibilities of a pupil is to ensure they do not take without giving back. Giving back is part of the learning process. It keeps the discussion rolling round. It takes things on. Giving back may be very simple. If a teacher hands out printed sheets of paper, it can be as simple as offering a few pennies toward the cost of that paper and that ink and the time it took to produce. It doesn’t have to be that. Giving back comes in many forms, physical, intellectual, and spiritual.

Taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and one’s actions was a basic tenet of ancestral Celtic moral teaching. Ancestral Celts built a complex legal system with this belief at its core. Their social structures were much the same. There are complexities here which apply less to us now. Ancestral Celts belonged to a tribal society. The tribe and the individual within the tribe were bound in a relationship that reflected our relationship with the rest of the world.

But at the heart was the notion that you alone were responsible. You could not blame the system; you could not rest on the defence that you were just following orders. You could not, as a pupil, expect your teacher to do all the work and carry the other burdens inherent in teaching. You had responsibilities. You acted in a responsible fashion.

If I was a teacher, with a group before me (rather than being a money-grubbing writer – a whole other argument I won’t go into), that would be the first lesson. It would probably be the only lesson. Because once it is learned it changes the relationship. The teacher is not wise, all learnĂ©d one who must be obeyed. The pupil is not the ignorant adherent who must be prepared for the ‘secret knowledge’. Teacher and pupil become explorers together. They are companions, with one who guides the others simply because they have travelled that road before and know some of the interesting places along the way.

It is, perhaps, the difference between genuine explorers and travellers, and those who go on a package holiday. The former go in the hope they will learn, change, and be better for it without unduly altering the landscape. The latter want everything laid on for them, they want to see the exotic sites (from an air-conditioned bus) but have a nice hotel to go back to, they want comfort, and they don’t really want to be any different when they get back (apart from a nice tan and the cachet of having been somewhere different).

This has been a bit of a rant. But it seems to me that there are enough people out there not facing up to their responsibilities, enough people saying they were only following orders/their leader’s teaching, enough people blaming a system they have tacitly accepted without people who call themselves ‘pagan’ doing the same.


Alice Kytler said...

You know, since so much of the interactions between pagans are now over the internet I often wonder if we can ever get a clear idea of people's real priorities and positions. There seems to be a certain phenomenon that occurs online where people use it as an opportunity to attack and bludgeon others in a way they would never dare to, or even want to, face to face. I think this allows people to assert their egos without any real sense that the person they are addressing is a real human being.
People like to band together with others who hold the same absolute view on something and shout down the 'opposition.' I think perhaps it allows for a feeling of group cohesion which is otherwise lacking on this impersonal medium. That and there seems to be a lure in the simplicity of absolutes for many people, it is always most especially disapointing to observe on other pagans who you always like to imagine got to be pagans by being strong minded thinkers.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Online communication really is the double-edge sword. It allows contact where it would not have been possible before. But as you say it also so easy, without all the little signals we are used to receiving (tone of voice, facial expression, posture) for conversations to deteriorate.

It has ever been thus with the pagan community - there seems to be a sub set that I think of as role players, the ones who see it as an extension of a fantasy game. They like the dressing up, gathering in an 'elite' group, going through the rituals and initiations, but never actually developing in a spiritual sense.

Which sounds horribly elitist on my part. I know seem people need a rigid structure to take them forward. The danger is, rigid structures often prevent people from moving forward.