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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #100, Fall ’91


Once upon a time in these Current Middle Ages, my cousins, a group of kings sat planning for a battle. One of them proposed sending parties of fighters into the field to hide themselves before the opening of the setup phase. “But, Your Majesty,” another said, “That wouldn’t be honorable!” “Victory will be our honor!” the first replied.
     I don’t know what happened next. What should have happened is that the others denounced the sentiment as out of place even in jest, and explained that the sort of “honor” that is defined by winning is no honor at all in the Society. But I wouldn’t count on it. Like unexpected blows, outrageous statements often produce stunned silence. Also and more dangerous, that particular asser­tion has its own implicit logic, and some of the group may have been trapped into agreement.
     The underlying premise is immanent justice: the idea that consequences inevitably follow acts. On a physical level, this is clearly true—if you jump in the mud, you will get dirty; it doesn’t matter who you are or who you know or whether or not anyone else is watching. Small children tend to believe that human rules enforce themselves the same way, and you see the concept applied in fiction all the time—it may take a while, but the good guys always win, crime doesn’t pay, cheaters never prosper.... It’s a comforting and comfortable idea, but it works a lot better in nurseries and novels than in the adult world, where no one has the control over anyone else that parents and authors can maintain.
     Modern law enforcement tries to look like immanent justice, but it isn’t nearly reliable enough for the job. Despite the risk of getting caught, people do break laws, and everyone knows they often get away with it. It seems to me that the concept of immanent justice—the toddler’s-eye view that if something is really wrong, you will get caught and punished—actually encourages law-breaking. The concept strongly implies its converse: the idea that if you didn’t get caught and punished, you must not have been wrong after all. Once you buy into that seductive fallacy, it’s easy to persuade yourself that anything you can get away with is justified as well as exciting and profitable.
     In the Society, we have neither the automatic enforce­ment of natural law nor the physical and economic sanctions of human law. Instead, we’ve chosen to guide ourselves by a set of ideals based on the ideals of our period. At its best, the Known World is a place where people keep their promises, pay their debts, protect each other, and treat each other with perfect courtesy. Our fond belief is that we do these things because that’s the sort of people we are. Our achievement is that we’ve built a social structure and a network of rules and expectations that make it likely that most people will choose to act in this manner most of the time.
     Unfortunately, the aspects of our social structure that make it work as well as it does—the trust and value we place on each person in it—also make it easy for a dishon­orable (or even an “expedient”) person to abuse. When someone fails a commitment or bounces a check or otherwise takes advantage of our mutual trust for personal gain, it is difficult for the rest of us to respond. The first impulse is to change the rules to make that abuse harder to get away with, but the more we convert the structure of the Society to one based on penalties rather than expecta­tions, the more poorly it serves our real needs.
     It seems to me that our defenses must rest as much as possible on individual action rather than institutional sanctions. The more rules we make, the harder it is to remember that the important choices are the ones not covered by the rules. We need to understand—and to help new members understand—that it is necessary to act with fidelity and honor and chivalry and restraint because that is what the Society is for. It doesn’t matter who you are or who you know or whether or not anyone else is watching, re-creating the ideals the Society serves is more important to its survival than re-creating the clothing and technology of our period. And we need to help each other understand on a direct, personal level that it is not clever or adventurous to see what one can get away with here; it is only sad and self-destructive and destructive to the Society.
     Even though we share a childlike delight in the pageantry of our period, we must live as true adults. The social structure we have built has no place for childish reliance on immanent justice. We need to behave well to each other, not out of fear of the consequences of doing ill, but because doing well is what we are here to do. If you see a chance to get away with something, pass it by. If you hear someone propound the idea that because something wrong won’t be punished automatically it’s all right to try it, declare firmly (and loudly!) that you’ll have no part of it. If you see people profit from what you know for certain (rumors and suspicions don’t count) to be abuse of the Society, treat them like holes in the air—that is, with the courtesy you owe everyone, but with no regard or respect for their ill-gained “honors”.
     Abuse of ideals is every bit as much a part of history as the ideals themselves, and we’re all well aware that for all its ideals, our period was harsh and constricting for most people doomed to live in it.... However, these are the Current Middle Ages. We need to remember and keep reminding each other that we are not re-creating the Middle Ages as they were. We are re-creating them as they should have been, with their ideals in practical use, so we can enjoy the best they have to offer—and the best we have to offer, as well.

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