On Hierarchy

By Anthony Rella

“The notion of natural hierarchies is very problematic, and it hides the fact that hierarchies are created through power and political process.” 

from Confronting the New Right

I wish to explore this statement further, drawing out places where I agree and disagree with the position taken in that information page, specifically with regards to hierarchy. Critics have taken issue with this passage and its adjacent question about the hierarchy of a forest, pointing to naturally occurring hierarchies among animal packs and king trees in forests. I offer this as a contemplation on hierarchy.

The Evolution of “Hierarchy”

The concept of hierarchy originated in relationship with the sacred, and a particular individual or group who facilitated the relationship between the Gods and the people. In a comment responding to John Beckett’s “Guilt by Association,” Polytheist Ruadhán J McElroy states that the root of the word is “the Hellenic Hierarkhas, meaning ‘the leader of sacred rites’.” Consulting the dictionary, the word breaks down to the roots of hieros (sacred) and arckēs (ruler). In contemporary English we tend to say “priest” and “priestess” for these roles, but I have no doubt the Hierarkhas is a role with distinctions from contemporary understandings of priesthood.

McElroy and others suggest that attacking hierarchy, therefore, is an attack on polytheism itself. These days I do not know whether I fit into the Polytheist movement, but as a witch and a Pagan I have spent much time contemplating the problems with, and inevitability of, hierarchy. Firstly I think it needs to be conceded that, whatever the origins of the word, the definition of hierarchy as most English speakers understand it today is very different. If we do not acknowledge this, then I think we willfully speak past each other in arguments about it. “Hierarchy” has developed troubling connotations that are worth acknowledging if we are to lift up what is useful and affirming about those original meanings.

During the Renaissance, Christian Europeans looked to the beliefs and thought of pre-Christian culture to renew their societies. (That sounds relevant, doesn’t it?) Christianity made love to NeoPlatonism and birthed a notion called “The Great Chain of Being.” According to this, all existence is arranged “in hierarchical order from the barest type of existence to the ens perfectissimum, or God.” That which was closest to the Christian God had the greatest amount of holiness; that which was furthest away was the more depraved matter, with the Devil as nadir to God’s apex. These hierarchies applied to classes and qualities of beings as well, so all is ranked.

Great_Chain_of_Being_2For harmony to exist, according to this conception, that which is closer to the Christian God must rule over that which is further from. Combined with prevailing assumptions of the times, this meant reason should rule over unreason, humans over beasts, men over women, and the “Divine Ruler” over inferior humanity. To rebel against the divine ruler was thus not only politically dangerous but a grave sin against the Christian God and the natural order. I understand this to be a key distinction from the notion of sacral kingship in other polytheist cultures, in which rebellion against the king’s rule is a sign of disfavor from the Gods, that the ruler has failed to uphold their role and obligations.

One important observation from this piece of history is what happens when religious doctrine aligns with and reinforces political structures, obscuring human-centric political structures with divine trappings. Politics and religion seem to be in a constant ongoing dialectic. In Christian traditions, governments employ their teachings and practices to validate and bolster oppressive political structures (slavery, segregation, patriarchal control of women, queer oppression), while those challenging and opposing those structures draw upon the same traditions to produce liberation theologies. There is a tension for me, as a person drawn to studying Kemetic traditions and reconciling my democratic bias with its vision of sacral rulership.

Why am I talking about Christianity? I think it pertains to an unstated question: why do we use the word “hierarchy” when we mean “any system of leadership in a group” or “a stratified group where there’s people on top and people on the bottom”? We have so many -archy words that could describe a social arrangement in which someone’s in the lead and someone’s not. I think the broader English-speaking Western cultures have retained “hierarchy” because of its connotations that the people in top are or should be superior to those below. Culturally we still hold the fantasy that if “the right people” were in charge things would be “better.” W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, believed “the talented ten percent” of the Black community could liberate the whole.

What qualities in theory signify superiority? Intelligence, strength, pragmatism, ruthlessness, charm, merit, family lineage, accruing wealth, spiritual attainment? And what qualities in practice actually allow people to rise to the top?

