Suffice it to say that I agree with Sydney that breaking tradition is a stupid thing to do, but I think that it's something that we do and are, in fact, required to do as storytellers, artists, Americans, and humans in general. I'm happy to expound on that point if people want me to.
We do! Expound away.
1. On 2006-09-08, Ben Lehman wrote:
Ah! Spotlight on me. Pressure and sweating.
Of course, this is what I believe, and if you don't think it's true, I don't have issue with that. I'm not interested in defending my argument, simply in presenting my viewpoint. I'd also like to see your viewpoint presented!
So I think that absolutely the smartest thing to do is to stick with tradition. Frankly, tradition + tradition + tradition (rather than the Anglican tradition + scripture + reason) seems to be the way to go, in terms of your own happiness and safety as a person.
When people break with tradition, it's damaging. It's damaging to them, and it's damaging to those they love. This is above-and-beyond any particular damage that their breaking has: breaking tradition is psychologically bad for humans. When we're operating outside of our familiar sphere, we get nervous, jumpy, paranoid. We can't sleep. We become total wrecks.
All things being equal, it's stupid to break tradition. Usually, it's even worse than that, because the tradition exists for a damned good reason, and we're just blind to it, and will suffer the material consequences in addition to the psychological ones above.
But we do it. We are constantly breaking with tradition and doing our own crazy thing. Not only doing things that have never been done before, but trying things which have been done countless times before and failed, repeatedly and decidedly. I want to make it clear: we do these things at great cost to ourselves and our loved ones, and even people we don't know will suffer for our foolishness.
But let's unpack that "we" a bit. I use it consciously, and I think that a lot of us here are at the intersection of multiple radical traditions (that is ... the tradition of breaking traditions) and it's a little hard to unpack that.
A lot of us here are Americans. America is a strange country. It was founded breaking with millenia of human governing tradition, trying to establish a new sort of government, completely unprecedented, with no indication that it would work at all (indeed, some would say it hadn't.) Our revolutionary tradition runs deeper than that, though. There's a reason that America is home to a constant stream of new religions, revolutionary groups, theocrat idealists, and isolationist communes. It's what we were made to do. There is nothing more American than revolution.
Look at (arguably) our highest document. We are entitled to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." We're not, specifically not, entitled to happiness, but rather to its pursuit. If we were all entitled to happiness, the proper thing for us to do would be not innovate at all, to live life exactly as our fathers and mothers had lived it, and to change little at all. But we're not. We're entitled to pursuit of happiness. And look what it has yielded: "I think I'll be happy if I worship Cthulu," "I think I'll be happy if I live in a communal farming household," "I think I'll be happy if I'm the seventh wife of the Prophet," "I think I'll be happy shooting heroin." I mean, seriously, what the hell? These things look patently stupid to a reasonable individual, steeped in tradition. But that doesn't matter. We're not looking at maximizing happiness, but maximizing it's pursuit. And that means experimentation, revolution, iconoclasty, and spitting in the face of the smart way of doing things.
(There was a note here about protestant religion, and how Catholicism is at this point also protestant, and on and on, and also Atheism, but I'm not going to get into it, because I'm neither religious nor atheist and I don't want to tread on the deeply held beliefs of the audience of this blog without good reason.)
Okay, so what about the non-Americans? We'll, a more important note is our own endeavour, what we talk about a lot on this blog. We are all of us here storytellers, of the excellent sort, which is to say we are storymakers and not simply storyrepeaters. We (and I'm talking about live fiction players, here, not designers) are in the business of making new stories. This isn't just a big deal, this is a huge deal.
For those who don't get it yet:
Each and every tradition is a story
Each and every religion is a story
Each and every nation is a story
Each and every revolution is a story
And we are in the business of making new ones, ill-advised and in a novel manner, for no our own personal purposes, without thought or care to our poor traditions, religions, nations, and revolutions, and how much violence we must be doing to them.
All right, let's sink that in. If you're going "holy shit, Ben, are you saying that what we're doing is like using a nuclear bomb to heat our soup?" then yes, that is what I'm saying.
(Aside to designers: do you realize what we're doing? We're not just making new stories, we're giving the untrained and quite-possibly-unethical masses tools to do so on their own, to make their stories more effective, more powerful, and more personal. The ethics of this situation are insane.)
So what? So, here's what I have to say, in a nutshell. Breaking tradition is stupid. There's no good reason to do it, as a person. But yet we do it anyway. I have some guesses as to why, some justifications really, but it doesn't matter.
