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Home > Article Library > Editorials > Rede and Fluff Search

Rede and Fluff
Copyright © 2002 by Osthein


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I hear people saying "But I don't follow the [Wiccan] Rede" with a certain vehemence these days.

Which is entirely reasonable when it is in response to yet another appearance of that well-known stereotype, "all Pagans are Wiccans and therefore follow the Rede as moral law" (frequently found in combination with "all Christians are Fundamentalists and therefore incapable of rational thought.")

But every so often the sub-text seems to be a third stereotype, just as offensive as the other two: "all followers of the Rede are mindless fluff-bunnies with the academic rigor of a lobotomized newt."

It's usually the short version that's meant: "An it harm none, do what ye will" and in that form it is central to my own moral and ethical understanding. I certainly don't consider myself fluffy (nor incidentally am I Wiccan). So what's going on here?

First of all the Rede gets inverted, from positive to negative, from endorsing harmless action to forbidding that which is harmful. The two are very far from being the same thing.

My understanding of the positive statement is that it throws the onus back on me to work out what constitutes right action, telling me by way of guidance, and then only implicitly, that I need to take into account any harm I may cause. If I'm sure there's none, then I have a "green light" from the Rede, but for the rest I have to be mindful and attentive to the results of my actions, and prepared to take responsibility for the consequences. One of the things that most appeals to me about it, is that it doesn't offer a simplistic rule for life's far from simple choices.

Phrased negatively, the implication is different, not least because the class of totally harmless actions is far smaller than that which does some scathe. Indeed if taken literally it would be impossible to successfully follow, as is often pointed out. Things die that I might eat, and there is no escaping the fact. When I got my job the other applicants missed out, and so on. If harmlessness is the law one must forever fall short.

One obvious way out of this impasse is to take the word "rede" in its true meaning of advice or counsel, as distinct from rule or law. Following advice and obeying law are very different propositions.

I prefer to think of it in the form of positive counsel myself, but whether in accordance with that, as negative law always imperfectly adhered to or as advice against doing harm, I maintain that the person who endeavors to live as harmlessly as possible is the antithesis of fluffy.

Of course it depends on what is meant by "fluffy" in the first place. Sometimes I think the definition amounts to "more optimistic than the speaker likes" and then really merits little more than a dismissive shrug by way of response.

To me it signifies a determined blindness to all that is unpleasant, a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the harsher aspects of reality, whether it be in daily life, human nature or the attributes of the Gods, in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary. To focus on the positives, refusing to dwell on darker things is an optimistic choice; to deny the negative exists is fluff. Personal gnosis may lead one to relate to Hecate in the aspect of a Mother Goddess; claiming from beneath the avalanche of primary sources that She was worshiped as playful maid, loving mother and dear old granny - in short, was always and absolutely nice - ever since the Neolithic, is purest lobotomized newt and understandably draws down howls of derision.

But one who would live as harmlessly as possible must have a continual, meticulous awareness of harm, even (especially) potential harm. That path requires that action be scrutinized in a perpetual cost-benefits analysis, to find the least damaging way. The blindness of the fluff-bunny just will not work here.

What I think does happen is a range of other stratagems, of varying intellectual honesty, to gain some maneuvering room after casting the Rede as a negative law.

Some rely on restricting the scope of "none". It may be limited to sentient beings, removing any angst about eating plants or digesting millions of intestinal bacteria (depending of course on one's definition of sentience.) So perhaps only humans count, or one's co-religionists -- or even just friends and family...? It seems to me that some value scale is inevitable, else how to weigh the death of the trodden ant against my need to walk around? But narrow the scope too far and all credibility must be lost.

Others make harm the focus, often in my view sensibly, since I have seen its meaning expand to take in practically any impact on anything that isn't obviously and actively beneficial, and moreover explicitly requested in advance. This is the context in which one sees the particularly obnoxious practice of using the Rede to beat others around the head in choruses of smug self-righteousness. But again, the plea of "not really harming" soon loses credence if taken too far.

Then there's the trick of limiting the applicability of the whole, usually only to magic: magical workings must be harmless, what is done by mundane means falls under no such stricture. This changes the Rede from a moral or ethical precept to a mere procedural rule. To then claim to live by it qualifies as sloppy thinking even if not full-blown fluff. The latter is clearly evident though in claims that no witch/Pagan would ever harm anyone because they all follow the Rede in everything that they do. (Except day-to-day living, which is quite a different thing -- isn't it?)

Is it via the less honest of these equivocations, originating I believe in a fundamental misunderstanding of the word "rede" itself, that the taint of fluffiness had attached itself to those who claim to follow it?

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