Unpacking the Rhetoric of “Natural Hierarchy”

Does hierarchy occur in nature? With regards to social differentiation and power differentials, yes these things occur. Honey bees have specialized roles in a regimented social structure. Primate communities demonstrate dominance hierarchies. Perhaps what makes humans unique is our ability to choose how we structure our hierarchies and our capacity to envision egalitarian relationships. The rhetoric of “natural hierarchy” becomes dangerous when yoked to a story of inherent superiority for a particular species, person, family, ethnicity, or racial group.

When Western discourse began to differentiate science, politics, and religion, the notion of hierarchy as divine ladder from inferior to superior transferred into secular thinking. Scientific racism justified political oppression through studying the skulls, intelligence quotients, and other behaviors of racial groups; claiming that there is a racial hierarchy arising from innate evolutionary advantages and disadvantages; and dismissing any possibility that unequal treatment and oppression could be part of perceived disparities.

[Since this publication is frequently charged with being anti-science, I want to be clear that I am pointing to the ways that scientific inquiry and understanding is not immune from being shaped by cultural and political biases. That does not invalidate science as a discipline that produces important knowledge and technology, capable of also challenging cultural and political bias. Please note that what I am saying about science is parallel to what I have said about religion vis a vis its relationship to politics.]

This has had enormous, painful consequences for people of color and indigenous communities in the United States. Government programs forcibly separated indigenous children from their families, sending them to school to learn “superior” ways of being. Politicians and authorities cite “innate” criminality and low intelligence to justify poorly funding schools that serve largely Black students, enormous disparities in the enforcement of law, mass incarceration, and police brutality against people of color. Queer people have had to fight, and continue to fight, against accusations of being “unnatural” to get the healthcare we need—including the historical failure to act against the AIDS epidemic and the struggles for trans and intersex people to receive competent, dignified care. When it comes to human politics, those wishing to sustain the status quo will obscure political structures and social biases by using the rhetoric of “natural” social hierarchy.

Darwin’s theory of evolution laid a challenge to anthropocentric worldview of humans being the inevitable and clear “superior” being upon earth. One way of understanding evolutionary theory is that life, all life, strives for survival in a harsh environment with limited resources. Mutations that work improve the species’ ability to thrive and reproduce. In this way, humans succeed in their ability to adapt to a variety of harsh environments, manage disease, and improve birth outcomes; as do many other species. One well-documented model is the competition between species, “survival of the fittest,” but collaboration and symbiosis are also successful survival strategies. The bacteria that live in our guts have improved their survival success by becoming necessary to us. Dogs and cats and several species of plants have also improved their survival rates through their usefulness to humans.

That decentering of humanity I think has been very difficult for the Western ego to accept, and the belief in an innate “natural” social hierarchy has persisted in social and political rhetoric for some time. If we do not have the Great Chain of Being as a frame for our thinking, there is no intrinsic superiority of a human to a bacterium. Indeed we would be in very bad shape as a species if our gut bacteria rebelled and became toxic, or the animals that pollinate our crops died off.

Mexican_Wolf_Pack_(12033414114)As far as superiority among animal groups, the way animals develop and enact those arrangements continue to be studied and questioned. Wolf researcher L. David Mech was once formerly a proponent of the “alpha wolf” conception of wolf packs, but now believes that wolf packs more closely resemble families, with the “leaders” being the breeding parents. The Queen Bee has biological distinctions that make her suited for her job, and not for the job that the other bee groups do. The hive depends upon her, and she depends upon her workers. Interdependency, not superiority.

Reconsidering Hierarchical Relationships as “Doings” Versus “Beings”

All this said, I do not see it as desirable or possible to eliminate stratification and leadership in human communities. In my early witch days in Reclaiming, I fell in love with the ideas of nonhierarchical communities and each of us being our own authority, every person in community having equal voice. Coming from a religion in which I felt spurned and marginalized, this felt empowering and exciting. Eventually, I grew to feel at odds with it.

I want to step back and give honor and respect to my Reclaiming teachers and peers and those who are still passionately engaging in building community. I think their work is a needed project, striving to empower and include as many voices as possible and find ways to create sustainable community. Reclaiming taught me a great deal and instilled in me a sense of ethics and community orientation that is still very much a part of my view of the world. Where I disagree now, and the conclusions I’ve come to about community and hierarchy, emerge from my relationship Reclaiming values.

