What Frith Isn’t – A Rambling Rant

Frith is not just etiquette. It’s not about saying what people want to hear so they don’t get upset. It’s not about avoiding making too much noise. It’s not about keeping your head down and going along to get along.

Frith is ethics. It’s about doing the right thing, being in right relationship, not just with the people you like personally, but with the community at large.

When activists point out that the frith is being disrupted in ways that you have been able to ignore and shrug off until they pointed it out, it can seem as though it is the activists who are breaking frith rather than whoever or whatever they are objecting to. After all, things seemed peaceful to you until they made all that noise, you could ignore the problem up until that point, and any problem you can ignore isn’t really a problem, right?

Wrong. It is NOT breaking frith to point out when frith has already been repeatedly, demonstrably broken. It is not further harm to frith to require that broken frith be addressed instead of casually, continually ignored and tolerated.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism – these are innately breaches of frith because they are rejections and abuses towards entire categories of people in our community. If it hurts you to hear about it, then you have simply had the ignorance-born-bliss of not being directly subject to it yet.

Activism is a response to society being broken, to frith being broken.

I’ll say it again: Frith is about ethics.

To argue that etiquette is more important than ethics is so obviously wrong I don’t even know where to begin on explaining why and how. Ethics are about doing the right thing. Etiquette is social lubricant. Prioritizing etiquette over ethics is applying oil to a machine with parts missing. Oil isn’t going to fix what’s broken.

If you go on a date and the person at the other side of the table is polite to you, but insulting, dismissive, or cruel to those serving them, they are not a good person. That doesn’t change when the setting is a business meeting, an interfaith gathering, or a public event. A person who is polite to those they consider peers but bad to those they consider beneath them – especially a community leader who makes public statements to that effect – is not a good person. It’s simply made that much worse when the people they consider beneath them are a category of identity.

“Wait, Ember! What about people who I believe do bad things? They’re beneath me, right?”

If I believed that, I would not do jail ministry.

People who have behaved badly are still people. They need to learn, to change, to make better choices, take better actions, and form better relationships. Sometimes we need to remove them from the community in order to protect those who remain. But they are never beneath us, and we have no right to treat them as though they are.

“What about people who have harmed me and mine?”

Tell the truth about them. Tell the harm they have done. Tell the world what weregild they owe, and why you are hurt. Express how you feel. Be angry and work against their harms to make a better world. But do not act as though they are less than human. Do not devolve into public insults, lies, and hypocrisy. If your cause requires lies, it’s the wrong cause. If your cause requires looking the other way, caring less, ignoring harm, it’s the wrong cause.

“But Ember, haven’t you done the same in the past?”

I’m sure I have. I probably will again. No one is perfect. But I strive to never lie, and I strive to always avoid ad hominem attacks, especially in public statements, because I know they have no value and prove nothing.

And I strive daily to improve myself, where I find pockets of indoctrinated racism, sexism, ableism within myself. It’s hard. I was raised liberal by social activists to pay attention to all of these things from the beginning, and it’s still very, very hard. It’s not about guilt, it’s about doing the right thing. It’s not about being silent when it’s my turn to speak, it’s about learning when it is and is not my turn. It’s not about apologizing for harms other people have done, it’s about recognizing where I am contributing to the harm, and changing my ways.

Defending myself is unnecessary. Growth is not an attack.

What am I on about here?

Ryan Smith and Steven Abell are both people I know through Hrafnar and PantheaCon in the local SF Bay Area Heathen community. I have considered them at least positive acquaintances, if not friends.

I agree with Ryan’s values, but haven’t always agreed with his tactics. I definitely agree with him that community leaders and public figures, should expect consequences to their public statements and actions.

I have enjoyed Steven’s company and storytelling, but I can not condone his tolerance of racism in Heathenry, and I am very disappointed and angered by what he has said when he has stood up in defense of the status quo and people like Steve McNallen.

As for Steve McNallen, he’s made his views and values quite clear. I don’t question his values – that would imply there’s a question. Steve McNallen is openly racist, and I find his views to be anathema, if not outright dangerous. This should surprise no one. It’s not like he hides them.

The problem is, it’s very easy to dismiss people you don’t know personally, who hurt you, or who you never liked in the first place, as obviously wrong and bad. It’s much harder when they’re friends who have treated you well. I have seen many of my friends wrestle with this when we discover yet another member of our community has folkish sympathies. Generally, if my experience of a person is positive, I’d rather help educate them than ostracize them, but it still leaves me dismayed and nauseous whenever it happens.

I do not believe anyone is all bad or all good. I’m sure Steve McNallen loves his family. I know from experience that Steven Abell is generally a kind person. That doesn’t make McNallen’s racist behaviors acceptable. That doesn’t make Steven’s tolerance of them acceptable, even when it’s ostensibly for the sake of the larger Heathen community. I understand the political theory of cooperation for the greater good, but I don’t believe validating the leadership of people who make openly racist statements serves the greater good. I believe Ryan is right to highlight them and make that clear, and I frankly don’t understand why Steven is objecting now or previously.

Well, yes I do. It’s some of the same reasoning white male gamers and fans have been applying to demands for more inclusive gaming and fandom. So many were bullied as kids, humiliated and excluded from their communities of origin, and retreated to gaming and fandom as a safe havens. To be told the haven that seems safe to them needs to change feels threatening, so they lash out at the people demanding change. Paganism, including Heathenry, is full of people who fled mainstream religion and culture for similar reasons. The vast majority of Pagans are converts, and Heathens are no exception. People don’t change their self-identity when the one they were raised with is comfortable. So I do understand the reactions I see in people like Steven Abell, but that doesn’t make it right – or mature.

The thing is, people aren’t really good or bad, they’re just people. People behave badly and well. People who usually behave well can still behave badly. People who often behave badly can still behave well. When does the bad outweigh the good?

I see people act like even one instance of bad outweighs all prior good, and I think that’s not fair. But I also believe that no amount of unrelated good makes up for the bad. No amount of charitable donations to hospitals means you don’t owe weregild for assaulting someone while intoxicated. No amount of maintaining the walls of the house negates the need to repair holes in the roof. Neglect and harm must be addressed where they occur, not just tallied like scores in a game.

I want to say more, but I don’t know what else to say. These are my thoughts for now. I am upset. I am angry. I am hurt. I am disappointed and disgusted to be part of a community that I’m not sure is safe for my whole family to join. But most of all I am once again very worried for my community, because I don’t know what will happen next, or what I can do to help make the right things happen. Steven Abell is right that these fights may tear the community apart. But the cause of the fights is racism, not activism. Activism is the form the fight must take if racism is ever to be eradicated in Heathenry. This is not optional work.

For those who wish to plug their ears and hope it goes away, I could point out that it won’t work, but that’s beside the point. Even if it DID work, it would be WRONG.