A couple of months ago, we hit our favourite after-class eatery. It was a biggish class, and we over-filled a booth with a table added on at the end. The food was wonderful, the booze was better. Everyone was feeling good and accomplished, and we were merrily chatting away. As sometimes happens, the talk turned to our chosen rival school. We chose them as rivals out of respect and friendship, and in many ways we are working hard to make ourselves their “foil” with the intention that both schools can excel against everyone else.
Nice goals…but after chatting for a while we started to get a little catty. The tone started to change to a bit of undeserved derision. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but it’s one of those things that can sometimes happen. Fortunately, we got called on it. Harshly. Squeak reminded us that we were not only dissing people she liked, but people that were also our friends. People that we admired. She rightfully demanded we stop. We did, and most of us were a bit red-faced when we realized how we’d been carrying on.
Some people have a knack for getting under your skin. When you get together in what feels like a safe place, you tend to vent about that person. And if other people feel the same way, you can get quite the little bitch circle going on. The group I used to be a part of did this all the time, until one of us realized that we were spending far, far to much time talking about someone we didn’t like, in a way we didn’t like. Our gatherings were being dominated by snarky bitchiness, and people were starting to avoid us because they didn’t want to part of such a group. Worse, people were joining because they liked to be part of such groups.
We instituted a partial moratorium on talking about some people. We’d start a countdown as soon as one person’s name was mentioned, and after 2 minutes, we would loudly declare time was up. No more talking about that person for the rest of the day. Move to a new conversation. We would keep that limit up until we had all learned to talk like adults again. It had nothing to do with the other person. It had everything to do with how such talk affected us as individuals and as a group.
You can’t just talk trash without growing a sense of cynicism, which led to bitterness and a bleak view of the world. Your perceptions of things shape how you will perceive new things. You can easily grow yourself a set of filth-coloured glasses to view the world through. If you don’t start to become what you see in the world, you absolutely start to appear that way to every else.
So last week the USFCA announced that Dr. Ken Mondschein had been certified through their process as a Maestro of Historical Fencing, I believe specifically for teaching longsword, but I’m not sure. First off, big congrats to M-D Mondschein. If anyone thinks that such a thing is going to be awarded by any modern fencing organization without an epic amount of work and challenge, they are fools. I might think a PhD in Basket Weaving is a foolish thing, but I don’t doubt that it was the earned achievement of a lifetime for someone. The process of earning that PhD would have been a process of great value for anyone. An Olympic fencing Maestro teaches an art I have no interest in, but I am in awe of the process that lead to that achievement.
I’ve been very clear that I am not in favour of certification, and absolutely not when it is being done by the USFCA. I’d invite you to read a series of three blog posts I wrote on the matter. If you’ve read them before, please re-read them now.
So how do I feel now? Now that it’s a done deal? My concerns about the HEMA community stand. One group in particular has take this opportunity to make themselves look like absolutely horrible people in a rare display of back-patting mutual cattery and vitriol that I haven’t seen since my worst days in the SCA. Sadly, I would say this marks the beginning of split in the HEMA community. There was strain before, but now the crack has started and there appears to be sides forming. From the outside, it’s clear to see. It’s nice to call myself a WMA practitioner and not a HEMA practitioner, because that means I’ve been on the outside all along. Phew.
My suggestions, I think still stand. Our art needs recognition, and for the larger world this means being recognized as a legitimate sporting movement. For the majority of the world, sport doesn’t mean watered-down. That distinction we hold on to that martial arts are different from martial sport is useless. It’s a desire to repeat old mistakes, to keep things small and in the control of a tiny group. To the larger world, making something a sport means to make it more accessible, to have organization and infrastructure that make it easier to participate, and implies always that sportsmanship is the guiding creed. Sportsmanship is the realization of our idealization of chivalry. It never, ever precludes a more martial approach. Look to Savate for an example. There are recognized sporting and street varieties, and from the outside one would see no conflict in using the drills or coaches from one aspect to better the other.
Respect is what keeps things healthy. Respect the sport aspects, and expect that the sport arm will respect the martial aspect. The only reason not to expect this to happen is if you start with name calling and derision. I’ve been down that path and it made me a lesser person. I won’t do it again. I won’t be part of a group or organization that permits, endorses, and institutionalizes it. I only had to read a little of that online before I made my decision. I refuse to dismiss the USFCA certification process. I’d like to try it out, to the limit that my finances will allow me. I am now committed to working with modern fencing groups to see what can be done to foster community. I refuse to let my art belong to only a small pocket of people who think they know what is right and wrong for it. I deny that only a small number of people will ever really understand the correct interpretation. I want no part of an elitist approach.
Look to the group you are part of. Listen to them with an outside ear, try to see them with an outside eye. Have you been led to believe that what you do it right, and other groups or activities are wrong or even “just don’t get it?” If there is one guy up front ranting this kind of crap, it’s easy to see that group as being cultish. But when you and your friends start talking that way amongst each other, the same damage happens. If your group is big enough, it will damage people outside your group, too.
What I said before stands. Moreso, in a way, since it has now noticeably grown. Clean your own crap up. Stop supporting people with divisive attitudes who praise with one hand while slagging with the other. Sport won’t kill historical swordplay. Immature organizations that wallow in their own filth, and start flinging that filth around, will do the job. Demand better behaviour from leaders. Leaders should never reinforce base behaviour. They shouldn’t let you ever get away with a guilty pleasure in seeing someone else trip. They should lead you to a higher standard.
Really take a moment to see who your leaders are. See who the popular ones are who everyone agrees with. The ones who set the standard for behaviour. Be critical of them. If you fear them or what they might say to you or about you…things have gone bad. Make them better. Or walk away. Otherwise you just make it worse for everyone. Take steps to make things better. No matter how close knit and supportive your group might feel, go and talk to others. Make friends. Play. If you are really being supported, it will be easy. You will lose nothing precious by going and taking a few classes with another school and maybe making some new friends. Step out of your comfort zone. Take a chance. You will be helping to make a better community for everyone.