I observed in myself and my community an aversion to leaders with a lack of clear boundaries around who was in and not in community. Communities may function with one or the other, but both seemed to cause stuck and toxic dynamics. We were in constant debates, decisions, and revisions of the decisions. It was difficult to move forward.

During one discussion surrounding yet-another community restructuring effort attempting to address concerns, one person said that we had to change our ways because “People out there hate us.” That statement caused me to begin asking the questions that led to me walking away from that process: What people? What do they hate about us? How could we address their concerns if we don’t know what they are? Why aren’t they coming to our open meetings in which anyone can participate in shaping community? If they aren’t willing to do that, then why are we trying to address their concerns? There is little you can do with “I hate your community,” and even less with “Someone out there hates your community.”

This led me to a paradox about community, represented by two conflicting truths:

  • Everyone has a unique perspective that has innate worth and is a necessary facet of the wholeness of the world.
  • When it comes to making decisions, we have to decide whose opinions matter and whose do not.

I believe every community and movement, each of us individually, would do well to reckon with the implications of this paradox and come to some resolution. I do not believe in perfect, unproblematic solutions. Everything we do will be open to legitimate criticism. If we make decisions without considering contrary or dissenting views, we become brittle despots.

It is impossible, however, to make a decision if all opinions have equal weight. Amy Schumer has a skit about birth control in which she has to ask almost every man she knows (and doesn’t know) if they think she should get a prescription. It is a hilarious satire of patriarchy’s control of women’s health issues and a great illustration of the problem of the second truth. If we want to build communities, for example, that value and include people of color and queer people, then their opinions must hold greater weight than the opinions of those who would exclude them.

When I struggled in Reclaiming, a peer pointed me toward an article by Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” This article about the women’s movement, first presented in 1970, lays out a clear critique of “structureless” groups that extends toward “nonhierarchical” groups. I would recommend reading it in entirety, but here is a relevant excerpt:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. … This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. … “[L]aissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. … As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Freemen suggests that social hierarchies inevitably form as certain individuals or groups acquire power within the group, particularly when there is no process to openly name and bring accountability to power. A group that believes its own myth of structurelessness will be impaired in its ability to address power abuses, or constantly caught in drama as these dynamics form, get attacked, dissolve, and reform. The question is whether we make the process of structure forming explicit and accountable to the group or keep it covert, invisible, and beyond accountability.

Another text that informed my thinking comes from Cynthia Jones of Diana’s Grove, an organization that wrestled with the joys and challenges of implementing Reclaiming values in a sustainable organization. In their 2005 document, The Bones of Mystery School, Jones writes of hierarchy in an article entitled “Myths About Power, Community, and Being Hero-Less. I would recommend this in its entirety as well. It interlinks with Freemen’s critique of structurelessness in pointing out how the creation of hierarchy is inevitable:

“Another natural law: all groups have leaders. A group without a leader will be lead by the person with the strongest agenda, the most pressing issue, the most charismatic personality, or the person who is most able to take action.”

Those with the loudest voices control the narrative, particularly when bolstered by socioeconomic and political power. The rest have to find a place within it.

Jones speaks to how people unwilling to claim their own power will create structures to yield power to another, a paternal figure who has the answers. We see this in the United States political arena, in which Presidential candidates become imbued with mythic power as the ones who can bring all the change, revolution, or comforting fascist tyranny we desire, permitting us to divest ourselves of the responsibility to participate. When it turns out they’re human, we get to become disappointed and cynical.

Power is amoral and distributed relative to the needs and values of a group. A person considered powerful in my small witchcraft community may not be so powerful in the larger society, because my community has different values and needs. Allowing group process to work through these issues organically seems wonderful, up until those in power develop structures to retain and bolster their power.

If leaders and hierarchies emerge no matter what, then in my opinion it is best to be intentional. That means acknowledging that they are political constructs created by humans. As I write this, I want to reframe the notion of “hierarchy” from a ladder of superiority or sacredness to rather be a ladder of power and influence. Thus, again, “hierarchy” seems less and less useful of a term and something like “kyriarchy” much closer to the truth. Either way, how can we create leadership structures that serve a thriving community?

