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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings Part 5: How Best to Profit as a Guest

                                                                                                           Attending a Feast

I would like to feast here.
No man should call
himself clever
but manage his mind.
A sage visitor
is a silent guest.
The cautious evades evil.
Never a friend
more faithful,
nor greater wealth, than

Seeking Knowledge

The cautious guest
who comes to the table
speaks sparingly.
Listens with ears
learns with eyes.
Such is the seeker of

This is part 5 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

In my last few Hávamál posts (the series starts HERE) I have been discussing the subject of hospitality and the applicability of classical Icelandic (Viking) wisdom to the anarchist/minarchist world of the internet. My wacky thesis is that there is a substantial parallel to be explored between Viking society and Internet society. I have mentioned that, in early Norse-settled Iceland, while there was a functional analog to a constitution, their society lacked any official executive arm (the Icelanders had no king) so that all enforcement of laws and collectively decided punishments was left up to local communities. I see this as functionally parallel to the environment of social media, blog com-boxes, and internet forums. Furthermore I am persuaded that online interaction has the effect of undoing some of the socialization we receive growing up in a society which is structured against the unofficial use of violence (check out the Our Computers, Our Selves Episode of Invisibilia for a cool look at some of the ways computers have affected our online interaction). Essentially I think that online interaction makes us a bit more like Vikings.

In this post I want to take a look at the two poems above as representing Viking wisdom for guests. As much as there is an etiquette for hosts, there is also a lot to be said about how to be a good guest, both in terms of ensuring a positive relationship with your host, and also in terms of getting the most out of your experience as a guest. These two poems are in that latter vein.

One of the "fundamental rules of the internet" is don't feed the trolls. Taken as a wisdom aphorism (usually true and a great rule-of-thumb but don't get all letter-of-the-law about it and watch out for exceptions) it is a really great piece of advice. In many online discussions there are those who love to derail the conversation, often by being as offensive or irrational as they can figure out how to be; it is usually wise to ignore such people. But in a viking context don't feed the trolls would mean something more like don't give undue attention to a troublemaker. What we see in the poems above focuses not on dealing with a troublesome guest but on how a guest can/should interact with the host.

"No man should call himself clever but manage his mind" and "The cautious guest who comes to the table speaks sparingly" I take to be good advice on how not to become a troll yourself. The internet is notoriously full of people who have already carved out their own space (Twitter feed, Facebook wall, blog, tumbler, or Reddit thread just to name a few). Often these folks use their spaces to present, and offer discussion on, highly controversial topics (and yeah, this blog is definitely one of those spaces). The wisdom in these two poems is not that you should never speak up or engage critically in such a space. In fact, critical engagement and rigorous debate are often precisely what the host is hoping for. But not always. Sometimes the host is blithely unaware that the people they have invited in view their proclamations, "shares, and pronouncements" as controversial - they do not want to debate and will become hostile if you contradict them however gently. Other times, the host is practically lying in wait for an unsuspecting guest to "spring the trap" with an insufficiently informed position or weak argument. Engaging with them only leads to public humiliation and a breakdown in relationship. But all three of these situations look basically the same at first blush: a controversial headline.

That is where the wisdom of the Hávamál comes in. The wise wanderer on the world wide web will
Just think, this could be you.
take time to determine her surroundings, to get a feel for the environment before jumping in with a rowdy comeback or witty retort. Check out the host's other work, read some of what they have written and look at how they interact with their guests. Do they jump down the throats of anyone who disagrees with them. Does your host's comment history indicate that they could wipe the floor with you rhetorically? Since most internet interaction is ultimately public, remember that your debate, or argument, will be taking place in a public space; even if you know the person well and have engaged with them in meat-space (in greater privacy) to your mutual benefit, they may behave quite differently online knowing that their comments are being read by their own internet followers.

Engage a space, or a host, in the wrong way and you become the troll, regardless of your own intentions. Remember the cautious (wise) guest "Listens with ears, learns with eyes. Such is the Seeker of Knowledge

Of course sometimes being seen as a troll may be the right thing to do. But even then it is better to approach the situation with your eyes open than shut. 

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