Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Following up on the Unsavory Past

It seems that my last post has caused some confusion. There are those that don’t quite grasp why I take issue with the weak and subjective language used by WotC in regards to their legacy products:
Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.
This leaves a tremendous amount of room for interpretation, which might very well be the intent. “There is nothing here in The World of Greyhawk that suggests anything wrong, therefore I can ignore it,” is what some seem to say, and what I believe WotC is hoping we say.

As I stated in my last post, I am a trained historian. As a consequence, I tend to see patterns in behaviors and the pattern of behavior I see in the weak and subjective language used by WotC is not a pretty one. I could simply go to the first half of the 20th century to illustrate my point, but I think it will be much more useful tell a story from the 4th century.

There was a charismatic priest in the city of Alexandria (Egypt) by the name of Arius who started to preach that there was a time when the Son was not. He and his followers represented an existential crisis for the early Church. Known today as Arianism, the theology espoused by Arius was biblical, trinitarian, and philosophically sound. Their view of God, however, absolutely destroyed the soteriology of the Church.

As a consequence, the First Ecumenical Council was convened. Their ultimate goal was to clearly define what was Orthodox and what was Arian. In the end, they created what is today known as the Nicene Creed. In process, they made a very controversial move by using the word ὁμοούσιος — a word that is not anywhere in Scripture.

The reason they used ὁμοούσιος and not a word found in Scripture was that every time a word from Scripture was used, both Arians and Orthodox could say the same words and mean two very different things. By choosing the word ὁμοούσιος, they made it impossible for there to be any misunderstanding. Everyone had to choose: are you Orthodox or are you Arian? Without this choice, human freedom and our clear understanding of who God and what His salvation is was in serious jeopardy.

In our present, words have been weaponized. People can and have lost their reputations, their jobs, and their livelihoods over the use of mere words. Yet, most of these words are ill-defined and largely subjective. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with how quickly the meaning of words can change.

In such an environment, clarity is needed. We very much need to follow in the footsteps of the First Ecumenical Council. In order to understand each other, to talk with each other, to accomplish anything positive we need to define terms. Nothing gets done when people have different definitions of words. This reality can only lead to chaos.

Indeed, the very reason people have been able to weaponize words is due to the fact that their definitions are fluid and subjective.

Thus, rather than placing our small community on a solid foundation to move through and beyond the chaos of the moment, WotC has empowered chaos and those who wish to weaponize language.

The very fact that WotC has used such weak and subjective language has made everyone who ever played this game a potential target. Anything and everything that has ever been published for this game now officially may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice. In other words, literally anything from the legacy products of WotC can be weaponized to declare any of us as bigots that were wrong then and wrong today. It doesn’t matter that you and I understand that Gary Gygax did not intend his game to promote prejudice. Because WotC has admitted that such prejudice exists (why else would they need to make such a statement if their weren’t), anything and everything can, and probably will, be weaponized.


Nathan Irving said...

I wrote a bit of a response, but ultimately (between this post and previous comments) you answered my question. Your preference is that WotC does nothing. You specifically call that "courage".

FrDave said...

Why the scare quotes? When there is a mob screaming that we have to do something and the best option is to do nothing, it takes courage.

A.F.W Junior said...

Better doe nothing than empower chaos and hate.

Dennis Laffey said...

I agree with you, Fr Dave. If someone's going to get upset by limits on Strength to female characters in 1E, or that all orcs are chaotic in BX by default, they're going to get upset warning or no. And I've also seen people twisting warnings like this out of context the way you suggest people might.

I think their "legal boilerplate" would have been better without the sentence condemning it as wrong then and wrong now, and simply left it as a warning that some people might encounter outdated ideas in these old products that WotC does not endorse.

Jason said...

I am fine with some sort of disclaimer but as you say words matter and the one they decided to use is poor at best and possibly intentionally inflammatory towards those that enjoy the products in question.

Steamtunnel said...

I am the guy that brought up the boilerplate language and noetic from your previous post. I am also a "trained historian" meaning I have a BA in the subject. For what it is worth since this is an old school D&D blog, I would wager that half your audience are "trained historians." Half of those probably have an SCA membership card in a bankers box in their attic because, you know, D&D.

I don't think the heresy of Arius quite maps to the problem of relative interpretation. The Trinity as a point of doctrine is a conclusion drawn from interpretation of context. The followers of Arius defense was textual based on the idea that the Trinity is not called out in the canon, apocrypha nor the common pseudepigrapha. "One Substance" or "cosubstantial" - the English translation in the Nicean Creed of the Greek word "homoousios" Fr. Dave used above for those following at home - was used to give a word to the concept not because Arius or his follower were interpreting the meanings of the words in a different way. They were textual literalists and argued that because the Trinity was not explicitly called out in the scriptures that is was not so. Athanasius (who turned out to be a serious jerk) argued from a contextual point of view.

The WotC disclaimer is explicit and would only fall into textual relativism of the most twisted mind. Even with a casual read the intent and purpose are understood. Racism and Sexism are bad, Han shot first (really Han just shot, Greedo never got to pull his trigger), we get it.

I applaud your post following this one in that you offer an alternative. But I really think that the language you use there in the replacement notice shows that the root of the problem is that WotC just called your baby ugly. You have a great time playing this game and have enjoyed it immensely. I think that you are afraid because of this disclaimer that people that play old school D&D will be branded as racist.

