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Monday, February 20, 2017

Some Perspective - The Wisdom of the Vikings Part 9

Image result for old vikingSelf-Deceit

Only fools
hope to live forever
by escaping enemies.
Age promises
no peace
though the spear spares them.

Note: This is part 9 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.
The last several posts in this series have focused on the various forms of discretion which were vital for medieval Iceland and are important the great multitude who inhabit the internet. Today's poem, in contrast, highlights the importance of engagement. As something of a side note: as I have been working through the Hávamál I have begun to notice a heavy favoring of Aristotelian style virtue ethics and a reliance on a concept similar to his "golden mean". I'll link a  Crash Course Philosophy video, which explains the concept nicely, at the bottom for those of you who are interested in following along.

Poor Randall Munroe gets ripped off a lot. 
In this poem, the sentiment, far from advocating caution and reticence, is more along the lines of carpe diem. In an age of great uncertainty and physical danger, particularly danger from neighbors who might respond to offence with a swinging axe and a warcry, this pair of aphorisms are reminding the reader that a life lived in fear, driven by a desire to avoid all conflict is ultimately empty and self-extinguishing. "Age promises no peace though the spear spares them" would make a tragically damning eulogy. Certainly "timid" is not the sort of adjective we are inclined to associate with Viking culture, and that for a good reason. Having reminded the reader that discretion is the better part of valor, the Hávamál now continues with an insistence that action, too, is often necessary. The Viking who failed to defend her honor, or to stand up for those in her care, was likely to come to just as bad an end as the Viking who failed to think before she boasted. 

This balance between caution and indiscretion turn out to be a vital one for those of us who choose to participate on social media as well. While we are often very well advised to write, read, and delete our comments or combative post/tweet/blog, we are nearly as often morally required to take a stand. As someone who engages fairly frequently in social media "conversations" which turn hostile more frequently than I would like, I want to attest to the fact that I often receive private messages or in person comments from friends and even strangers, thanking me for standing up for them when they felt bullied or dehumanized online. 

Be the hero we need
According to Aristotle, "courage" is the virtue between the vices of cowardice and foolhardy brashness. Sound familiar? Reading this poem in context with those which come before it. We are well served to remember that while there is certainly a time for holding our tongue and letting silence be the voice of peace, there is equally a time for calling out hatred, ridicule, and vitriol. And in fact, I would suggest (at the risk of fanning the flamewars) that in our current climate, you are more likely to hear people calling for "peace" when some vocal and defiant speech is what is actually required than you are to hear people calling for contention when things are calm. Bystanders generally prefer not to have their boats rocked after all and it is far easier for people who are not devalued by misinformation and hateful rhetoric to call for calm, than it is for them to risk looking like troublemakers by calling out smarmy screes and flat out lies. 

In future posts I will try to address some of the thorny questions around developing the discernment to know one situation from another (given the fact that medieval Icelanders' lives literally hung on this ability, it is likely that we will run into it again) but in the meantime I want to end be encouraging you to think about the motives behind your decisions to comment as well as your decisions to "just scroll past and avoid feeding the troll" and remember that sometimes the only course of action is to jump in and try choking the troll with your own body... or words and reputation as the case may be.

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