Jones argues that a leader’s responsibilities in a group are to:

  • “Uphold the group’s intention for being together. 
  • Create healthy and inclusive structures, structures that enable each person in the group to have a place in the group.
  • Uphold the group’s agreements. 
  • Assure the safety for all group members.”

In my view, all of these fall under the leader’s role to hold the container of the group. This includes knowing who is in and out of the group, and whose voice has more weight. The complaint of someone invested in the group should have a different weight than the complaint of random person commenting on the Internet.

What I want to be conscious of is essentializing rhetoric around hierarchy that erases the political process that contributes to its formation and maintenance. The High Priestess and the Sacral King are roles that human beings perform for a specific purpose. Sovereignty does not inhere in a human being, it arises from what is invested in the leader by the community and, for some, the Gods.

This brings up the limitations and problems with all manner of our historical myths about hierarchy. Aristocracy, for example, posits that there are particular families or ethnic groups with innate superiority, uniquely suited to being the ruling class. We see in history that believing literally in this myth leads to inbreeding, which ironically weakens the genetic legacy of the family and increases the likelihood of illness and the expression of genetic disorders. Meritocracy seems like a great idea so long as everyone in every generation begins from the same baseline, but we see very quickly how the children of the middle and upper classes have access to the training and resources they need to stay at their class level, no matter if they have “less” intelligence and drive than those with less access.

I am not active in Kemetic reconstructionist religion, so I cannot speak to how those communities work with these issues. As a person engaged in my own study of Kemeticism, however, I see a history of intertwined politics and religion. Both Heru and Set are depicted as sacral rulers, sometimes each acting as opposing pillars to uphold Ma’at. When Heru challenges Set’s claim to the throne, the Netjeru have a lively debate over whose claim has validity. They argue, they entreat, they take sides. Atum endorses Set, while Neith goes for Heru. The two compete through passionate entreaty, deception, debate, gathering allies, and ultimately violence… dare I say “politics”?

Structures of power in human communities may be inevitable, but I do not see that they can be separate from human politics. If we ground ourselves in egalitarianism, a sense that all beings have equal worth and dignity, then we can remember that our leaders are humans, perhaps with skills and relationships that we do not have, but someone we can still question and argue with. We can have leaders of sacred rites doing necessary work for community and the Gods, and that person may not be the right person to help the community pay its bills, rent ritual spaces, or manage media relations. We can have hierarchical structures and roles to step into and out of as needed rather than essentialized beings who are intrinsically superior. We can have specialization and interdependency.

Bless the Bees!

Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.


Anthony Rella’s essay, The Soul is a Site of Liberation was published in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Copies are still available, as well as pre-orders and subscriptions for the next issue!

For the Peacock

Peacock Angel, Your black eyes
span depth and breadth of myriad
worlds. Serpents entwine, enmity
and intimacy, in Your dark heart.
You guide crisis to stasis, disturb
the peace that silences opposition.

Divine Adversary, because of You
the menacing blade cuts the bindings,
the battering ram breaks the prison,
the concealed poison cures disease,
the hateful curse redeems the heart.

Spirit of Sorrow and Dancing, bring
worthy opposition to righteousness.
Save us from too much moral certainty.
Teach compassion for what we despise.
For in shadow dwells the hearth,
and in virtue the cruelest tyrant.


Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.

(Peacock image CC BY-SA 3.0 By  LOKE SENG HON )



The Innocent Heart: Forging Tragedy into Justice


The Fable of the Child and the Dog


The Child:

I haven’t always hated dogs. When I was a kid we had this dog that I really loved, really sweet and gentle. We played all the time. She was really special to me. One day, out of nowhere, she snaps on me and bites my hand deep enough that I had to go get stitches. It was so bad that my parents went and put him down. Since then I’ve been terrified of dogs. I don’t get them. They look really sweet but you never know when they’re going to turn on you. I’d rather not have any dogs in my life, if at all possible.

The Dog:

I loved my humans but one day their baby grew up to be old enough to play with me. The child would grab my ears really painfully, pat me too hard, and pull on my lips. I would try to let the humans know I was hurting—I looked at them with my big open eyes, asking for help. They thought it was funny and laughed at me. When I growled or tried to get away, the humans yelled and told me to be still like a good dog. Finally one day I couldn’t handle it and I let the child know it had to stop. I bit him too hard. The humans were scared and angry, and they took me to someone who killed me. I hate humans.

