A lot of my life seems to consist of apparent extremes: I’ve often said that my two biggest religious influences are Starhawk and Carl Sagan, for example; I’m an eco-anarchist bisexual/queer activist settled down in a suburban 9-to-5 white-collar lifestyle, for another. I get the impression that a lot of my friends from the old activist crowd look at my current Facebook and scratch their heads at the medieval recreation stuff… and I know for a fact some of the more conservative friends I have in the SCA are quietly appalled by my “radical” past. To one set of friends I’ve gone from a committed anti-oppression stance to glorifying (or at least romanticizing) a classist culture which oppressed women and engaged in terrible religious bigotry; to the other I’m the next best thing to a fugitive terrorist trying to blend in with the “normal” people.
I’m doing neither of those things, of course. The SCA’s unofficial motto is “The Way the Middle Ages Should Have Been.” We strip out the sexism, the racism, the religious hate (in fact, religion altogether) and embrace the pageantry and chivalry, but we never ignore the historical reality… Or at least I don’t. For instance, I portray a free-lancer from mid-14th century Aquitaine, which means that the Albignesian Crusade is very much something I would be aware of. (If you don’t want to get into the Wikipedia article I linked to above, it was a mid-13th century genocide in southern France where the phrase “Kill them all and let God sort them out” was quite literally invented.) We don’t have the Inquisition, or the Catholic Church, but it is impossible to study medieval history and not be aware of their abuses. The life of the average nobleman — let alone commoner — in the middle ages was “nasty brutish and short” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes.
By contrast the SCA is actually an incredibly inclusive and modern institution. The roots of the society were in the “outcasts” of 1970s and 80s American culture: the nerds, the geeks, the sci-fi fen and the queers, and their influence has lasted. Sure, the SCA has had to develop: women weren’t allowed to fight in Crown Tourney for the first several years of the organization’s life, and same-gender consorts were only officially allowed in late 2012 (and there are some serious proeblems with how that rule got rewritten) but the SCA has generally been on the cutting edge of social change. Cross-gender players are accepted, cross-cultural players are common, as are women fighters, LGBT people and people of every religious faith (including none at all.) We may play in the “Current Middle Ages”, but we still live in the 21st Century.
On the other end of the spectrum is my leftie-activist political belief. I’m a good deal more settled down here in my mid-30s than I was in my 20s, but it wasn’t that long ago that I served as a Street Medic at various protests and those habits and attitudes don’t just leave you. One of the nice things about having an employer who regards me as a valuable member of the team worth a living wage (and not, as in my call-centre experience, a barely-tolerated parasite who exists only to undermine the company’s profit margins) is that I have a disposable income, from which I can donate to various causes. It’s not much, but a bit of cash in the right place can help a lot.
My fiancée and I share similar opinions on a lot of issues, especially the need to support local businesses and eat healthy, so a lot of our grocery budget gets spent at the farmer’s market or the locally-owned independent grocery stores and we belong to a food co-op run by a friend of ours (who we met in the SCA, actually.) Now that we’re settled into the new house my fiancée is putting in an elaborate raised-bed garden setup to grow as much of our own food as possible on a suburban lot. We both vote, although neither of us belongs to a particular political party (we make a point of actually reading the party platforms during any election and voting accordingly) and we’ve both written letters to our MP and MPP on various issues (although writing to our MP, the Right Honourable Dean del Mastro, is probably a waste of paper: his opinions depend entirely upon those of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and no one so inconsequential as a mere constituent is going to change his mind on a given issue) and we both speak up.
Yes, there’s some privilege involved; we have the luxury of speaking up, the luxury of a disposable income and a safe place to wield it from, the luxury of being in a class and a race and a country that allows for these privileges to exist… and we’re aware of that. I’ve taken some criticism lately about not doing “enough” to fight the inequities of modern Canadian society (by someone who hardly knows me and didn’t know my background,) that that I shouldn’t be wasting time playing games when there was a lot of serious work to be done. The implication was that I was standing on my privilege, I was coasting along, that I had somehow let the team down… that I was a sellout.
My response to that is that I’ve paid my dues. I did more in a decade’s activism than most people — however well-meaning — have done in their entire lives. And I still contribute, despite being thirty-four, having a bad knee and a lot of scars from my radical days (some internal, some external) and yes, having real responsibilities to myself and my loved ones, however mundane and unromantic some of those responsibilities may be. There reaches a point in any community where self-sacrifice becomes self-aggrandizement, where you embrace the martyr-complex and stop being part of the solution… and that is not a happy road to start down. Every activist reaches a point, I think, where they have to sit down and make an honest self-assessment as to whether or not that’s happening to them. The sad thing is how few do it: one of the things that pisses me off about the activist subculture on the Left is the number of people who have clearly let their once earnest-commitment turn to self-righteousness and holier-than-thou hypocrisy. It happens. It’s not inevitable, but it happens, and it tends to happen a lot faster when you can’t take a break, if you go out to the extremes and don’t come back.
The SCA is fun, it makes me happy, and it distracts me from the heap of steaming inequality that is 21st century Western civilization — and distraction is good as long as you don’t let it become denial. The Society keeps me from going crazy, it gives me an outlet for my stress, and it inspires me to do and make things that I never would have dreamed of back in the day. It gives me a place to grow as a person and help others grow while I’m at it, and do you know what? That’s as worthy an endeavour in its own way as any demonstration or direct action campaign.
I’ve learned in my life that one must practice moderation in all things — including moderation. I really do live a life of extremes; and the trick to managing extremes is finding a point of balance.