Is breaking tradition -- which is really just a different way to say "making new stories --" right or wrong? Stupid or smart?
I don't know. I really don't. But if it was wrong and stupid, I would do it anyway. And I think that goes for a lot of people reading this. So I guess it doesn't really matter to us, does it?
P.S. And here's my justification: I think it's for the best. I think that, for the whole species, it's just a good thing to have crazy nutjobs trying their own thing, on the off-chance that they stumble on something that just works better, and then everyone can adopt it, and that's just good for the whole, even though the radical individual and those close to her will invariably suffer.
Let me expand on the live fiction point some more:
These things (story-making mechanisms?) are dangerous. As our design tools get better and better, they just get more and more dangerous. That that they haven't been used for horrible evil is largely due to our obscurity, not because of lack of capability.
Imagine Dogs in the Vineyard or Sorcerer in the hands of a white supremacist group, or a theocratic terrorist movement. Imagine it as a recruiting and indoctrination tool. Imagine it used by the leaders to create new doctrine and new agendas. New stories.
Scary indeed. Kind of makes you reconsider the weight of the old anti-roleplaying witchhunts' criticisms (the "it's obsessive and psychologically damaging and cultish" bits, not so much the "it's Satanic and teaches you to cast spells and sucks you into devil-worship covens" bits).
All things being equal, it's stupid to break tradition.
Ben, this phrase is true, but I think that it misses something fundamentally important: all things are not equal.
I don't just mean this in a 'the real world is not the theoretical world, and thus things can not be perfectly the same' sense, but rather I mean this in a 'societies exist within dynamic and shifting circumstances' sense.
That doesn't mean that traditions are bad or anything (far from it), but it does suggest that static adherence to tradition is bad. Sticking to what worked in circumstance X while circumstance Y has replaced X is just as bad as (if not worse) than trying new things that might work in X when you already have traditions that work fine.
All this ends up meaning, for me, that story-telling is one of the ways that societies remain nimble. We've got to be on our toes not just to come up with new ways to handle the same old circumstances, but also to be able to come up with ways to handle brand new circumstances that our traditions don't speak to.
That doesn't make it any less powerful (I'm extremely hesitant to use the word 'dangerous' though I think I see why you feel it applies), but it does put things in a slightly different perspective from the one I feel you are looking at things from.
Judd -- Sure, those things. Here are some traditions: Look both ways before you cross the street, drive on the right side of the road, work down at the mill like your father did, get a job after college, the institution of marriage, Christianity, a political party, the American electoral process, eating deep fried fish with fried potatoes.
Anything that might be called a "tradition" I'm happy to include under my umbrella.
Ben, my friend, tradition is "constantly breaking with tradition." Tradition is not a single, static body of wisdom transmitted intact through the ages: That would be "scripture," and thank you immensely for finally making me figure out what that term really means and how scripture and tradition are different. Tradition is dynamic, ever-changing and self-contradicting: That's its power!
When you sit down at your grandpa's knee, the story he tells you isn't the same story his grandpa told him: It's the story of how he changed the story his grandpa told him, which carries encoded within it the story of how his grandpa's grandpa changed the story his grandpa's grandpa's grandpa told, and on and on and on. For you to tell the story differently yourself isn't "breaking with tradition," it's keeping it alive: "Breaking with tradition" would be not retelling the story at all, or refusing to listen in the first place.
Which of course people do all the time, especially in our culture, where the pace of change makes old stories seem irrelevant. But more of them linger than you'd think. One of my favorite moments in The Matrix is (spoiler) when the heroine kisses the fallen hero and says, softly, "Get up." That's a little crystal of the Sleeping Beauty story, in all its power, yet inverted in a way that shows we now live in a culture where women can be the strong ones sometimes. I don't see that as tradition breaking; I see that as tradition growing.
That's the same with my gaming group, when we really get going. The new stuff, the stuff we invent from whole cloth, is the stuff that doesn't have much power to move us; the great moments come when we take ownership of some story out of our tradition and reshape it to meet our own needs.
Now, even if I were proven wrong about tradition and its capacity for growth, I would still have very little fear about either playing or designing roleplaying games.
First, to remind everyone of Meguey Baker's marvellous essay on ritual once again (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=16661.0), RPG sessions lend themselves naturally to "intentionality" -- we know we're about to do something special, even if we are completely ignorant of Forge theory and don't acknowledge that our characters are just expressions of ourselves -- and to "containment" -- even if we are hardcore immersionists, we know that we are pretending to be someone else, donning a ritual mask that allows us to explore dangerous thoughts a little more safely.
