Monday, November 26, 2012

The Argument That We Haven't Changed

This post is in part a progression from last week's post about bad journalism, addressing the question, are we getting dumber?

I don't propose to answer the question.  I would rather discuss why we ask questions like this in the first place.

My personal feeling is that it has everything to do with the bane of thinking in our age, egalitarianism, the ultimate round hole into which all square shapes must be pounded.

According to Wikipedia, "Egalitarianism is a trend of thought that favors equality among living entities.  egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status."

Which is summed up perfectly by Helen and Dash in the Incredibles:

"--Everyone's special, Dash.  --Which is another way of saying no one is."

No conscious, educated person believes in such nonsense ... but the wherewithal of human beings to WANT to believe in such nonsense, despite the evidence of their eyes, a lifetime of study, a functioning brain and their own failure to live by such principles can be breathtaking.  Cognitive dissonance is more powerful than the greatest forces of nature - of that, too, we have enormous proof.

So various questions are asked again and again: are we dumber; are we freer; do people resent authority more than they used to; and so on.  The reason for this is that a significant subset of humanity - and therefore journalists - have accepted the egalitarian myth, and that has challenged them to extend 'equality' into the past.

How many times have you heard it?  "Nothing ever changes."  "Those people long ago, they were just like us."  "Isn't it funny how things come and go, but people just stay the same?"

As someone who came from a classical education, I can give you the quintessential example.  In the 1st century AD there was a writer we've come to know as Juvenal.  His actual name was Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis.  Juvenal wrote some quite marvelous Roman humor, of which 16 pieces have survived - these are called the 'Satires' ... and if you want evidence that "we've stayed the same," Juvenal is your resource.

Juvenal writes a diatribe about how his friend shoudn't get married; about everything that's wrong with living in a big city like Rome; why women are the worst; the inanities of soldiers; and so on and so forth.  The satires are chock full of immediately recognizeable passages, which apply as much today as they did then.  As Juvenal says to a friend,

"Are you, in this day and age, ready for an agreement,
A contract, the wedding vows, having your hair done
By a master-barber, your finger already wearing the pledge?
Postumus, you were sane once. Are you really taking a wife?
Which Tisiphone is it, with her snakes, driving you mad?
You surely don’t have to endure it, with so much rope about,
Those vertiginous windows open, the Aemilian bridge at hand?"

In short, wouldn't you rather kill yourself rather than be married?

The references are different; the slang derives from other popular sources, but the sentiment is the same as any 20 something says to his pal when he hears he's going to tie the knot.  This was a classic example given to me by my own professors, to "prove" that we were really the same as the Romans, that they viewed the world not so differently from us.  My classics professors were as dissonant as anyone.  For you see, the gentle reader must realize I'm cherry-picking the above lines.  The very next in the satire run thusly:

"If none of these multiple exits please you, wouldn’t a boyfriend
Suit you better, one who would share your bed, a boyfriend
Who wouldn’t quarrel all night; wouldn’t demand from you
As he lies there, little gifts; and wouldn’t complain that your
Body was idle, that you weren’t breathing hard, as ordered."

That's a little harder to fit into the modern mindset, isn't it?  I mean, certainly there are gay men about ... but how often does the modern man suggest that his friend who is about to marry take it up with a boy instead?

If you've got the time, read the whole satire ... and as you read, ask yourself seriously if you're not just latching onto the passages that sound like us because those are the things you recognize, and dismissing the things you don't.  When you come to the end, see if you can remember those odd little parts, like where Juvenal writes, "When sinuous Bathyllus dances his pantomime Leda, Tucia loses control of her bladder ..." rather than the things that are warm and friend and familiar.

Now I can tell you, there's a platoon of classics profs ready to explain to you chapter and verse how Tucia's bladder really represents some ordinary thing we take for granted every day ... but don't take them too seriously.  I've known quite a number of classic profs, and I can tell you there is a rare profession that pays quite so much for going right up your own asshole every day.  It's a gift, it's a skill, and for anyone who doesn't mind living in a community small and smelly, it's a good gig if you can get it.  But down on the ground, no matter what the bladder symbolizes, we today are not connecting that particular organ with the act of lovemaking.  We're connecting different organs, and for entirely different reasons.

See, my point is this.  The egalitarian would like you to believe that if we dropped you into the heart of Rome, if we gave you a Matrix-like primer on Roman cultural references, and of course fluent use of the dialect, you'd get on in Rome just like you own home town - because the people would be the same, and what they wanted out of life would be the same.

And this is one big steaming pile of bullshit.

