One of the things that makes smooth social interaction difficult in the SCA is that we’re mostly a bunch of socially maladjusted geeks who have never grown out of the insecurities of high school, where we were taunted by the popular kids, bullied by the meaner kids, and received little to no sympathy from our teachers because we were, well, socially awkward and to be frank, probably rather unappealing.
But enough about my childhood.
It’s one thing to be a socially maladjusted geek – if you know you’re one (we'll call ourselves the SMGs), then you can at least come up with coping skills for the basic things you need to get through life (if you haven’t, you should. It makes life much easier). If you’re essentially good-hearted, which I believe most people are (me, the eternal optimist), then you don’t actually go through life intending to cause other people pain. Pain happens, of course, but the SMG that knows they’re a bit awkward can then apologize sincerely, and hopefully everyone can go back to being at least polite, if not super-duper best friends. It’s not the end of the world, and the SMG now knows that saying Thing A = Friend being upset, therefore don’t say Thing A. It’s these simple lessons that allow everyone to steadily become better people throughout their lives.
(Because your adult self is not set in stone the moment you turn 21; if it were, I would still be hugely fat, stuck in a bad marriage, and really quite annoying. Over the years, I have managed to evolve to a higher plane of understanding and now I’m in a great marriage, a bit thinner, and only mildly annoying. It’s an improvement for all concerned.)
The trouble starts, as it does in so many things, when the SMG is completely unaware of what kind of person they really are (we’ll call these special snowflakes Socially Maladjusted Unaware Geeks - SMUGs, - because we’re bastards that way). It starts in those tender years that made us all the dorks we are today: If you’re a geek as a teen, it was extremely likely that you got at best a bemused kind of ostracism from your fellow students, and at worst, persecution of the kind only available at one of the fine educational institutions our country is so justly proud of (Or Parris Island, but they’ll pay for your college degree if you survive, which at current college education prices, is starting to look like a good deal).
(I kid – I love Marines. I knew some fabulous ones in London who cleaned my house after a party where the main entertainment was throwing full glasses of wine over each other in some arcane mating ritual, but I digress.)
One of your defense mechanisms as a persecuted teenager was to tell yourself that you were the only true arbiter of cool, and those hapless jocks and cheerleaders who laughed at you in the school cafeteria were merely sheep conforming to a diseased society that worships normality and rejects real thought. Other defenses consisted of affecting a studied indifference to the hoots of derision when you confessed your love of the Romantic poets, spending the Phys. Ed. period hiding in the school library reading Vonnegutt, and fantasizing about making "them" have unfortunate “accidents” like Christian Slater and Winona Ryder did in Heathers, then blowing the school up.
(Whoo, giving myself flashbacks, there.)
That’s fine when you’re a teenager, but when you hit the real world, the microcosm of high school doesn’t matter anymore. The minor physical abuse can now be answered with lawsuits and criminal proceedings, and you’re old enough to own a gun (whereas in school, it was mostly frowned on). The big bad world honestly doesn’t care who you are, doesn’t care what you do (as long as it’s mostly legal), and tends to think that you’re an adult, so provided you’re not a bum clogging the sidewalk, what you do is up to you (see: Legal). Sure, you will still run into people who think you’re weird and will laugh at you, but who cares? Can they take away your birthday? Heck, the adult you even gets a paycheck to spend on stuff, and you don’t have to beg your mom for months to get the money to buy that ultra-punk $400 leather jacket that is completely essential to your success in life.
(Mom probably felt somewhat vindicated for not giving in to your demands after you went vegan the next summer and declared that all her leather shoes and purses were murder. Ahhh, teenagers.)
