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Author Topic: General/Non-Specific: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede  (Read 244 times)

Jenett

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Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede
« on: November 06, 2018, 01:25:42 pm »
As promised else-thread, a discussion of the Rede. (This is in the Beginners section because I hope that people will feel free to ask questions, no matter how simple you may think they are. As I point out below, many people don't have much background in philosophy or ethics, so learning how to talk about these topics can be a whole new skill to learn.)

Feel free to ask questions, poke at things I've said here, share additional resources. This is just meant as a starting point and summary of some particularly common things we've seen come up over the years.

What exactly are we talking about here?

Before we start talking about interpretation, it's good to know that the word 'rede' is from Middle English, and it means 'advice'. (Not law, not commandment, not obligation. Advice.)

There are several different common pieces described as the Rede, and a lot of people are not very clear about which one they mean.

2 word rede: Harm None (a contraction from the 8 word that leaves out important things). A much more modern thing.

8 word rede: An it harm none, do as ye will (An is an archaic word that means 'if'). There's a related statement by Gerald Gardner in 1959, but the first place this precise wording is used is a speech by Doreen Valiente in 1964. Originates in much older esoteric sources.

Long rede poem: Originally published by Lady Gwen Thomson in 1975 (in Green Egg a longrunning Pagan magazine) and attributed to her grandmother, Adriana Porter, who died in 1946.

The 8 word rede and the Witch's Creed (by Valiente) appear in print in 1975.

Interpretation
The most common interpretation of the 8 word Rede is "If it does no harm, do as you will" Note that it is limited in scope: it does not define what 'harm' is, and it does not say what you're supposed to do if an act is harmful to someone. (More about that below.)
How central is it?

Some books (or people) will make you think it's core to every practice, and anyone who doesn't strictly follow the Rede (which they don't define or explain how they're interpreting!)  should be ostracised, ignored, or is not a proper witch. A lot of this approach can be traced to the rise of publication in the 80s and 90s. (And some theories about why that got started, below.)

Many people will imply that it's central to British Traditional Wiccan (to use the common term in the US) practice. BTW folks, on the other hand, tend to say "It's a piece that can be useful" but generally don't describe it as central or essential. The Rede isn't even a thing at all in some other kinds of witchcraft traditions.

Why is there so much confusion about it?
There are a bunch of possible reasons. (And if you see yourself in the following, don't worry! There are ways to fix these.)

Beginners books that focus on spells and magic rather than deeper theory or ethics. These became a big thing in the 80s and 90s, and while a lot of more recent books are either more balanced or more specific they're just talking about magic, the problem persists.

People not getting archaic grammar. This means that people tend to do odd things with the meaning of the 8 word rede.

People passing along incorrect or incomplete information. A lot of people pass along information they've partially learned, but not gotten to the origins for. (And there are an awful lot of people out there claiming a lot more depth of knowledge of witchcraft, Wicca, and Paganism than they actually have, along with the people who do have the depth of knowledge.)

Most people don't have a background in ethics. It's not a subject most of us are taught how to work with unless we've had philosophy classes, or stumbled into learning more about it. (If you're an avid watcher of The Good Place, you've probably got more actual philosophy education than a surprising portion of the population…)

People are used to soundbite morality. Many people who are coming out of various forms of Christianity (especially in the English-speaking world) are used to a religious structure where people tell them what to believe, and what is right and what is wrong. A system of morality based on other concepts than a limited canon of religious texts is a really new concept for a lot of people.

Humans are not great at long-term consequences. It's a lot harder for us to talk about a concept of ethics that is made up of many choices, over a long period of time, than a system that has rigid structures and fixed rules. A lot of people shy away from that kind of hard work (one thing if that's just about them, but a lot more of a problem if they try to enforce those rigid structures on other people.)

What are some considerations?
So, when we're thinking about the Rede (in its various forms), some questions come up.

How are we defining harm, anyway? Some people limit to significant ongoing consequences. Other people call something harm if it is a routine disagreement. (For example, I've seen people argue, apparently entirely seirously, that someone disagreeing with them online in a civil but clear way - no bullying, no nastiness, just "I don't agree with that" or presenting their own view - is harmful.)

What does it mean about situations that are not actually harmful, but may be challenging? There are a lot of things out there that are a non-harmful choice for an individual, but may be more complicated in their particular context.

A classic example here is someone from a conservative religious background or family making choices about relationships (whether that's orientation, sex outside of marriage, divorce, etc.) that are important and good for them, but not what some of their family members want them to choose. In a case like this, (orientation, sexual choices, etc.), not doing what makes them happy and fulfilled causes the person harm, but doing what they choose may discomfort others. Where is the line in this case?