Reflect on the stories above and how each version of the story feels to read. What judgments do you make about the characters in each version? Is there a clear victim in this story? A clear perpetrator? Do you feel that what happened to the child was just? Do you feel what happened to the dog was just? What does it mean if both versions of the story have equal validity, as well as equal bias? Who has more power in these stories?

The Dog lives in a world created by and for humans, cared for by humans who do not understand her language or appreciate her suffering. Her attempts to set boundaries read to the humans as disobedience; her attempts to communicate pain read as comedy. She can’t escape her conditions; she lacks the human hands and know-how that would let her unlock the doors. From the Dog’s vantage, it looks like the humans revel in their cruelty. Eventually, the only recourse the Dog has is to commit violence against the Child who loves her, but hurts her.

The Child in this story, on the other hand, experiences deep pain and betrayal when his beloved pet suddenly, bewilderingly turns vicious and cruel. This pain and betrayal, left unhealed, poisons the child’s psyche and becomes a barrier to him ever rediscovering the possibility of a joyful relationship with a dog. Though the Dog experienced the Child as a torturer, the Child lacked the insight to understand the Dog’s distress. The Parents, too, fail to apprehend the gravity of the situation and act to avert tragedy. They believe they are innocent and the Dog was not. The Child internalizes this lesson as well.

Moral Pluralism, Tragedy, and Innocence

Let’s acknowledge and then set aside the maligned notion of “moral relativism,” which should point us to looking at the cultural context in which an act was done, but has come to stand for (rightly or wrongly) an unwillingness to make moral judgments. Instead I want to consider the possibility of moral pluralism. Googling the definition of “pluralism” gets this: “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.” This seems simple enough to help us look at the fable with the view that two different sources of moral authority may coexist and be in dialogue, that we can make judgments and also hold the possibility that a different judgment may have validity as well.

A practice of moral pluralism opens the possibility that what the humans did to the Dog was harmful, and what the Dog did to the Child was harmful, and any meaningful growth requires the inclusion of both these truths. We might go so far as to hold that both the Child and the Dog are innocent. Poet and mystic Victor Anderson, cited in The Heart of the Initiate, says, “How beautiful is the black lascivious purity in the hearts of children and wild animals.” He speaks to this purity in celebration of the feral state, of animal instinct as innocence itself. The Child and the Dog simply are what they are, acting in accord with their basic needs and desires for comfort and pleasure. The Child delights in playing with the Dog, but the Child also delights in the cruelty of his play. Amoral delight is a normal aspect of child development, part of the child’s process in learning morality. This Child is no different than the cat who tortures his prey. The Child and the Dog need the Parents to understand these desires at play and set appropriate boundaries so that all can coexist in harmony.

In this fable, the Parents also delight in cruelty, laughing at the Dog’s distress, but punish and inhibit the Dog from her instinctive efforts to find relief or communicate her displeasure. Harm was not intended, but harm happened, and if the humans do not take time to reflect upon the situation and accept responsibility for their part of it, then future harm could happen. We might imagine the upset and outrage the humans would feel if I were to come forward and say they had a role in the tragedy. Who the hell is this person to say it’s their fault? But when we move into shaming, blaming, and finding fault, we’ve begun to lose the expansive potential of moral pluralism. Moral pluralism offers us the capacity to acknowledge that everyone played a role in the tragedy. The feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal of both the Humans and the Dog are valid and merit compassion and healing.

In my work as a therapist, my experience is that when people feel that the legitimacy of their pain is in question, we tend to become more rigidly hostile or defensive. When we feel that we are being met with compassion and understanding, that allows us to have space to consider having compassion and understanding for the other view. When we can see the merit of conflicting positions, then we truly have a hope of preventing future tragedy.

The Myth of the Innocent Victim and Evil Perpetrator

Moral pluralism is an uncomfortable discipline in a world with so much confusion and insecurity. I think many of us long for a simple moral framework upon which we can base a sense of confidence in who we are and how we live. One such moral premise is the notion that there are innocent victims and evil perpetrators in the world, and these are entirely separate people that we can identify and treat accordingly. If we looked at the fable through this lens, we might feel pressured to believe one story and dismiss the other—we’d fear that seeing the merit of the Dog’s story would be to say the Child “deserved” to be bit, or by having sympathy for the Child we are saying the dog “deserved” her treatment.