But your SMUGs, they never get past the trauma of those teenage years. Instead of putting those years to rest and saying “fuck all that; I’ve got castles to build!”, they carry that victimized outcast mode of thinking into their adult years. For the SMUGs in the SCA, it’s not enough that it’s really rather fun to dress up like a prince or princess, play at silly buggers in the woods, and award each other fun prizes for doing so, it still has to be cooler than anything else. Pity, them; though the jocks have long since forgotten them and gone on to lives of (I like to think) boring conformity, car salesman jobs and football on Sundays (unless the wife wants to go to IKEA), the SMUGs still have the horror of their teenage torment rattling around in their brains. Some secret part of them is afraid they really WERE inferior, so instead of saying “fuck all that; I’ve got castles to build, and maybe a six-pack of home-brewed mead to drink while listening to 18th century folk songs around a campfire”, they’re spending all their time secretly telling themselves that of course they’re cool, and it’s not silly in the least to dress up in stained tunics on the weekend, and you know, if the world ended, we’d survive longer than anyone, and all you normals are sheep, and I’m the only one who really gets it, and, and, and…
Who wouldn’t be socially awkward with all that tumbling around in their head?
The trouble is, SMUGs don’t have most of that anxiety in their conscious brain; no, they’ve buried it deep. So deep, in fact, that many of them have completely bought into their bleatings that they’re the coolest thing since sliced bread. This makes them annoying to be around, partly because people who refuse to admit they have any flaws are tiring, and partly because anyone that insecure is likely to unleash a whirlwind of whining at the slightest hint they aren’t the ultimate dog’s bollocks.
Someone that sensitive to criticism is exhausting and emotionally dangerous to be around. If any hint comes through that they are not the wonderful perfect charming brilliant sagacious admirable person they spend fervent hours convincing themselves they are, they will jump on you with both feet and if you’re not careful, a screaming match followed by a cold war of epic proportions will ensue. SMUGs will always attack instead of accepting “criticism” (the definition of which for them can encompass the entire spectrum of observations from random comments that aren’t critical in the least to full-bore behind-the-woodshed talking-tos), because admitting they might have screwed up is just too damn painful.
(NOTE: although the sneakiest ones have learned to pretend to listen to advice, and make a good show of appreciating your comments, they are really just memorizing each word to use as ammunition against you later. Knowing this will save you time and heartache in the long run.)
While they may seem overconfident to the point of brutality on the outside, on the inside, they’re a mess. Unconsciously, they’re terrified someone might find out that they’re not who they profess to be, and they’ll be transported back to their high school gym, to be surrounded by a circle of jeering teenagers laughing hysterically and mocking them because they can’t do a chin-up. They simply cannot accept the reality that they are human and flawed, so they’ve built up an elaborate network of lies to cover it up; lies so deeply set that they are often completely unaware of them.
So far, they’re just annoying. But what if a SMUG in a position that affects other people screws up? How do you tell them? In the SCA, we seem to follow a policy of “they screwed up, but no-one wants to hurt their feelings. We’ll wait until they screw up big-time, then we’ll say something”, and the SMUG goes on, oblivious to the damage they cause, making bigger and bigger screw-ups because no-one’s willing to stop them ("that wasn't a really big screw-up; we'll wait until something really awful happens"), while everyone around them grits their teeth and picks up the pieces. If anyone does attempt to circumvent future damage, the SMUG simply adds that person to their enemies list and goes on exactly the way they did before, because they are convinced they aren’t wrong – it’s everyone else that’s wrong.
I’ve known people who are literally this bad – oblivious to the damage they wreak, tactless to the point of cruelty, and completely unaware of how they are regarded by the rest of the SCA. It takes a strong mind and a fantastic poker face to sit and listen to someone whine about what a great person they are, how much they give to the group, why don’t they have this award or that award, and how everyone else is awful and selfish and greedy, but they’re perfect. Two of the worst examples I ever met (many, many years ago – no-one you lot would know) would actually re-write events in their head so that when the story was re-told, they were always the smart one who had all the answers, took care of everything calmly and competently, and never, ever screwed up. It takes a rare talent for self-deception to be able to do that, but SMUGs are nothing if not talented.
They cause problems – if you’re not with them, you’re against them, and any possible whispered negative thought about them will make them your enemy for life. They’ll enlist people to their cause, and since they can maintain a reasonably sane façade for quite a while, people will believe them. They are never positive, only negative, and always divisive, not unifying. Being naturally paranoid, they'll build up a network of spies who will report anything anyone says about them, and the SMUG will always put the worst possible interpretation on anything they hear.
