Siege Diaries 2/28/2021

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Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt:  What would happen if I took a second to cool down?

I’m going to come at this one from a different direction, since it seems to be focused on a particular destructive form of emotion, that is, unbridled wrath.  I’ve got such a long fuse that this is rarely an issue for me;  my problem is the kind of anger that bubbles in my subconscious for days, weeks, or months and, if not addressed, will at some point erupt in a paroxysm of emotion.   What I do have challenges with is a kind of frustration.  I’ll make a mistake, and then, when it’s discovered, and if the consequences are serious,  I’ll utterly beat myself down with blame and recrimination, sometimes blowing it way out of proportion.  There are only a few people who have seen me do this–because I do not do it publicly–but it’s very real.  It’s not helpful, and it solves nothing.  That’s why I’m writing this down–so that the next time I feel this reaction coming on, I’ll remember that in the cold light of sober reflection, I could unequivocally say “that doesn’t help fix anything.”

(This also leads to why I always wait for the heat of the moment to die down before writing anything….like the following:)

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Some thoughts on perception

Yesterday another SCA kingdom celebrated a first:  The first woman to be elevated to the order of the Chivalry in that kingdom.  This is a kingdom with a reputation for–let’s not put any polish on it–high calibration standards, or, as it’s known popularly, “rhino-hiding.”  There are many who view the fact that it’s taken 40 years in this kingdom (and nearly 56 from the founding of the SCA as a whole) to find the first woman worthy of the accolade of knighthood to be telling.

This kingdom is, like all kingdoms (except for Lochac), holding events virtually, and has continued to bestow awards and make Peers throughout the pandemic (unlike some other kingdoms–my own included).  For Peerages, these may include the physical presence of others close to the person being elevated even if the Royalty are not present;  this kingdom is also located in an area where things could be conducted outside.   During the ceremony, the vigilant’s knight was physically present and delivered the traditional buffet.  In many knighthood ceremonies, the buffet is a key point where the person being knighted is physically punched or slapped, with the injunction “Let this be the last blow received unanswered.”  The practice is not without controversy–some see it as toxic, almost a form of hazing.  Others see it as simply needlessly violent, or redundant if the knight is dubbed (as dubbing is an evolution of the practice of the buffet.)  Still others see the act as mainly symbolic, especially when the punch or slap is acted more as a piece of schtick.  And others emphasize and value the tradition of the act.

In this ceremony, the knight struck the vigilant three times.  I have heard that it may or may not be a tradition in this kingdom to deliver the first buffet unanswered, followed by a second which is answered, which is what happened after the third blow, when the brand-new knight slapped her knight hard.

There was almost immediate outcry at these actions.  This was no normal run-of-the-mill fighter being elevated–this was the first female fighter in the kingdom to be elevated, and she’d been struck three times.  Furthermore, the knight doing the buffet–a duke who reigned as the first king of that kingdom,  is rather legendary for his outsized persona, alleged unwillingness to take a blow (some of our own fighters have stories about that), and general problematic behaviour.  And there were apparently no indications that these actions were “schtick” or planned in any way.   So:  not a good look.  The ceremony continued on after these actions, and almost immediately thereafter the footage disappeared from YouTube.   People worried that the new Knight had been coerced into accepting treatment that she had not consented to.

It did quickly emerge that there were explanations.  The knight delivering the buffet was not wearing his glasses and slipped in mud, more or less missing with the first two blows.  He also invited the new Knight to respond after the third.  The new Knight herself posted that she had found no issues with the ceremony, and had found it meaningful, and called her former knight “a true friend.”  And so the backlash against the initial reaction has started:  people “looking for offense” were behind the reaction.  No one said “social justice warrior,” but there was certainly that undertone of people meddling into affairs that they do not understand.

I write ceremonies for the SCA.  Each time we elevate a Peer, we engage in a bit of theatre that is meant to both provide meaning for the person being elevated and to convey the concepts we find important to the audience. There is never anything private about an SCA ceremony–privacy is the antithesis of what ceremony is meant to augment.  This is why there is usually a vigil to provide a forum for more private thoughts and sentiments to be conveyed.  When I script a ceremony, my first thought is always “how will this look to those watching?”  Because if the words or thoughts say one thing, but the actions say something different, the actions will always win out.

If actions need to be explained, there is a problem.   This is one of the reasons why, in a ceremony involving customs of a culture that people may not be as familiar with, I always include framing text to provide the context of why particular actions are being taken, or what something symbolizes.   But I do this for more familiar customs as well, because there will always be someone seeing a ceremony for the first time–and trust me, they will always remember that first time.