In a simple moral framework, “innocence” is a state of purity that is celebrated but fragile. Innocence is weighted with feeling, weighted with the pain of innocence lost. That feeling is used to manipulate us through the political use of “innocence.” A white 17 year-old wealthy male who borrows father’s car and causes a tragic accident has made “an innocent mistake,” whereas a Black 17 year-old male who is shot while walking home from buying candy at a local store is a “thug.” A 21 year-old white male who commits a deliberate mass shooting is referred to as a “boy” in the media, and his family gets interviewed to talk about his more sympathetic qualities. An 18 year-old Black male who is shot after jaywalking and stealing cheap cigars is referred to as a “man” in the media, and the articles about him highlight how he was “no angel.”

We see that “innocence,” is politically granted according to social position, not by life experience. According to the myth of the innocent victim, a person who is not wholly without sin or crime cannot be a victim. A criminal is marked as a separate kind of human being, if in truth they are granted any humanity at all. Thus anything done to stop or contain the criminal is considered justifiable. Only when the “wrong” person turns out to be a criminal does the discourse of innocence and criminality become confounded. Women who accuse respected men of rape and children who accuse beloved community members of molestation experience the dizzying reversal of the victim being put on trial. If their histories are not spotless, according to social judgment, then their victimhood is questioned. If the accused appears to be upright, then their criminality is questioned. The cognitive dissonance is intense. In the United States we aspire to a blind justice system that simply weighs the merits of the case and determines guilt or innocence, but in practice it is clear that media and bias shapes our expectations of what guilt and innocence look like.

When we divide the Innocent Victim from the Monstrous Criminal, we have lost the capacity for expansive moral pluralism, which could help us to address the real needs of actual victims and criminals who are all too human and complex. As a case manager, I have worked with a number of people convicted of criminal charges. The work taught me a number of things:

  1. The primary difference between a “criminal” and everyone else is that the “criminal” was caught while breaking a law, and prosecuted;
  2. Most “criminals” do not think of themselves as evil or desiring to harm others; and
  3. Even the most unlikable, unsympathetic person can be victimized.

The dilemma of the humans in the fable is the dilemma of people with privilege in the United States. Those in power support a society which is set up for us and people like us, such that we don’t even need to think about it—the people on TV look mostly like us, everything is written in our native language, buildings are designed for our bodies. We grow up with our own desires, struggles, and pain, and then someone tells us that our lives are causing harm to oppressed and marginalized people. We are confronted with voices and desires wholly different from our own, voices that challenge and question our deeply held sense of who we are in the world. The question is, will we buckle down and cling to one rigid pole of morality, or will we acknowledge what is legitimate about our perspective and open ourselves to the legitimacy of these other perspectives?

The fable draws upon the archetypal figures of Child and the Dog in part because these are emotionally charged. We project a lot of love, fear, joy, and protectiveness around dogs and children. Often it seems like harm to either is treated as a greater, more painful tragedy than the daily catastrophes that befall humans across the world. (Evidenced by the website doesthedogdie.com, which tracks movies with dogs in them and warns viewers about the dog’s fate, so that the viewers can be emotionally prepared.)

I want to acknowledge that comparing oppressed people with animals is part of a long tradition of dehumanization, but I think many of us at one point or another plays each of the roles during our lives: Child, Dog, and Parents.

For example, I grew up as a male in a fairly privileged White, middle-class family in the Midwest, and I have been the Child for much of my life. I graduated in a somewhat challenging job market but still managed to score livable wages until 2008, when my move to Seattle coincided with the Great Recession. I’d been working as a web content editor and networked before moving, but by the time I got to Seattle I was unable to find work in that field.

My income sunk from $20 per hour to $8.85 minimum wage as I could only find employment in the service sector, first as a gas station attendant and later as a Barista at a high-end fashion retail store. When I did my first holiday season, laboring physically harder for less money than I ever had for my corporate jobs, I overheard one of the customers telling her friend, “There is no recession in Seattle.” Later, when the Occupy protests were marching past our front doors, another customer (a similarly middle-aged, White, middle-to-upper class woman) stood by the counter while I made her drink, rolled her eyes, and said, “Aren’t you guys sick of this?” In that situation, I was the Dog.

