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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #102, Spring ’92

TAKING THE HIGH GROUND: Word-Fighting for the SCA

My cousins, most of this column first appeared in several branch newsletters—I wrote it a couple of years ago as a gift for the Chroniclers who were kind enough to include me on their mailing lists, and it’s been picked up in other pages since. Pray forgive me if you’ve seen it before; it bears repeating, and I’ve no time to write something new this quarter—the month normally devoted to the project got eaten by the Oakland fire. (I escaped unburned, but my landlord lost everything except his rental property. He decided to solve his housing problem by taking my place, so—after 12 years’ residence—I had 30 days to find a new home for the Steward’s Office and myself and move into it. I had lots of help, both from the disaster management people and from the local SCA community, but it was still an exhausting and time-consuming effort!)
     Over and above the time pressure, the martial theme of this issue of T.I. makes it seem especially apt to put in a bit about real combat.... In the SCA, people think and write a lot about fighting with swords, and their advice often works well with rattan weapons. Some would even help with live steel. However, we don’t fight with swords in the SCA, we play with them. When we fight in earnest, we use words—and most of our word-fighting technology is pretty pitiful.
     Our typical verbal warrior acts like a berserker. Metaphorically, he foams at the mouth, tears off his clothes, and charges into battle with whatever comes to hand. He can do a lot of damage, but he can also get terribly hurt. Though he rarely gains his goal, he never changes his tactics—he finds it cowardly to don armor and wrongheaded to pick and choose among his weapons. He believes he must make a direct attack, mixing loaded arguments with insults and accusations, because nothing else feels like combat at all. However, a word-fighter who does choose his approach and weapons can reach his goals without taking a bruise. Here are the basics of skilled word-fighting:

1. Take the high ground. A swordsman wants the best footing and the angle that adds most to his defense and attack. Word-fighting is the same, save that the “ground” you want to seize is in the mind of your opponent, and in the mind of anyone else whose opinion may affect the outcome. Every word you deploy needs to help establish you as wise and thoughtful. Never show anger. Never react when someone seems to do something irratio­nal. If you keep working calmly toward the results you want, you’re likely to get them—either by wearing your opponent down, or by persuading an arbitrator that yours is the better case.

2. Choose your target. A swordsman who pounds on his opponent’s shield wastes his strength, and lets his oppo­nent attack without worrying about defense. Likewise, a verbal warrior wastes his strength if he calls for something his opponent can’t do. Before you strike, be sure no human or natural laws prevent the response you demand.

3. Co-opt the truth. The rules of swordplay forbid it, but someone in a real fight is free to take his opponent’s weapon away and use it. A word-fighter must be alert for such chances, too. When your opponent proves you wrong on anything, adopt a correction fast, in terms that make it clear the new course is your free choice. Defending an obvious error can lose you the high ground forever.

4. Keep to the main goal. Beware the lure of simple carnage! Word-fighting is meant to change an oppon­ent’s behavior. Hurt him too much, and you stiffen his resis­tance. Besides, if you choose your tactics purely for their hurtful effect, you’re not fighting—you’re practicing sadism.

5. Make your opponent fight for you. Even swordsmen look for ways to take advantage of opposing strength. There are other martial arts based much more heavily on that premise, and word-fighting is one of them. The trick is to tie your opponent’s desires to your own, so he gets at least some of what he wants when you get what you want. Ploys like this grow naturally in the SCA, because we have so much in common with each other, and because we face so few either-or choices. It’s usually possible to find room for the whole range of interests on any question.

     The peculiar side-effect of this style of combat is that if both sides use it equally well, they wind up sharing the high ground. The worst that can happen to either is that both win. However, if one drops into berserkergang, the damage he does recruits support for his opponent, and he may well come out with nothing. Physical violence is out, so a failed berserker has no options but eating his words or leaving the field—that is, the SCA—entirely. Fight sane, and win!

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