But people are also human beings.  Mistakes are made.  People mess up.    In cases where it’s just a matter of a flubbed line or two, someone will laugh and break the tension, knowing that sometimes it’s more important to take the audience into consideration than the “actors.”  While SCA ceremonial is theatre, it’s also not a play, and sometimes there are more important considerations than acting one’s part regardless of what happens.

Let’s add into the mix customs which are themselves not without controversy–customs fiercely defended by the people who propagate them.  There is no doubt that the buffet is an important part of the knighthood ceremony for many knights, but there are others who have staunchly refused to include it.  Those in the former category usually point to its symbolism as part of the general chivalric code, the emphasis it places on honour or the brotherhood of knights, or as an example of a rite of passage into a new status.  Those in the latter category may see it as a relic of hazing rituals, or believe that it emphasizes violence–a concept of chivalry where “honour” demands a physical response, or perhaps simply that it gives mixed messages about what is important to the Order of Chivalry to those witnessing the ceremony.

And then, finally, add into the mix a man with an outsized reputation.  He’s an SCA legend–and, outside his kingdom (and probably within it as well, at least in some quarters), it’s a reputation based on not taking blows, on being found drunk in ditches, and on his “my way or the highway” attitude.

Imagine if I am a new SCA member.  I see this ceremony.  I am told that the man doing the buffets is the legendary first king of the kingdom, and that the woman being elevated is the first woman ever elevated to knighthood within that same kingdom.   What do I think?   It probably depends a lot on my own background.  If I come from a context of domestic violence, I probably conclude that the SCA condones physical violence against women.  If I come from a martial arts background, I might see echoes of similar traditions–but I might be astounded that they’re not ritualized as they are now in most of those disciplines.  If I’m a prospective fighter, I see that there is a level of violence implicit in SCA armoured combat that I may or may not want to engage with.  It might inspire me to develop the tough skin that appears to be a vital attribute of the knight in the SCA, or it might completely turn me off from ever donning armour.  Whoever I am, I probably conclude that the Order of the Chivalry is less about protecting the weak or aspiring to the chivalric virtues as they’ve been romanticized;  no, being a knight is about Honour and Prowess–hitting other people hard.   If I’m a woman and want to fight, I see in this first female knight the fact that likely the only way to “play with the big boys” is to be one of them and to “take as much as I give, give as much as I take”–and probably take more than the average high-level fighter, given that this is the first woman so recognized in that kingdom.

These are perceptions.  They’re all valid. None of them is wrong, because they’re personal.  And we need to engage with them, especially as we move the SCA forward.   What kind of Society are we, and what kind do we want to be?  Do we want to be the kind of place that dismisses these perceptions–whatever they are–or do we discuss them?   Do we consider the implications of what we choose to spotlight in the SCA?   Or do we marginalize those whose perceptions do not parallel those of the people who have power, either perceived or real?  “My way or the highway?”  If we hold that power, how do we wield it?

I am aware that, as a longterm member and a double Peer,  I am a person in the SCA who has perceived power.  That means, regardless of what my actual thoughts and feelings are, I will be perceived as in accord with the dominant culture–unless I explicitly speak up.  But I currently hold a position–Lawspeaker–that is entirely predicated on being able to listen to others and to mediate.  And my concern has been–as it has to be–on those without power, on those who may feel at odds with the dominant culture(s) within the SCA, and to amplify those voices so that they are least heard and not simply dismissed.   The SCA is not a static entity.  It has evolved over the 30 years I’ve been a member because of the people who have chosen to join and to constantly remake it in their own images.  And these people–all of them–need to be heard.   There is no such thing as “getting the wrong impression.”  People are not “looking to be offended.”  People who are offended have reasons–reasons just as valid to them as another person’s reasons why they were not offended.

Note that this is not just about the SCA’s armoured combat culture.  You’ll find similar discussions within the arts and sciences community, usually around whether competitions are a Good Thing or a Harmful Thing.  The same thing goes with service–how do we deal with people who have good intentions but come out on the “chaos engendered” side?    In recent years, as DEI initiatives and antibullying policies have come to the fore, there are similar discussions about how to be more welcoming and inclusive–and boy howdy, does acknowledging perceptions are what they are –and are not “right” or “wrong”–is hugely important.  We are all accountable for our actions, for good, for bad, and for everything in between.

Perception is reality.  Explanation after the fact can help mediate perception, but it’s equally important to ask, ahead of time, what you want to convey in every single one of your actions.  And if, afterwards, if observers (particularly if there are many of them)  perceive something else–something negative–and if you find yourself defending your actions against perceptions with words like “it wasn’t meant that way”–thus putting the blame on the observer for “taking it wrong”– you need to have a hard discussion with yourself:  Was it really not meant that way?  And if it wasn’t, who really needs to change?

And big surprise:  This is not limited to the SCA.  This is life.