Monday, July 16, 2012


All the communes that were created out of the Flower Generation of the 60's and 70's failed.  They were begun by adults who shared no familial ties, who were raised in an aggressive industrial social system, the one we all share.  Although rules were created to encourage equality, those who were most aggressive were quickly able to rebalance the relational power in their favor.  Those who were least aggressive finally had little choice but to be treated as exploited labor, or to leave.  Eventually, even those who chose the former option were compelled to take the latter, and the communes collapsed.

This has been much touted as proof that 'communism' cannot work.  It is something akin to herding children into a room, zapping them with cattle prods and then writing a thesis on how children in a room cannot behave themselves.

We underestimate how aggressive our society really is.  Part of this is myth; we promote our society through iconography and propaganda, proclaiming 'truths' and 'beliefs' which are plainly expressed but to which we do not adher.  We promote self-awareness and then punish self-awareness.  We assign irrational moral judgments to moments of ambiguity, in the sense that it is okay to selfishly re-direct wealth into your own pocket so long as it is done obscurely - i.e., there is no direct physical relationship between you and the victim.  It is wrong to borrow money and not pay it back ... unless you've borrowed money in the name of a company, which you then make bankrupt, liquidating its workforce, thus bypassing the debt and keeping the money.  If you watch a man murder your wife, it is acceptable to seize a heavy object and beat the man to death in your living room five minutes later ... but it is morally wrong to track the man down and kill him in another city a year later.

We laugh about these things; we view them as ironic or curious.  We fail to recognize that a society such as this can only exist where individualism holds greater moral weight than groupism - but we recognize immediately how groupism will quickly and decisively destroy our immediate freedoms.  So we comfortably move along, balancing our ability to handle the dangerous waters of millions of other individuals in compensation for a feeling of personal control.  We would rather be torn apart by our enemies knowing that we've made our own way, then obey the will of others for a 'safety' we don't trust and we don't believe in.

Thus the scariest word in our lexicon is not murder or genocide or rape or any of the things usually appearing on the news; the scariest word is conformity.  We can imagine ourselves committing murder, if the chips are down and we must.  Back us into a corner and yes, we'll go that route as a last resort.  But we won't SAY that we'll conform.  We'd kill ourselves first.

Americans may say they're all Americans, but they quickly follow that by saying 'American' means being free to be what you want.  Its a strange, non-conformist conformist dissonance ... but you hear it every day.  Most countries have some form of this, just as most individuals do.

Of course we conform.  We do it daily, hating it, resisting it and wiggling our way out of its straight-jacket as far as we can.  We do it to keep our jobs and pacify our families and keep out of jail and avoid paying fines.  We bitch about it, we get home and snap, we get into our expensive comfy chairs designed to soothe and roll and scrub the bad necessity of conformity away.  Then we conform to sleeping hours we must adhere to so we can be awake to conform tomorrow.

So long as the hint of personal freedom remains ... so long as we can fool ourselves for five minutes at a time that we are not under the thumb of fate ... so long as we can point to this beer or this drug or this woman and say, doubtfully, I chose this ... we will pretend we're not really conforming at all.

We will not buy into any ideal that suggests conformity in its raw, accepted form is a good thing.  That's final.

Yet ... to the medieval mind, conformity was not a philosophy; it was a habit.

If you live your whole life seven miles from where you were born, and if every person you see for years at a time are people you know, and if those people all grew up together in the same place, eating the same food, toiling at the same tasks, with the same enemies and the same obstacles to overcome ... why would they ever imagine in this world that thinking this or that about a thing was bad because it's what everyone else thought?  Say what you will, corn's got to be harvested; pig's got to be fed; God has to have his due; sun's gonna shine just the same.  It's gonna be cold tonight no matter what way you bend your mind.  We might as well get 'er done; might as well get along; might as well sleep as best we can and eat as best we can and make the best of what we can.  And if you don't see that, if you don't like that, if you can't live with that, then you can't live here.  There's the road, there's the wide world, you better be getting on with seeing what you can make out of it among them's that don't give a damn about you.

We live in an aggressive society.  We're used to living with those who don't give a damn about us.  We don't need their love, nor their charity, nor their concern, nor their attention.  Just leave us alone to do as we like, and to hell with everyone else being alone and doing what they like.  That's us.  That's our way.  It was the way of towns, made at a time when the communal living of villages was a limitation on those whose sense of ambition was the opportunity to exploit their fellow fellow.

There's not much success in ambition in a commune.  It destroys the commune, or it destroys you.  Ambition needs a good victim, and the thing about a town, it's free-range victims as far as the eye can follow.  As little boys and girls we say we want to be firemen and astronauts and policemen.  No little child in first grade says to the teacher, "I want to grow up and exploit impulsive people by consolidating their debt and relying on their life-long irresponsiblity to make me rich!"  If they did, the teacher would probably be unhappy - but in this society, that little child has a future.  Firemen and astronauts and policemen do not.

The ideal of any commune is the restraint of ambition; and whether or not you believe this is a society you would like to live in, there are good reasons to restrain ambition.  There are good reasons for a small community to ostracize or kill people who think first of themselves.  Such communities tend to thrive.  They tend to eat well.  They tend to prolifically produce children, and structure themselves in such a way as to reduce or eliminate starvation and cruelty.

Then again, it depends on how cruel you view conformity to be.  A medieval rural society, such as that which would most likely exist among your human farmers, your orcish bands and your elvish clans, would likely see conformity as a good thing, to be embraced and defended to the death.  They would most likely view your players natural aggressive ambitious tendencies as a disease to be stamped out before it spreads ... if you, as a DM, can imagine hundreds of happy, ambitionless people living together in habitual, somewhat boring, well-fed stability.

It requires imagination, if all you have is the evidence of your own culture.


Derrick said...

Somebody should tell Wat Tyler about this.

Arduin said...

I absolutely love these posts. I've been waiting for this one in particular for a long while, and it didn't disappoint.

This really does illustrate the tourism that roleplaying generally entails, and just how much the average group no doubt misses out on. It really is a whole other world in terms of ideology.

The modern man is supposed to rail against his place in society, and the medieval man was supposed to relish it. Well, respect it, anyway.

I wonder if the march of progress will exacerbate this emotional schism, or eliminate it.

JB said...

Excellent post on multiple levels. Good food for thought.

Is there a parable in there for the role-playing community...?