January 01, 2009

100% Artificial

First up, Greg has up his long-awaited post about human behavior and the naturalistic fallacy. Go read. Plenty of dishonesty to argue with in the comments, too.

Done? Okay, onward.

I went to a New Year's party last night (like you do), hosted by my friend Doug and his wife. Doug teaches fencing in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA):

The SCA is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Our "Known World" consists of 19 kingdoms, with over 30,000 members residing in countries around the world. Members, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events which feature tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.

SCA is an immersive experience for many of the people who participate, a distinct subculture that combines a love of elements of the past with other, more modern geekery. One of my favorite observations of the evening was that someone had to go buy a new computer immediately when her old one died because it was the end of a reporting period and she had to consolidate all the information on anachronistic pursuits that people were sending her.

My husband and I were among the small minority of guests who don't belong to SCA, making us an excellent audience for some well-worn stories and observations about the group. Hmm. Tell me a story? Okay.

One of the other people at the party is a blacksmith and junior high science teacher who told two stories about looking at SCA with outsiders' eyes. One story was about his receiving a medal for excellence and trying to explain how it felt to a fellow teacher with no SCA affiliation.

"So, you're a sports coach. Do you belong to any professional organizations?"

"Yes. I belong to X and Y and--"

"Right. Do they hold annual banquets and give awards?"


"Do they give a Coach of the Year award?"


"Have you ever won one?"

"Well, no."

"If you did, and you tried to tell me about it, would I understand why it was so important?"

"No, probably not."

"Yeah. It's like that."


The other observation he made followed his wife's story about trying to track down someone who had been showing up at SCA events to tell self-agrandizing stories and claim he'd been awarded status by people in another SCA group. It was an interesting story of small groups and long memories, attempted confrontations and shifting lies.

At the end, her husband talked about trying to explain all this to non-SCA folk.

So they went to him and said, "Look, you can't pretend to be a knight, because we were pretending to be knights first and we've put a lot of work into it, and we say so."

I laughed, but maybe not for quite the reasons he thought. I suspect that someone more connected to SCA would see some tension between the crafters and the fighters in his very different takes on the two events. Me? I was just reminded that all these social structures that we live with are just that--edifices built on a foundation of mutual agreement.

Despite claims that governments are maintained by force, what regime can withstand a real loss of faith among the governed? If they could, they wouldn't need to spend so much time demonizing "enemy" states.

All that spam offering to sell you a university degree is only sent because people have agreed that a degree is a valid measure of education. Yet many of the honorary degrees awarded each year are completely insignificant recognitions of the depth of education of the honorees.

Churches, sports leagues, dictionaries, arts critics--they all depend just as much on the recognition of both insiders and outsiders that they have some power to decide how all these things should be done and to recognize who is doing it right. And all of that was impressed on me once again by two stories over a dining room table and a wee glass of absinthe.

Not bad for a night of fun, friends and frivolity.


Rick said...

Sounds to me like you might want to look into the field of ethnomethodology.
It has a lot to say about how groups self organize and self audit to enforce cohesiveness. The wikipedia entry isn't perfect but it gives the general overview decently.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I must say, I love that a Wikipedia entry on a field that studies how communication is used has a section on how poorly the guru of the field communicates. It fits so beautifully into some discussions I've been part of recently about gatekeeping through use of overly formal language.

Really, though, it is what I do to a certain extent here. Only I do it in plain English. :)

I'm guessing you got exposed to this in college. Anybody in the field writing accessible stuff?