Acts 18:9 One night the LORD spoke to Paul in a vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent."

In my tradition it is noted how "Do not Fear" is one of the most repeated commandments. That the only permitted fear is fear of the Lord. Additionally we find that silence in the presence of sin is a sin in and of itself. We draw this from Genesis 3 where Adam fails to speak up when Eve is tempted. This is referred to as "the silence of Adam." Silence in scripture is generally associated with fear. So in my mind WotC is actually showing courage by saying anything at all even if we feel it necessary to judge the wisdom of the words they chose.

FrDave said...

There is a lot here that I take issue with, so let me address things in the order that they appear in your comment:

1) Assuming you understand yourself as someone who claims to see the sin of ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice in the world and in the legacy products of D&D, you sure bandy about language that could be interpreted as epithets and derogatory. Dismissing me and my audience as old and as SCA members is, well, not a good start if your goal is to reduce prejudice in the world.

2) Your understanding of Arianism is seriously flawed. The word ὁμοούσιος doesn't have an exact translation in English. It means the same nature, essence, and substance. Arius explicitly denied that the Father and the Son were the same being. He could not accept the concept that God was both one and three. Since the Soteriology of the Church assumed an ontological union (a union of being) with the humanity of Christ, being united to a fellow creature (the Arian Christ) gains humanity nothing since everything that has a beginning naturally has an end. Only when Christ is the second consubstantial (to use another translation of ὁμοούσιος) person of the Trinity do we gain access to the eternity of God.

3) Athanasius has a bad reputation in the modern context because he was a brilliant rhetorician. Debate was a form of entertainment for the ancient world and polemics and hyperbole were part and parcel of arguments of the day. Athanasius was good at both. Given our own context, Athanasius comes off as brash or even an "asshole" (as you claim). Look beyond the rhetoric, however, and you will find an extraordinary mind and someone who deeply cares about the fate of humanity. He is called "the Great" for a reason.

4) The disclaimer issued by WotC is anything but explicit. Sure, you and I can agree that that WotC wants to declare racism and sexism are bad (who doesn’t?). The problem here is that neither racism sexism, or “ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice” is well defined. There are plenty of vile minds out there that are currently trying to define normal, positive behavior as racist, sexist, etc. Since wrong has been done (in the words of WotC), that means the simple act of playing any version of D&D can be defined as “ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice.”

5) Han did shoot first. Yes, I was there in the movie theater to see the original. What does that have to do with my opinion? In context, this is another jab that can be interpreted as bigoted, specifically agist. Again, not a good look for someone who probably wants prejudice to go away.

6) My "baby,” as you put it, is ugly, in all kinds of ways. Read my blog. My concern is not about what other people think of me. This would not be the first time I have been labelled as something nasty because of what I believe (it comes with the territory of being a Christian). My concern is much broader than that. The pattern of behavior that begins with subjective language that shifts meaning over time and used as a weapon has ended in the deaths of millions.

7) Do not mistake my desire to have WotC avoid using words like "ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice" as being silent in the face of racism and sexism. On the contrary, I find such things to be antithetical to the Gospel. Indeed, we are told that "Here there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Col. 3:11). Note how I demand that we see beyond edition, beyond opinion, beyond what ever we think divides us and be united in love. In this case, love of the game.

Steamtunnel said...

Ok I will reply to the points. It seems important.

1. I have been reading your blog for years. I am your audience, and I am not dismissing you, or the others that read your blog. I am saying that the expertise that you rest on is shared by myself and there is a good chance it is shared by the other readers here. History majors are probably more common in old school D&D circles. I bring in the SCA here as a point of pride because if one played D&D in the late 70's early 80's and has at least a BA in history, there is a good chance that person was also involved with the SCA. I am talking about myself. Its not me trying to tear you down, but me trying to climb up.

2. No my understanding of Arianism is not flawed. My presentation of the debate between the two sides is overly simplified. I agree with everything you have said about it here. I think I could have made a better point in that the battle over words and what they mean is constant and not new. We see this with Cicero, Luther, Milton, Pope, Voltaire etc. We even see it in the crucifixion - "Don't write 'King of the Jews'..."

3. I made a mistake here. I was not calling him a jerk because of his rhetoric. I did so out of remembering that he was brought up on charges. It has been a while since I have looked in on his later life and I forgot that the charges were part Arian attempts push orthodox leaders out of their positions as bishops.

4. I think "There are plenty..." onward is your core point in all this. And I can respect this as a valid point of view.

5. Apologies, it was not meant to be derogatory, but rather bring a little levity to the conversation as part of a list of wrongs. A friend pointed out to me some years ago that Han shot first implies that Greedo got his shot off. If Greedo never fired then it is more correct to say "Han shot." It really wasn't a jab and has nothing to do with your age (or mine).

6. Point taken. And your concern is valid given your viewpoint in #4 which I now more fully understand. See my point about the eternal battle of words in #2.

7. Again my bad - I was mixing points on my end referencing your conversation with Nathan above and what you said in the open letter. I misconstrued concern for fear and wanted to offer encouragement.

FrDave said...

Steamtunnel, thanks. As much as I like blogging, conversations like this can easily get derailed because of the limitations of the medium. This is why I have tried to spend time on this and hack away at it over several posts. I appreciate your efforts to keep me honest, force me to find more clarity, and your understanding.

BTW, if being a member of the SCA is "required" to be in the cool club...then I guess I'm really uncool. ;)