Friday, May 27, 2016

The Inheritance


So, from James Flynn here is the prerequisite quote:

"Over the last century, in developed nations like America, moral debate has escalated because we take the hypothetical seriously.  And we also take universals seriously and look for logical connections.  When I came home in 1955 from university, at the time of Martin Luther King, a lot of people came home at that time and started having arguments with their parents and grandparents.  My father was born in 1885 and he was mildly racially biased.  As an Irishman he hated the English so much he didn't have much emotion for anyone else.  But he did have a sense that black people were inferior.  And when we said to our parents and grandparents, 'How would you feel if tomorrow morning you woke up black?'  They said 'That is the dumbest thing you've ever said.'  Who have you ever known who woke up in the morning that turned black?'
"In other words, they were fixed in the concrete mores and attitudes they'd inherited.  They would not take the hypothetical seriously.  And without the hypothetical it's very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.  You have to say, 'Imagine you were in, oh, Iran, and imagine that your relatives all suffered from collateral damage, even though they had done no wrong.  How would you feel about that?'  And if someone in the older generation says, if our government takes care of us, it up to their government to take care of them, they're just not willing to take the hypothetical seriously."

Here is the crux of the self-relevant argument.  What you say doesn't make sense to me; what you say doesn't directly influence my perspective; what you say is relative to other people - therefore what you say is nonsense and I don't need to give it any consideration.

Here, if you will, is the true source of the Trump phenomenon.  It isn't the "anger" of the Republican base, as I've heard upteen times.  It isn't "dissatisfaction" with the Republican agenda.  It is a man standing in front of a crowd and saying only those things that directly adhere to the inherited notions of the crowd that is listening: a crowd that is already racist, already angry at everything that doesn't fit their narrow view of the world, already loaded up with guns and hate, already dissatisfied that the world isn't it was when they watched the Waltons on television and absolutely ready to march under a banner that says that their hate is justified and that other people will be made to pay for it.  There's no mystery here.  The only reason there is a debate on the media is that we have tens of thousands of hours of airtime to fill yet and the one thing we can't say - because of our bottom line - is that America is full of a bunch of self-righteous, self-pitying, self-absorbed hateful racists.  We have to invent other things we can talk about - and because people have inherited a belief that anything with News in the title deserves respect, we're subjected to endless go-arounds of this invented crap.

But . . . let's talk about D&D.

It is very hard for a large part of the readership to understand that if I write something about, oh, say, a trade system, its very possible that I might not be addressing them personally.  These people cannot understand that there are other people beyond themselves and their personal experience who are also reading this same post, who have other personal experiences to which this post speaks.  There is such a large portion of the readership of every site in the internet that shares this experience - that every post, piece of music, bit of culture, film, political comment, opinion and so on must be personally about them - that it is impossible to find any group of comments that don't include the statement, "I hate the content of this thing I am commenting on."

Well of course someone will hate it.  Of course someone will disagree with it.  But what matters is that there will also be someone else in the world that won't.  It is just possible that this post has been written for them.  Imagine, we ask, that you wake up in the morning and someone has made an argument that a trade system will improve a given world?  To which the answer is, "Nonsense.  How can it?  We must pay attention to things that matter!"  And so on.

The perspective that things that matter can only apply when I, personally, think they matter, is the weakness that Flynn is talking about.  So much of the perspective of the D&D community has been gained by people in their youth, during their formulative years, that is it fixed in their minds amid sentimentality associated with the voice of the people who first opened their eyes.  These first people gave to the community an inheritance - one to which these people rigidly adhere as the only 'proper' way to play the game.  Evidence for this is everywhere.  The old modules are worshiped, the old books are worshiped, the old sentiments about adventuring and character building are worshiped, the artwork that appeared in Dragon Magazine in 1981 is worshiped, the company that started the game is worshiped, the writers of the game are worshiped, etcetera, etcetera.   The endless dredging up of material and the old way of doing things floods every nook and cranny of virtually every blog in the RPG universe.  We take images of dungeons and build memes out of them, we recreate the same blue hue of the original maps published by TSR in the 70s (chosen because of the limitations of cheap print publications) and recreate it carefully using our modern computers for our own newly created modules, we defy the use of lap-tops in games or the replacement of old-fashioned pen-and-paper with playing on tablets or keeping our characters on our phone because we fetishize the 'feel' of the way our forefathers played the game.  And if someone - anyone, not just me - provokes the crowd with the phrase, "What if we threw out this rule and stopped playing with it," we're told in no uncertain terms that the game was MEANT to be played this way by people who knew better than we did because they INVENTED the game.

We are playing a game where the concrete experience is the only one that is given merit in the discussion.

LTW's comment yesterday finished with the argument,  "I build systems . . . I can at least offer consistency to my players now."

Recently I have heard it stated that we need to stop building systems and apply ourselves to things that really matter in the game: to making nice adventures and developing interesting NPC's.  It is always presumed that this "system-making" process is a terrible waste of time and that it isn't making the game any better.

"System-making" is the proposition that IF we consider a collection of hypothetical situations and apply to them a universality that enables us to make judgments about the creation of adventures and in-game personalities based not upon our imaginations but upon the logical extrapolation of the system we've created, we can save enormous amounts of time in being spared from the usually frustrating creative process by replacing it with always having something that gives a seed for what we ought to invent.

That's a mouthful so I'll say it again.  If I already know what is there, I can easily add what ought to also be there.  That is what a system does.  It tells us, long before we have to make the adventure, why the town exists, what it does, what the people do and so on.  Knowing these things make it easy to make a new adventure in a few minutes.  Whereas looking at a blank piece of paper, without any system at all, is a mind-numbing, difficult process that is limited by the individual's personal imagination.

People who build systems KNOW this.  They've experienced it.  They see how hundreds of hours of brain sweat is saved in thousands of different ways - and they don't understand how it is that some people still adhere to the idea that a blank piece of paper is the best way to master the problem.

But those who haven't built a system, who are prejudiced against systems, who see only the work and the difficulty of imagining even the prospect of universality (declaring, most often, that it CAN'T exist despite living in a world where it very obviously does), argue from a position of anti-hypothetical perception that says it can't be done.  What they mean, of course, is that they can't do it personally . . . and anything that can't be done by them personally hasn't any merit because it therefore has nothing to do with their personal situation in life.

They cannot hypothesize that trying to do it might bring insight.  They cannot hypothesize insight.  They can only see concrete methods and concrete results.  A system is not concrete.  Drawing lines on a piece of paper with a pencil IS.  Therefore, what is concrete has value; what is not concrete is necessarily - by definition - a waste of time.

See?  It is just like talking to your grandfather about politics.

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