Monday, September 30, 2013

Authenticity, Status and SCA Culture

[This post refers to the Society for Creative Anachronism, a  historical recreation group with which I have long been active. I suspect problems similar to the one I discuss here exist in many other contexts.]

I recently put  a post on one of the SCA Facebook groups asking whether "authenticity police," people who go up to a stranger to upbraid her for the supposed lack of authenticity of her garb, were mythical. I asked because, although stories of such incidents are common in the Society, neither I, my wife, nor my daughter have ever seen one—and the three of us have been in the Society for a combined span of about a century. Reading the long thread that post spawned, I reached the following conclusions:

1. They are not mythical—such incidents sometimes occur.

2. I am not the only long time SCA participant who has never observed one.

3. Often the attack is bogus—the critic’s claim about what is or is not authentic is false.

4. A lot of people enjoy hearing and telling such stories, making them more common than the frequency of such incidents would explain.

All of which, I think, fits an unfortunate pattern.

The only required authenticity for an SCA event is some attempt at pre-17th century garb, a very low standard. But events frequently have contests in which entries are judged in part on how historically authentic they are, and the Order of the Laurel, a high status rank in the Society, is awarded primarily for researching, demonstrating, and teaching period arts. The result is to associate the knowledge and practice of historical authenticity with status, which I think explains my four points.

The aggressor in an authenticity police story is simultaneously putting down his victim and pretending to expert knowledge. If he actually had that knowledge he would not need to claim status in that way; if he had it for reasons of interest rather than status he would not want to. He chooses vulnerable targets, avoiding individuals who appear experienced and self confident and circles in which historical authenticity is taken seriously, which helps explain why some of us have never observed such an incident.

The SCA contains a minority of people who find it fun and interesting to try to figure out how things were done in our period and do them—make armor, cook from medieval recipes, compose music and poetry in period styles. It contains a larger number whose interest in authenticity is an attempt to do things the way they believe they are supposed to do them, a reflection of perceived social pressure. Which brings me to my point 4.

Suppose I am an active and productive participant who does not happen to have any interest in researching historical arts or using more of such research than necessary. I would like to defend my status against the feeling that I am failing at an important part of what the SCA is about. One way to do so is to convince myself that people who act interested in such things are only doing it as an excuse to put other people down or to gain rank. Repeating and elaborating authenticity police stories is one way of doing so. I can tell myself that people who are doing what I half feel I ought to be doing only do it to curry favor or as an excuse to push other people around—and I would not want to be a person like that.

Another consequence of a culture that views the study and practice of authentic arts as primarily a status game is that to encourage people to pretend to an interest they do not have in the hope of being rewarded with status. Having gotten it in the form of a peerage, they are likely to reduce or terminate  activities that have now served their purpose.

How might one reduce the problem? One way is to replace contests with displays and classes. Arts contests treat period arts as a competitive game, encouraging the idea that historical authenticity only matters for contests. That point struck me long ago reading an SCA publication on a particular art that devoted a couple of pages to what was or was not period—preceded by the comment that this information would be needed by those entering contests, with the clear implication that it would otherwise not matter. And arts contests make little sense except as a competitive game. How, in principle, does one decide whether one entrant's sonnet is better or worse than another entrant's dress?

[This is a revised version of a post with the same title that I recently made to one of the SCA groups on Facebook.]


At 10:07 PM, September 30, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

I suspect problems similar to the one I discuss here exist in many other contexts.

Huh. Almost kinda sounds like you're inviting people who don't participate in this SCA kind of stuff to join in the discussion.

At 12:06 AM, October 01, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

I was more suggesting that such people might still find the post of interest, but anyone with anything interesting to say is of course welcome to join the discussion.

At 1:18 AM, October 01, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i AGREE with the authenticity gestapo. there is nothing wrong with a person pointing out that someone else is wrong in this setting. its is not an "attack" or "trolling". only a few posts ago DAVID FRIEDMAN was admonishing some facebook group which didnt like DAVID FRIEDMAN criticising (or attacking) other people's views (or metaphorical dress).

and i associate people who are very knowledgeable historians with status, and i think that should be so, i do not want to live in a communist society.

At 6:53 AM, October 01, 2013, Anonymous Thomas Buttesthorn said...

I have a hard time understanding why someone who has no interest in history or learning more about it ( research) would even want to belong to a historical exploration group. Shouldn't they be off doing something they ARE interested in? Just saying. There is nothing wrong with someone who has knowledge informing someone who doesn't and so improving same knowledge. That's teaching. When it becomes a problem is when it becomes abusive. Is the goal to teach or to assert one's superiority over another? In theory at least, everyone in the SCA is or should be trying to learn more. People who become peers in part, become peers because they pass their knowledge along. What is the point of uncovering the secrets of the universe if you don't tell anybody? You don't need to be a peer to teach, part of the camaraderie of the SCA is showing people with common interest some new thing you discovered or learned, some project you've done that you are proud of having done. We learn and share. Displays rather than competitions? Hmmm. Some people are just competitive. Its part of human nature. There probably should be more displays, some sort of way to put your work out for others to see in a non judgmental way. But people do judge. They like one thing more than another. Some people will be checking the stitching, the level of authenticity, not to see who " Won" but to see how skilled the artist or artisan is. People are always judging one way or another. The challenge is how to make it a positive thing so that everyone walks away feeling good about what they've done. Teaching and pointing out errors does not have to be a bloodletting, a good teacher leaves the student better than they found them, wanting to know more. Good teachers check their egos at the door.