What's more, the "game" aspect of our hobby -- all those weird wargame heritages like stats and dice and cards that we sometimes lament -- serve as another distancing device, another measure of containment, by forcing us to process all even highly emotional context through the rational, calculating side of our brains.
I'm sorry. I think this is wrong. Sometimes, numerous times, following tradition causes suffering, more suffering than breaking with tradition. So much so that keeping to tradition is not the way to go "in terms of your own happiness and safety as a person."
The main reason I say this is because tradition does not make everyone who follows it happy. It's a fact. Therefore, the premise that breaking tradition causes suffering or is dangerous is flawed.
Thus, when you argue that breaking tradition is stupid, that there are no good reasons to do it, the argument falls apart for me. Because many times, there are good reasons -- not just "I think they're good" but actual, real good -- real happiness and safety reasons for the individual.
Female genital mutilation, "stand by your man", accepting slavery, being Christian, being heterosexual, getting married, having kids, etc. There are very good reasons for an individual to abandon these, and following them can and does cause great suffering to people when they choose it over something else.
So dismissing tradition is not just for crazy nutjobs bucking the system, trying to find new ways, but for real people who say, "This is not for me. This does not make me happy. What you do, what is good for you, causes me pain."
That's not a non-reason, that's not even a bad reason, that's a GOOD reason: it's not even a "I THINK this will be good" reason...it is a "I KNOW this is bad" reason and trying to find something that works instead.
And that's not crazy or bad or psychologically damaging. In these cases, you suffer MORE if you follow tradition.
Now, in some (many?) cases, you're right: in those cases, abandoning tradition is going to cause more suffering to you or those around you. But it isn't a case of saying "following tradition brings safety and happiness, abandoning tradition causes suffering" because the truth is much more complex than that.
You know, on reflection it seems to me that a lot of the ways that breaking with tradition is "damaging" often stem from the tradition-followers coming down on the breakers. It's not just that, say, a woman choosing who she will marry is harmful in itself, but it messes up the life of the woman and those around her precisely because the greater society rains down ostracization, censure, and general persecution on her for her choice. It may well be that a particular tradition-break has harmful consequences, and in a perfect world that's exactly what a tradition would be there to guard against. But that's not always the case; sometimes the bad results are only imagined, and sometimes the imagined change wrought is in fact arguably a good thing, a positive social change. Of course, what constitutes "positive" is a tough judgment call. . .
Regarding the roleplaying issue, Sydney, it strikes me that Ben is talking precisely about the ramifications for roleplaying if carried to different areas of intentionality and massive breaches of containment. Stuff like "recruitment and indoctrination tool. . ." The "obscurity" Ben talks about limiting roleplaying's effect is precisely the "containment" that keeps it relatively safe, I think.
Ok, everyone. I know Ben, and Ben is prone to statements like this. He is prone to these statements because (sorry, Ben) he is young. That should be valued, though: we need someone to have insights.
Re-read what he said. He said, to paraphrase, "usually it hurts you or someone around you when you break tradition, but that doesn't stop anyone, and sometimes, things work out." That's a pretty agreeable statement.
Read his entire post. "Is breaking tradition -- which is really just a different way to say "making new stories --" right or wrong? Stupid or smart? I don't know." He's using a rhetorical device, but it caught some people in the first half.
I just re-read your postscript, Ben, and really got it. If you substitute the idea of "breaking tradition" for "mutation," you're explaining evolution. Most mutations aren't great for us, but we're bound to have them anyway, and the ones that work out well will survive to the next generation. If we didn't have mutations, the species would stagnate and we would cease to adapt.
Ben, you know, when you talk about games being used to evil ends, I think you're neglecting to notice that some tools lend themselves better to evil than others, and yours may not be one of them.
Bread (very difficult to use for evil)
Sex (more effective used for good)
Mass Media (more effective used for evil)
Cluster Bomb (very difficult to use for good) (Impossible, really. But that's a serperate disscusion.)
The best, the very best I would ever expect from breaking traditions is extreme mental discomfort, bordering on pain. Uncertainty, nervousness, defensiveness, all that jazz. And, of course, all that same uncertainty from anyone who chose to support me. And that's if nobody chooses to say "You twit! You can't eat Ramen on alternate tuesdays! It's against tradition!"