(I swear, it makes me want to take up drinking as a competitive sport, sometimes.)
They never change – to admit that they need to improve is too terrifying, because if they admit they’re not perfect in every way, then they make this giant leap from “I might need to fix that” to “I am a complete loser”. A mental leap like that seems absurd when you write it down, but it’s that exact thought process that prevents them from becoming better people and learning new things.
It even prevents SMUGs from teaching other people effectively, because while the SMUG may be a very accomplished person, as soon as a student looks like they’re getting better than them, the SMUG realizes it’s not perfect, panics, sabotages (often unconsciously) the student’s progress, and a completely innocent person is damaged in the process.
(Another bourbon, bartender; make this one a double.)
The SMUG is vindictive. The SMUG is cruel. The SMUG, given the slightest chance, will become the bully they hated in high school, because the SMUG is all about revenge for past wrongs, and doesn’t really care who gets it in the neck, as long as someone does. The SMUG is constantly crying victim, while leaving shattered people in its wake. The SMUG will never accept the consequences for what they’ve done (or failed to do), it’s always someone else’s fault, because the SMUG is perfect in every way. Woe betide you if you say different - the SMUG’s wrath is fearsome, and very, very long-lived. All the time, however, the SMUG is going on and on about what a kind, forgiving, wise person they are, and how they’d never do anything like that. This is a problem.
(Six Jim Beam shots, please; line ‘em up in front of me.)
A person who refuses to accept they’ve done something wrong is a person who will make the same mistakes over and over again. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them will go permanently on their shit list, and the SMUG has no qualms about enlisting people who will be taught to loathe that person and all their friends. They’ll take the credit for anything anyone around them does, and blame everyone else if things go wrong. They’ll deliberately cause problems if they think it will advance their cause, and deny everything if caught. Now, imagine that person in charge of your group.
(Okay, you can relax now; it’s just a little scary monster under the bed. Hardly worth worrying about – and if you want, we can bean him with the empty whiskey bottles.)
Do we have a solution?
Well, we can't fix them and stop them from being the way they are, sorry. The process of self-acceptance can only come from within. However, we do have ways to circumvent the SMUG’s destructive tendencies – don’t let them hold SCA offices, don’t put them in positions of power, and don’t play into their games. Someone’s telling you that so-and-so is evil? Don’t take that person’s word for it – check it out for yourself. Don’t sit and listen to them whine (unless you’re their peer, but that’s another post entirely). Don’t let them dictate what your group can and can’t do. Don’t give them the chance to ruin what you want to do – if they say no, do it anyway (within legal limits). I’ve done it, and the world didn’t come to an end. Above all, don't allow one SMUG's temper tantrums to take precedence over the well-being of an entire group of people. The SMUG will live if thwarted, but if the SMUG is allowed to prevail, the group may not.
I think we’re all pretty frustrated with the negative people who demand so much of our time and give so little in return, but it’s absolutely not necessary to coddle them. A really bad addict will sometimes only have the strength to recover if they experience true rock-bottom; in a similar way, a SMUG might require tangible proof of their mental disconnect before they can start breaking down old hurts and building true self-acceptance. But this is not our job; all we can do is refuse to enable the SMUG behaviour.
How do you know you’re not a SMUG? Can people tell you how they feel without you going off the deep end? Do you twinge in embarrassment when someone tells you "you done that wrong", but accept and apologize? Does your enemies list really only comprise of your boss from your first job and that bastard David (Hi, David from high school! Love you!) from 10th grade? Yes, what you do is dorky, and we’re all geeks, but it's okay to love it, and there's no need to justify our hobby by making it any more than it is. Is there anything more to ask of life than a fun hobby, good friends, people you can count on? Isn’t having that great?
Isn’t that the best?!
(If you answered yes, then congratulations, you’re just a plain ol’ dorky SCAdian like the rest of us. Welcome to Dorksville; Population: Us.)