Monday, October 12, 2009

On meaning and principles

There's a concept I find myself struggling to convey in my arguments in Lusternia, both in character and out, and it is one of those things that I fear maybe you just either get or you don't. I've had it many times and usually it ends up being a dead end, so maybe I can use this blog post as a means to try to refine my expression. First, I need to establish some background.

In the game, a guild leader has the option of granting someone a special honor which will appear on the scroll of their deeds forever. The honor is like the Congressional Medal of Honor in that it's entirely symbolic (having one doesn't get you free drinks or higher security clearance or a boost in pay, it just gives you the chance to say you got it). However, if the guild's three leaders agree unanimously, the honor can be retroactively stripped.

Someone in my guild, and as it happens someone I always disliked and never got along with, was granted this honor a few months ago, and with my full support. For while he and I disagreed on many points, I certainly agreed that he had done many good things for the guild and the commune, and deserved the honor for his service. Recently, he changed sides, and is currently part of some very vicious attacks on the commune, and it has inevitably been proposed that his honor be stripped. Since it requires unanimity, I have shot it down, and gotten some guff for it.

In defending my stance, I am alluding to a much more endemic issue, where the meaning of words and actions is set aside in favor of tactics or retribution or other things that are merely meant to satisfy a superficial desire. But to keep things tidy I'll stick to this one instance for now.

I propose three scenarios. Bob appeared to work hard for the commune, but it was all calculated to put him into a position where he had authority, access, and information with which he could betray the commune. He abused that rank to sneak information to the enemy, then when the time was right, betrayed the commune, destroying things on the way out. Sue worked hard for the commune, and her work was genuine and sincere. Later, because of changes in her life, or personality conflicts with commune leaders, or other things, she left the commune, and eventually her path took her to where she was attacking the commune. Robin worked hard for the commune for many years too, but has since retired and is largely inactive, not involved in politics, just focusing on crafts in a hut somewhere.

It's clear to me that, if Bob got the honor, it should be revoked, because it was never really earned. He never really served the commune. He only gave the appearance of doing so for his own purposes. In this case, revoking the honor is saying "it should never have been granted in the first place." On the other hand, while Sue is not currently doing what she did to earn the honor, that's no more true for her than for for Robin. Her current actions don't undo her past actions; if they merited the honor then, they still do.

In arguing this, I am a lone voice. Everyone else is happy to argue that both Bob and Sue should have their honors stripped. Their reasons strike me as being rationalizations for an act of petty retribution, but maybe I'm being as dismissive as they are of my arguments. They interpret the honor as meaning that, at the time you look at the honor, not at the time it was awarded, the person is all that the honor claims, still worthy of being granted it again. Which might be internally consistent, if the honor claimed to be about what you are, not what you did. Anyway, why wouldn't they also strip it from Robin, if that's their reason? Yet no one ever proposes doing that.

I know that I'm being an idealist, that I'm standing on a somewhat abstract point of principle instead of going along with what everyone else does. And honors ultimately only mean what everyone thinks they mean, so if I just give in and forget this (which is inevitably going to be what happens next, since I doubt I'll persuade anyone) then it'll become true. If it hasn't already, since almost everyone else has already conceded on this point.

But I also feel like every step on that path is an erosion in which Lusternia ends up a little less than it was. When we treat enemyship as having no meaning other than the right to charge a fine and the ability to deploy guards and shrine powers, we further trivialize the rich history and setting that made Lusternia so much more than an overblown version of Stratego. And that's especially sad because, so far as I am able to determine, there is no MUD left in the world that is what Lusternia used to be, but there are plenty of MUDs that have long been what Lusternia is becoming. So the real problem is that we're sacrificing a choice and making the world smaller.

Each individual act of preserving the meaning of words and actions is trivial and petty in itself, since each word and action means only what most people agree it means. But collectively, all the acts of diluting meaning and sacrificing it on the altars of tactics or retribution are part of, or at least symptom of, what's turning Lusternia into a ghost of itself. And I can't see any way to persuade anyone that each of those trivial acts is worth arguing about. It's so much easier to say "ooh, he killed one of ours, let's do something about it!" and then, finding no way to do anything real, to strip an honor. That'll hit him where it hurts! (Ironically in this case it probably hurt him more than anything else we could do, which is not to say all that much, but even so, it's something.)

Why can't I make anyone understand this? Or am I just being hopelessly quixotic?

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