At 7:10 AM, October 01, 2013, Blogger Nancy Lebovitz said...

The dress I wore to SCA events was emphatically (though not deliberately) non-period. I was never hassled about it. In fact, I got compliments.

I drifted out of the SCA because it wasn't really what I was interested in, but I remember the courtesy fondly. In particular, the handling of the afore-mentioned dress, that King Flieg politely let me look at certificates before they were handed out (I wanted to see the calligraphy and didn't care who was getting what), and that you let me use your coat of arms in a bit of satirical heraldry that had everything wrong.

I'm less pleased with the fellow who insisted on "correcting" my SCA name to make it more period, and I rather wish I'd taken a hard line with him.

One of the most interesting things I learned about the middle ages was that tourneys didn't have single winners-- they were a display of fighting rather than a formal competition. (I will not be surprised to find out that this is mostly true, or not true at all.)

However, if it is true, then it's an important way the past was different from the present, and one worth replicating.

At 7:38 AM, October 01, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...

I take part in a number of living history timeline events. Some of them have authenticity contests, but they work in a way that is more positive than arts competitions in the SCA.

For example, Military Through the Ages has awards for best unit demonstration, best camp, best camp cooking, and best uniform/clothing impression. For all but the first there are separate awards for pre-1879 and later.

Because the award goes to the group, the competition is not for individual status, and the whole group has an incentive to help everyone in it achieve as much authenticity as possible. And because the award is for overall impression, you can't win just by doing only one craft well. The camp cooking isn't just the quality of the cooking, but presentation. how the table is set and how it is served.

One of the problems with SCA arts contests is that because you can win just by doing one craft well it's hard to find competent judges for all the different crafts.

At 10:40 AM, October 01, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:02 AM, October 01, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Would you say the average SCA member is probably more like Jeff Albertson than Hank Hill?

At 11:19 AM, October 01, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...

I should add that I think the SCA puts far too much effort into slotting people into particular places in a formal status hierarchy, energy that would be better spent doing something medieval.

At 2:38 PM, October 01, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


The SCA, like a lot of other groups, serves multiple purposes. It's a social group. It makes possible a sport, medieval combat done for fun with non-lethal weapons, that some people enjoy. It's many other things.

Along similar lines, a very long time ago I went to a folk dance at the university where I was teaching--not because I was interested in dancing (I'm not) but because the wife of a colleague had told me it was a good place to meet girls.

She was right--one of the best investments I've ever made.

At 6:48 PM, October 01, 2013, Blogger Chris Bogart said...

Seems like an example of "anticipated reproach" where people imagine that all vegetarians are judging them for eating meat, and bicyclists are judging them for driving cars. There's a study about the phenomenon here that I don't have access to read:

At 7:41 AM, October 02, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're making the assumption here that the people who are indifferent toward improved authenticity are behaving badly and know that they are behaving badly.

Compare this to the controversy some years back about limiting the activities of children at Pennsic. If the people who supported children being limited to "children's activities" were to suggest that your opposition was based on your knowing that you had been unnecessarily and inappropriately endangering children in the past, but didn't want to admit it, then their suggestion would be both incorrect and insulting.

Yet this is what you are suggesting wrt those hostile toward suggestions about their lack of authenticity.

An alternate explanation is that they are not acting out of guilty knowledge, but out of territorial defense. They see the version or portion of the SCA in which authenticity is commonly set aside in favor of other values as "their" SCA, as belonging to them. And their stories of "authenticity police" are a matter of being on guard against (people they see as) invading strangers attempting to drive them out of their patch of the SCA.

At 11:06 PM, October 02, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"You're making the assumption here that the people who are indifferent toward improved authenticity are behaving badly and know that they are behaving badly."

Actually, I am not. I that was my assumption, I wouldn't have described the hypothetical person as "an active and productive participant who does not happen to have any interest in researching historical arts ... ."

My assumption was not that the person was behaving badly but that he was concerned that he might be behaving less well than he should be.

At 6:36 AM, October 07, 2013, Anonymous Jennifer Soucy said...

I've often seen the argument that competitions are the reason for arts-oriented people in the SCA to behave badly, but it bothers me each time I see it.
I've never seen the corollary in (either of) the fighting communities - an idea that individual competition is detrimental. Rather, individual competition, for those interested in it, is a way to test your skills and what you have learned.
For me, and I think others, arts competitions are exactly that - a proving ground, similar to the music competitions I competed in back in high school. And as such I still think they add something useful to the Society.


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