She expected me to validate her perspective while I worked a job that paid me to be polite and professional to her. Occupy drew attention to the economic structures that put me in this situation, and I had a moral truth that I could not share without potentially compromising my job. And, again, this woman could not know, because she lived in a context set up to confirm her expectations and sense of self. If I’d spoken my honest perspective, I risked punishment and loss of the low wages I was getting.

Against the Rise of the Fascist

The weeks following the Daesh attacks in Paris in 2015 felt like the weeks following the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Anti-Muslim rage and xenophobia was treated as a legitimate political viewpoint by certain sectors of the media and political establishment, and even though the United States had executed near-constant military actions and warfare in the Middle East for the past fourteen years (and more!), certain politicians announced that the problems in the Middle East were due to our lack of military effort. On the other side were the people pointing out the sheer insanity of re-enacting the same patterns—causing the chaos and trauma that radicalizes people against the West, funding and training insurgents who become our next enemies.

In other parts of the United States, a Black Lives Matter activist was physically assaulted and called racial slurs at a political rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested that “maybe he deserved to get roughed up.” In Minnesota, Black Lives Matter activists gathered to oppose yet another extrajudicial killing of a Black man by the police, and white supremacists opened fire, injuring five. According to several activists, when they told the police about this attack, the police responded with: “This is what you wanted.” The state-sanctioned murder of Black people, however, was exactly what Black Lives Matter opposes.

The common thread is that those in the positions of dominance and power—the United States, the police, a billionaire capitalist running for President—endorsed or permitted violence in response to assaults on their power. They justify this violence in part by portraying themselves as the victims who deserve protection from harm, that anything they need to do to preserve their power and reputation is necessary and all who oppose them need to be controlled. They dismiss the possibility that those who critique and oppose them may have moral truth that needs acknowledgment, as well as pain and anger that needs healing.

Like the humans in the fable, they respond to these assaults by suppressing the source of pain and confusion with violence. The popularity of Trump’s violent, chest-thumping rhetoric in Trump is part of this backlash. What attracts attention is not simply that he’s “un-PC,” which has always had a place in our culture (see the continued existence of the TV shows Family Guy and South Park), it’s that he is proud in his disrespect of women, the disabled, and people of color. He speaks to the resentment of privileged people who feel hemmed in by social change, those who feel their own anger and hurt are not being honored.

All of this, with the increase in visibility of white supremacists, suggests the re-energizing of the Fascist. The Fascist justifies any form of violence, tyranny, and oppression in the service of promoting the interests and well-being of the in-group, who are celebrated as somehow superior, moral, innocent people in comparison to anyone else. The Fascist will argue that certain skin colors and religious affiliations are intrinsically violent, evil, needing to be controlled—and even if we are the ones committing violence, selling weapons to the people who become our enemies, and blowing up hospitals, it’s all moral and ethical because we are protecting the “innocent” heart of our culture.

That simplistic morality ultimately harms us all. We need a concept of justice that acknowledges both victim and perpetrator have agency and personhood, but still does not excuse the crime. We need a wider lens that allows us to see how the West has participated in creating the toxic cultures that poison us with terrorism from without and xenophobia from within. We can condemn people for committing violence against citizens with the intent to foment chaos and terror, and we can recognize that our strategies of intervention gave those terrorist the training, means, and excuse to commit their acts. We can look with concern upon violent crime within communities and recognize how our systems of economic inequality and oppressive policing foster patterns of violence.

What is the world in which you want to live? Do you want a world of harmony, of fairness, in which everyone is treated with respect and shares love and joy? Isn’t that worth putting down the tools of violent control and shame and taking up the healing we so desperately need? Isn’t that worth considering a new perspective, considering new structures of governance and diplomacy that serves those goals instead of creating more trauma and misery? I’m not asking you to believe my view of things. I want us to listen to many voices, to consider many viewpoints, to acknowledge without silencing the discomfort of this, to acknowledge and honor the anger, confusion, and disorientation this brings. Let us rediscover the heart of innocence.

Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.