What about questions of consent? I've seen people argue that if you find someone unconscious in the street (and probably in need of medical care) that the Rede would prohibit acting, because you are taking that person's choice away from them, or acting without their consent. And yet, many people reading this would probably equally argue that leaving someone ill and unable to seek help themselves is definitely causing harm!

Because of this "Harm none" is clearly not a workable model without a much clearer idea of what harm is, and how to define the scope of evaluation. Even the 8 word version needs a lot of supporting material to make it useful in most cases.

Why do people cling to it?
Desire for someone else to describe the moral view. Discussed above.

Reaction to misconceptions about witches (the history of the witch hunts, ostracism, etc.) I think that one reason a lot of people cling to "Harm none" is that it's a thing you can offer to concerned family, community, and others, as a method of protection in a complex world. It's an understandable desire, but it's not one with a great long-term track record, especially in the soundbite version.

Fear of taking action and having agency. One issue I've seen come up is that a lot of people find the permissiveness of witchcraft, and the role of witchcraft as a tool for responding to scarcity and repression (historically and more recently) to be terrifying.

A lot of societal work has gone into creating models of 'correct' or 'approved' behaviour that encourages people not to speak out, or act for their own (reasonable) needs. A lot of people use "Harm none" as a shield, and a way to justify not taking steps to improve their direct personal life. (And there are lots of ways to do that without causing direct harm to others, but many fewer without theoretically causing some discomfort or disappointment somewhere in the system.)

A classic example here is doing magic to help yourself get a better job - say magic to help you present your best self, to help your resume be noticed and fairly evaluated, magical work to help you speak clearly, etc. (i.e. nothing that is attempting to force a particular outcome, just giving yourself the best chance.)

Wanting yourself to have a reasonable steady income, doing work that you find at least tolerable, for people who treat you decently is an entirely sensible and practical desire. But a number of people have been heard to argue that this kind of magic is against the Rede, because you might take that job away from someone else who needs it more.

The same kinds of argument have been used against people who want to do protective work for their home (that might discourage some people who are not treating them well from overstaying their welcome, for example), or love magic designed to help you meet potential partners.

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Darkhawk

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Re: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede
« Reply #1 on: November 09, 2018, 04:14:02 pm »
The Rede isn't even a thing at all in some other kinds of witchcraft traditions.

I would like to add to this: in the Craft circles in which I've run for the last decade-plus, it is fairly common to refer to the Rede with a sort of eyerolling tolerance and contempt, like one might for childish nonsense that one wishes one's teenaged acquaintances would just get over already.

It's very clear to me, when more detail comes up, that this is almost entirely coming from people whose sole experience with the thing is through the shallow "harm none" or "I don't know how to archaic grammar" angles.  I have given up trying to have conversations about this because it is very tedious and goes nowhere.
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EnderDragonFire

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Re: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede
« Reply #2 on: November 09, 2018, 04:48:41 pm »
It's very clear to me, when more detail comes up, that this is almost entirely coming from people whose sole experience with the thing is through the shallow "harm none" or "I don't know how to archaic grammar" angles.

Well, people in Western culture tend to view "harm none" rules with contempt even if that is the actual, original, message of a religious tradition.

I suspect that many of the people who roll their eyes at the two-word Rede would just as readily roll their eyes at Ahimsa or Sattva lifestyles. Yes, in the Rede's case, one can argue that they are misinterpreting it, but that's not usually the angle people take when they criticize it. Rather, they criticize the notion of nonviolence itself, rather than argue that Rede is poor grounds for nonviolence.

There's a certain amount of contempt for pacifism woven into the fabric of Western culture, and many people who follow the two-word Rede run afoul of that contempt.
"The worshippers of the gods go to them; to the manes go the ancestor-worshippers; to the Deities who preside over the elements go their worshippers; My devotees come to Me." ... "Whichever devotee desires to adore whatever such Deity with faith, in all such votaries I make that particular faith unshakable. Endowed with that faith, a votary performs the worship of that particular deity and obtains the fruits thereof, these being granted by Me alone." - Sri Krishna

Kylara

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Re: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede
« Reply #3 on: November 10, 2018, 03:07:37 pm »
Some books (or people) will make you think it's core to every practice, and anyone who doesn't strictly follow the Rede (which they don't define or explain how they're interpreting!)  should be ostracised, ignored, or is not a proper witch.

The vast number of people I've come into contact with who treat Harm None (and Karma...don't get me started on that either!) as a Universal Law continues to bobble my mind.  I stumble into this one in all kinds of groups, not just Pagan ones.  I've had "Harm None" quoted to me in crystal groups, women's groups, occult groups...and almost always as if it were some kind of rule of nature, not as a ethical code.