I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, O gentle reader, but you are not ready to live in Rome.  Hell, most of you are not ready to live in Mississippi in the modern era, and that's a world that gets at least some of the cultural references you get.  You are not ready to be dismissive about the plight of the average slave; you are not ready to view political and military oppression as a proper and ordinary thing; you are not ready to see women as chattel and children as little creatures that don't matter until they reach a certain age, at which the culture no longer expects them to randomly die.

This is why so much of classics scholarship - and historical scholarship in general - spends so much time and energy rewriting ancient facts with brand new modern interpretations, despite there being little or no evidence to support such ideas.  If you want an example, toddle yourself down to the nearest large university library, hop up to the section where they keep the books on classical history and have a look at how many of them have been written about women in the classical world.

Chances are, you will find a whole shelf, even two or three shelves, full of book after book with titles like "Women in the Roman Era" ... most of them written by women classics professors feeling the need to quantify their interest in an era that cared little or nothing for women.

You see - and this is the big joke - the total amount of actual hard material we have on women prior to 500 A.D. is bupkiss.  We have some nice pictures; we have some nice passing references, like Juvenal's satires, mostly filled with negative things about women; we have some tiny passages and bits and pieces from Livy and Plutarch, along with graffiti carefully copied down from hundreds of archeological sites.  We have the ever present poet Sappho, whom we're not really certain was a woman.  All in all, it's still bupkiss.  And yet book after book is written, on the same material, trying desperately to squeeze out some idea that women mattered, at least a little bit, despite the fact that we have quite a lot more material on classical men who apparently didn't think so.

When someone in a D&D blog postulates that sexism or child abuse or what have you did not take place in the past to the degree that some writers would have you believe, this is the sort of practice they're indulging in.  We shouldn't blame them; this is a fantasy world and no one really wants to live in the actual past, do they?  The actual past is very definitely NOT the present.  Human beings have changed, a lot more than we give credit for; we're a much more liberal society.  We're a much more tolerant society.  We're a lot more cognizant ... when we can get over our own bullshit long enough to be that.

I suppose, all in all, I haven't made a very convincing argument.  I feel like I've been writing a long time, though, and I suppose I'm either preaching to the choir or to those who won't be converted anyway.  I also feel like I've gotten this subject off my back, and perhaps now I can go back to something more D&D like.


Giordanisti said...

I'm not sure any egalitarian would propose that all human beings are "equal" considering the sum total of their accomplishments or abilities. Egalitarianism (within my understanding based on what sources I've read) is more concerned with the rights (social, economic, legal, etc) that should be afforded to all human beings as a baseline. I don't see egalitarianism as a description of the equality of mankind; I see it rather as a proposal for how humans should be treated.

While I fully agree that humanity has changed significantly over time, that change seems fairly irrelevant to egalitarianism. Regardless of where one's "inalienable rights" come from (God, rational thought, social contract, or what have you), the particular beliefs or characteristics or innate abilities or monetary worth (which all change between humans and time periods) have no effect on those basic rights.

JDJarvis said...

The satires read like a roast (with far more polite language) how much do they reflect difference in that framework where we are still able to recognize the absurd and humor?

There are most assuredly differences malny caused by the miseries of a life where there was a good chance a child would not survive to become an adult and people lived as property because the options were starvation or slaughter. There is no loving god waiting for us to prove our worth to a reward in heaven, death is dreary and as grey as the afterlife.

But we still laugh when an ancient author has made a joke. The egalitarian mindset is an artifice of a wealthy society. Have folks skip a few meals against ther will and fairness and equality fade away, have their god(s) leave them in the face of brutal death and they will struggle for themselves.

Butch said...

Juvenal was the original stand-up philosopher. "Boy, when you die at the palace, you really die at the palace..."

I run into this all the time in AD&D... characters come across a man whipping a slave, killing a dog, or beating his wife, and immediately go into hero mode. You wonder how they get from the inn to the tavern without stopping a dozen times. I usually play the opposite side of the coin, brusquely walking past as the shopkeeper brutally clubs the urchin who tried to steal an apple.

Actually, this happened to Ahmet in the online campaign. He heard a woman being beaten on the other side of a door, and declined to get involved. What business of it was his? Until the door opened and the woman was his cousin...

5stonegames said...

The past is a foreign country.

L. P. Hartley

If your game is set in something akin to that past and not the "wild wild west" of Gygax well, its a matter of training your players to understand the untime and unplace their characters live.

If you can do that it can lead to some amazing role-playing.

However some people are only there for the "G" game part of the RPG equation and just want to crack some imaginary Orc skulls. I see nothing wrong with this. Whatever is fun for you and yours is the right way

Sigilic said...

Funny you reference Juvenal. A more recent example would be the whole "meeting Queequeeg" passage in Moby Dick. I had to read those chapters several times in order to convince myself of what Melville actually did write.