Pointing out that it can do more good than it does harm seems, to me, to dodge the main point. The main point is that the very act of breaking tradition hurts us. Not the consequences, not the feedback, not the fear of consequences or feedback, but the immediate visceral reaction of our own ... uh ... viscera. We're wired that way, and I think it's healthy to recognize it and move on.
I hated needles in my youth. Still do, in fact. But I hate hate hated needles when doctors kept telling me "Now this won't hurt a bit!" $@^*ing liars.
In college I went in for a tetanus booster, and I asked the poor beleaguered med-school student delivering it (who was, what, three years older than me) "Is this going to hurt?" His response was "Of course it's going to hurt, you moron. I'm using a sharp sliver of metal to puncture your flesh and pump foreign chemicals into your bloodstream. Now hold still!"
I honestly have been easier in my mind about needles since that day. I can go in and be ready to quietly curse and wince, and know that ... yeah ... of course it's going to hurt.
For my money, the same thing applies to breaking tradition.
I remember once, getting myself all wound up in fear about something - family related, I'm pretty sure - and then coming to a sudden realisation: it's okay to be afraid.
Suddenly, I was that little less fearful.
Dunno how this applies, I just feel as though it does, somehow, given your last post, Tony. Maybe it's that fear, pain, badness and damge are pretty much going to happen no matter what you do; once you've acceopted it, you can start dealing with it.
Or maybe it's somethign else, maybe something not valid here. If so, hope you'll all forgive the intrusion.
I'm coming way late to this discussion, but this is what I study for a living nowadays, so...
Adam Yuet Chau, who's a brilliant anthropologist of popular Chinese religion, describes tradition as "a complex, dynamic, ever-changing cluster of institutions, practitioners and consumers, knowledge and practices fully amenable to innovations, inventions, and reinventions all the time."
I don't know if I can say it much better than that. Tradition is constantly changing and reinvented. People who make arguments about This Thing or That Thing being 'tradition' are often making a power play. So I don't really believe in breaking tradition so much. Even that is a symbolic act of power and therefore, part of the tradition.
However, I will agree with Ben on the potential danger in taking things out of their proper context. Using a sharp knife to clean your teeth is a bad idea. Likewise, when you take certain ideas and drop them into alien cultural environments you can get crazy, dynamic, dangerous results that may be interesting for society and the world has a whole, but, boy, I would rather not be around when it happens. (Cf. Christianity and/or Marxism in China.) Still, dangerous and dramatic ideological mixing is still pretty much unavoidable, in the long run. But then the world has never been a boring place, huh?
Rob: I remember once, getting myself all wound up in fear about something - family related, I'm pretty sure - and then coming to a sudden realisation: it's okay to be afraid. Suddenly, I was that little less fearful....fear, pain, badness and damge are pretty much going to happen no matter what you do; once you've acceopted it, you can start dealing with it.
YES! YES! YES!
My way past fear -- my path through the valley of the shadow -- is Jesus Christ. I strongly recommend it. Other great traditions have other paths; I suspect they're not quite so straight and well-marked, but they still get you through the valley in the end.
I like this. This is a good discussion. Ben, thanks for the brain food.
It reminds me strongly of the discussions about myth on the Forge (what, a couple years ago?) that were initiated by Chris Lehrich. I shan't bother to link to them, since they're crazy stupid long. Here's the gist:
1. Myth is a cultural process by which we understand the world around us and our role in our respective societies. Myth is sub-verbal. Is that I word? What I mean by it is, you don't need words to frame myth and interact with it. Furthermore, attempting to frame myth in language is stupidly complex and problematic. Suffice to say that everything-- everything-- in your perception is suffused in myth, from your religion to your role in society to the tissue you just gobbed a loogy in.
2. Roleplaying makes myth.
So, when Ben says that we make new stories (and hence, potentially new traditions, religions, etc.), I agree with him, but in my opinion, it goes deeper than that. More basic. When he talks of stories and traditions, the underlying force at work is myth. I believe that roleplaying taps into that deeper process.
Powwerful? Fuck yeah, it's powerful. Dangerous? Yes, but only insofar as, say, an icepick is dangerous. Roleplaying is an activity and tool that can be (and is) used for harm. But not always.
I think these ruminations are a large part of the reason I've stepped back from the hobby. I haven't fully withdrawn, but often I just can't handle it.
I'm reading Ben's use of "stupid" and "hurt" to mean: risky, denying you access to resources you might have by adhering to tradition, putting distance between you and those who you learned the tradition from, making you find your own way in absence of information, etc.
