Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

The Dangers of Organizational Defensiveness

A friend was remarking recently on some confusions that an SCA novice recently had -- my best guess is that she was just starting out, and people were tripping over themselves to make the SCA look *easy* to join, and simply confused her in the process. (Telling someone about t-tunics is great if they appear to be terrified of sewing. But if they're trying to understand the right way to make period clothes, it's not helpful.)

On thinking about this, I am reminded (tangentially) of what a bad idea this can be if you carry it too far. Take the Masonic example, for comparison.

Masonry, like the SCA, is in its way kind of Weird. It's much more respectably Weird than the SCA, and really isn't part of the Archipelago of Weird, but neither is it quite Mainland. Like all clubs, it's always desperate for new members, and ever moreso now that it is in a downslide. So many of the guys reckon that, since we need new members so badly, we'd better make it easier to get in. Masonry was originally a very exclusive organization, so obviously the way to improve our membership situation is to make it more inclusive, right? Well, not necessarily.

Context: Masonry is heavily about the ritual. A full-fledged Mason, for most purposes, is one who has been through the first three degrees. Each degree is an immersive ritual, wherein the candidate is escorted through an experience that is designed to symbolically teach some life lessons.

Let's go through some of the things that have changed over the years:

  • First (a long time ago), the time between degrees was reduced. This happened a long time ago, but it's significant. In the Middle Ages, the degrees (Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason) meant exactly what they claimed to be: they were guild ranks, and you would normally spend years earning your way to the next level. As things became less operative and more symbolic, the time between degrees slowly shortened to a single month -- just enough to symbolize that these *are* separate degrees. (There are a few jurisdictions that still require a year or more between degrees, but not in the US.)

  • Then the ritual got some of its harsher edges softened. Original Masonic ritual is bloody stuff, written by medieval Masons whose livelihoods depended on absolute secrecy, and you swore to keep those secrets on pain of death and worse. But oaths like that are *scary*, and moderns can't necessarily cope. So the ritual was amended to make clear that the oaths aren't really quite *that* serious any more.

  • Then the Lecture stopped being required, or even expected. Previously, before you could move on to the next degree, you had to demonstrate that you understood the lessons of the previous one, in a sort of ritualized Q&A session. By the time I started, this was unusual enough that I got noticed for doing it. Today, it is considered remarkable to the point of being the talk of the town.

  • Quite recently, the degrees have gotten squashed together. Some modest number of candidates complained that it was inconvenient for them to make it to Lodge three months running to take the degrees. So the idea of the One-Day Class began. In this, an official panel of expert ritualists demonstrates the ritual to *hundreds* of candidates simultaneously. What was originally an immersive experience became a floorshow. The result is very convenient -- Grand Lodge loves to brag about the many hundreds of new members they can induct this way.

  • As part of that, the notion of applications through an individual Lodge got waived. After all, if you're taking the degrees directly from Grand Lodge, then you might as well apply there as well, right? So the candidates get assigned a Lodge to be a member of as part of their initiation, but they don't really have to go to the inconvenience of attending it.

So, let's put all that together. We wind up with an organization that is *easy* to join, and *safe*, and *friendly*. Everyone should join now, right?

No, of course not. Prospective members want to know what the organization is *for*, and I no longer have an answer for them. In practice, we now get these hundreds of new dues-paying members each year, but most of them rarely or never attend Lodge, and many drop out quickly, because they've never really developed any attachment to the club.

Safety and ease comes at the price of feeling special. When the ritual is watered down to that point, it just looks silly. If you don't demand that members learn from it, they don't understand why they're going through it at all. And when there's nothing special or interesting going on here, no one's going to be very interested in joining. If you don't require that your new members *invest* a bit of themselves, they're not going to care about the club much.

These examples are all drawn from a single club, but they apply to most. It's fine and dandy to reduce exclusivity, and often a fine idea to brush away specific problems for specific people. But most *serious* new members of a club are willing to be a little challenged, and are more likely to get drawn into it for that challenge...

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