Coercion in “Ethical” Groups

December 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

I recently took a job in a UU church, the latest I’ve had in a string of nonprofit jobs and commitments.  Before that I spent a lot of time involved in Christian churches and groups.  This latest experience  has me considering anew the lack of consent informing most religious, and other groups formed around an ethical core, I’ve encountered.  I feel like I found the same paradoxes and atmosphere of confusion in all those environments, and for myself the same patterns of poor boundaries and a disoriented moral conscience has come up.  I end up leaving those groups for my own spiritual health, and this new job looks like it will be the same.

I am more and more convinced that an ethic which is not built on a foundation consent will prove itself almost impossible to sort out in practice and eventually prove counterintuitive.  Without consent as the baseline, it is very difficult to decipher what is right.

I keep running into groups that feel it is right to coerce others, so long as their intentions are good, either into believing or doing something.  More p.c. groups seems to limit their coercion to themselves, only using guilt and pressure to control their own people.  And practically all moral groups seem to believe in self-coercion as a manifestation of conscience, a method of being good.

I think that because of the status quo, intimate groups not build upon the foundation of an ethic of consent always turn coercive.  A few years ago, I lived in an intentional community that ran a soup kitchen, and recently I visited a permaculture homestead.  In both environments it seemed to me there was an overarching atmosphere of coercion among the people living there.  I don’t know whether it was implanted by the leaders, but I suspect it was simply an unconscious manifestation derived from all the group members (including myself in the first case) that the way to be a good person was “sacrifice,” essentially to coerce yourself into giving more and more for the service of the greater mission.  Both environments were burn out mills with very few long-term members.

Is that what conscience is, the will to bully yourself?  I don’t think so.  I do not think it is sustainable, wise, or ethical to coerce yourself into anything.  It doesn’t matter whether the thing itself is bad or good.  And I believe a conscience given proper reign can lead us to much greater and more energetic and inspired action in unity with ourselves if we allow are able to learn better skills for facilitating change in our lives.  When parts of ourselves are in dissonance, such as occasions when our habits or our laziness or our fear conflict with our conscience, our hope, our sense of what is right or what could be, internal bullying exacerbates the conflict and damages us rather than facilitating an act of moral discipline and inner peace.  Real change cannot occur in a context where our own boundaries and limitations and our own consent are not well kept.

If you undermine your own consent, if you cannot sort out the lines between your rights and those of another which mainstream culture blurs and a consent ethic can help clarify, and if you cannot understand the risk you take in exacting influence and know when to stop and practice self-restraint, you will not be able to be ethical.  A foundation of consent seems to me the cornerstone of a truly logical and consistent moral ethic.


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§ One Response to Coercion in “Ethical” Groups

  • pwlsax says:

    Discipline is bullying to so many of us, in so many disguises and rationalizations.

    Self-discipline does not admit to being self-bullying, of course, but the popular language of motivation and goal-orientation constantly reminds us of how we really understand it.

    The consent ethic you reach for is easy to dismiss as coddling the ego, and understood only to lead to short-term, illusory good-feeling.

    People with issues towards growth have to confront this script of heavily disguised negativity, and either accept it for the ends it promises or give up on the goals.

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