I also find that the people who tend to quote Harm None are also often the people who blindly follow the Law of Attraction (in it's least thought out iteration), and try to tell other people that every bad thing in their life is because of their thoughts and if they 'just think positive thoughts, their life will become perfect!!!!"  I find this kind of approach to be really distasteful, especially for people who have serious health issues or have had big tragedy in their lives (true accidents, stuff that really isn't their fault in any way, shape or form).

Amusingly enough, I also find that often the Harm None advocates are also really big fearmongers.  Past live blame is another big thing that I tend to see from them, where anything that happens to you (in addition to being your own fault because of your current life thoughts...) is some kind of karmic ripple effect of something you did in your past life.  I've seen people say that if someone steals from you, it's 'obviously' because you were a thief in a past life, and it's just balancing out the scales.

I like the idea of Harm None as a reminder that hurting other people is bad (and what does that really say about our society that we need reminded of that?).  I think it can be easy, when dealing with something without clear and immediate repercussions, to be tempted to do things we wouldn't other wise do.  You see this on the internet all the time (people say stuff they would never say to another person face to face...because they'd be afraid of getting hit).  I think the same temptation is there with witchcraft, because the option to hex or otherwise use magic to cause harm to others doesn't come with the same fear of getting caught.

Ultimately though, I don't follow the concept of harm none.  I put all my actions, magical and physical, emotional and spiritual, to the same moral compass:  is it worth the price.  Life isn't cut and dry, it isn't black and white.  The same action, in two different circumstances, is treated differently.  I generally don't approve of stealing, but if I were starving, yes, I would steal (if I had exhausted all my other options).  I don't think my magical actions should be held to a different standard than my physical ones.  If I would take action to, for example, get a better job (like filling out applications, dressing nicely for the interview), then I see no reason to not also take magical ones (casting a spell to help get a better job). 

I think there is a big difference between calling good to our lives and asking for bad things to happen to our competition.  To go back to the job scenario, I have no problem casting spells to enhance my job application, but I wouldn't cast a spell to sabotage other applicants, any more than I would slash their tires to keep them from making their interview appointment. 
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Re: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede
« Reply #4 on: November 10, 2018, 05:41:25 pm »
The vast number of people I've come into contact with who treat Harm None (and Karma...don't get me started on that either!) as a Universal Law continues to bobble my mind.

Karma is a universal law, in the traditions it originated in, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The Highest king, the lowest beggar, wild animals, and even Gods are bound by Karma.

Karma is a natural law in Indian metaphysics. It's not caused or controlled by the Gods, it just happens. As soon as a harmful or beneficent action occurs, the universe must repay that action in equal measure at a later date, upon the individual who caused it to happen.

You avoid doing bad things because they are bad, yes, and Hinduism had a moral and ethical code, but Karma as a mystical concept is amoral. A good person who accidentally incurs bad Karma is still subject to it's consequences, and a bad person who incurs good Karma still gains it's benefits.

I suppose that might be mind boggling to someone who holds Western notions of absolute morality dictated and enforced by a deity, but it's nonetheless accurate to traditional Indian sensibilities.
"The worshippers of the gods go to them; to the manes go the ancestor-worshippers; to the Deities who preside over the elements go their worshippers; My devotees come to Me." ... "Whichever devotee desires to adore whatever such Deity with faith, in all such votaries I make that particular faith unshakable. Endowed with that faith, a votary performs the worship of that particular deity and obtains the fruits thereof, these being granted by Me alone." - Sri Krishna

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Re: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Rede
« Reply #5 on: November 10, 2018, 09:01:10 pm »
Karma is a universal law, in the traditions it originated in, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The Highest king, the lowest beggar, wild animals, and even Gods are bound by Karma.

Karma is a natural law in Indian metaphysics. It's not caused or controlled by the Gods, it just happens. As soon as a harmful or beneficent action occurs, the universe must repay that action in equal measure at a later date, upon the individual who caused it to happen.

You avoid doing bad things because they are bad, yes, and Hinduism had a moral and ethical code, but Karma as a mystical concept is amoral. A good person who accidentally incurs bad Karma is still subject to it's consequences, and a bad person who incurs good Karma still gains it's benefits.

I suppose that might be mind boggling to someone who holds Western notions of absolute morality dictated and enforced by a deity, but it's nonetheless accurate to traditional Indian sensibilities.

Hi, EDF (and everyone else following!),

I split off your longer elaboration about karma into its own thread (Conceptions and Misconceptions about Karma), because it really is a discussion in its own right, especially with all the rich detail you provided, and I didn't want it to either overwhelm the Rede discussion of this thread, or be overwhelmed by it. Thank you for writing it!

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