Not that any of this then means that breaking tradition is the wrong thing, or as Sempiternity said, that it could be the very much right thing for yourself or your descendants in the long term. But in general, that breaking established traditions can be easily seen to be the harder choice and have less reliable payoff, so that in a cost/benefit analysis sense it would be the worse (ie "stupid" or "harmful") choice.
Re: story making as revolutionary. I think it was in a conversation with Ben & Joshua Newman that someone said that science fiction by its nature is revolutionary because it gives people different ways of seeing the world, which they can then bring into being. Same, same here.
Ben, and everyone else, thanks for the fantastic read!
You said that you were also interested in other's viewpoints on the issue.
Before your post, I thought of stories as a way to cast bridges where traditions are being ripped apart at great speed.
RPGs being tools to collaboratively create stories, we can use them together to try to make sense of our constantly changing surroundings.
It's a trivial fact that technology is wrecking serious havok, not only because of the speed at which it evolves, but also because of the responsibility it puts in our hands - never has man been able to affect his environnement so far through space and time.
Traditional wisdom (sorry for the pun), hardly helps us find our bearings in this situation, yet it holds very precious insight on numerous points.
Thus my view of stories as a way to link tradition and the sansdstone-present to help us adapt our landmarks and cope with... life?
I hadn't put thought into the fact that while doing this, we are nevertheless breaking with actual tradition, which causes the pain you seem to be talking about (if Tony shed light on my understanding).
Truth be told, under other circumstances, I'd probably have sneered at this "pain" if somebody had talked about it. Now, I've changed my point of view somewhat, perhaps approaching what you said.
My question to you is: now that we know that this "hurts", are there ways to make the process more comfortable and/or safer?
Especially safer, since we could be unintentionnaly wiring our minds in destructive ways.
Or is this a situation of continuing to boldly ride into the searing light, whatever the risks of burning ourselves?
My way past fear -- my path through the valley of the shadow -- is Jesus Christ. I strongly recommend it. Other great traditions have other paths; I suspect they're not quite so straight and well-marked, but they still get you through the valley in the end.
Thank you for the recommendation, Sydney. I'm not part of any faith, myself - aside from paying $30 to become a Reverend of the Church of the SubGenius eight or so years ago (seemed like a good idea at the time) - and either the deity has yet to reveal itself to me or I was distracted when it happened. I'm doing pretty good so far, though. Maybe not great - the fight against fear's conquest is an ongoing one - but I've come a long way in the past few years, mainly due to the love of a very good woman.
Besides, I'd probably only join a church to meet gamers, anyway...
It is a quirk of human existence that we see goodness in others and not in ourselves. Or, rather, we value the acknowledgement of outside goodness and remain modest, or in some cases, blind, in seeing it in ourselves.
And to answer Sydney's question, I don't believe that anyone/thing/deity made "these women very good". I disagree with the argument posted elsewhere on this blog that humans are by nature not good.
Somehow I don't think Sydney quite meant what Vincent said, but then, I don't know either one of them personally. I do, however agree with you, Vincent; God may or may not be great, God may or may not be good, but he gave us the free will to choose which one we want to be so THAT is good.
Okay, I indulged in rhetorical flourish at the expense of clarity, and I should've known better. My apologies to anyone who read that and had the understandable reaction of "what the hell?" For the record: No, I do not think of God as pressing out lifesize Barbie dolls of virtue with which to reward or reform deserving men (ick). Allow me to revise my statement:
Where do you think the good in these women, or in you, or in me, or in any of us, originally comes from?
We are not the sources of ourselves. Of course we should be grateful to each other. We should also be grateful to the one who gave us to each other.
Actually, the way I read Sydney's original statement was more like, "Do you think that our women's 'ability to be good' (if you get my drift) comes from, or is helped by, their faith?" Possibly because I read "what" isntead of "who" at the beginning of his question, possibly because my wife was raised Anglican and although she's not practicing now, she believes. I've mentioned this thread to her and for fear of putting words in her mouth I'll let her post or not as she chooses.
As for gratitude - I dunno. This may be a topic for another thread, but I've found that my view is, if someone whom you like helps you, then there's no question of helping them when they need help and "gratitude" is unnecessary; if you don't like the person who helped you, then you're expected to be "grateful", which in practice seems more like guilt and resentment at being indebted. In my wife's case, she's also been shaped by a lot of harsh shit (that happened before we met, I'm glad to say), and I can't be "grateful" for that; I prefer to instead accept its part in making her the woman I love.