Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Robert Frost, Good Fences, and Eve Renters

This is going to be more circumspect than many of my posts.  It touches in more than just Eve, but I promise that it does come around to Eve.  Bear with me.

Yesterday, a couple corp mates and I got into a very intense discussion about renters vs. PvE member corporations within Eve.  It was a very civil discussion – we were all clearly attacking ideas and not attacking each other personally – and we came to some common ground by the end of it, which is the sign of a great debate.

During this conversation, we agreed that it’s hypocritical for an alliance to be both contemptuous about PvE players and depend upon their efforts (via renter income) to fuel their own war machine.  In particular, we were talking about Razor and the CFC, but the sentiment that renters are scum holds similar sway throughout N3 and PL as well.  Basically, many players believe a player who states that he has no interest in protecting sov, PvP, or engaging in player combat of any kind has no place in null-sec.  This is foolish and hypocritical.

However, a position was also raised: that null-sec alliances should not allow renters on the one hand, then reject the possibility of put PvE corporations within their own alliance on the other.  This caused a lot of discussion back and forth.

In the midst of defending the side that there WAS a clear difference between allowing PvE corporations within a renter alliance and allowing them within your sov-holding PvP alliance, I called to my defense the quote, “Good fences make good neighbors”.  Everyone jumped all over me regarding this proverb, which has existed for centuries.  Robert Frost popularized it in literature in the poem “Mending Wall”, where he rejects it as silly and myopic.

The Segue (That Takes Us Back To Eve)

I’m not going to focus on what others say about the poem… ultimately, every critic stamps his own opinions and agenda on his criticism, and I tend to be very skeptical of any critic who tries to say what another person means by any poem (I have a Master’s in English, and have suffered to read armchair critics of authors for years; hence my contempt of them).  All that is true is what individuals take out of a poem, a story, and TV show, etc.  So, I’m going to go to the text itself.

In the poem, the author gives voice, through his point-of-view agent, to his thesis: “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense.”

The POV character is challenging the other character’s reliance on the proverb to justify the reason why he needs to repair the fence that’s suffering constant deterioration due to the elements.  This statement suggests that using the proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors”, or any proverb, for that matter, instead of giving an emergent situation relevant and logical thought is foolish.

Frost’s argument – that proverbs and sayings should describe apt situations, and should not be prescriptively used without understanding their meaning and judging their applicability in a given situation – is a valid one.  In the poem, one character uses the phrase to suggest that a good wall provides an intrinsic value of causing good neighbors as a matter of fact, in every situation or circumstance.  This is, of course, silly.

However, Frost’s point is not undercutting the value of the phrase itself, and the phrase is valid under the right circumstances.  The phrase “Good fences make good neighbors” really means that clarity and responsibility on the part of two people, or neighbors, if you will, is necessary to ensure that the relationship runs smoothly.  Can you tell me that’s not true?

What does a fence do?  It marks the separate of two parcels of land clearly and for everyone to see, so each side knows where his/her land ends and the other’s begins.  Fences ensure that both parties know where their rights begin and end, and help ensure animals remain out of someone else’s lands, ruining crops and leaving messes.  A good, strong fence can prevent boundary disputes, material damages, and arguments that result from them.

What causes misunderstandings?  The answer, of course, is a lack of clarity, of definition, or of expectation.  Writ large, “good fences” refers not only to actual, physical fences, but to any clear separation or definition of a relationship between two parties.  Businesses that enter into a contract take great pains to spell out expectations, compensation, and obligations very clearly at the beginning, quibbling over words and phrasing to ensure the meaning is absolutely clear.  Why do they do this?  Because phrasing must be exact to prevent two different interpretations of the same text, and definitions must be agreed to so both sides know exactly what is being offered and promised.  This avoids significant headaches, expense, and ill will in the future.  Good contracts make for good partners; that’s an apt variant.

The simple fact is that intention and “gentlemen’s agreements” are dependent on perfect recollection, and memory has a tendency of mis-remembering – sometimes intentionally, but most often unintentionally.  The only counter to that is to define the bounds of an agreement very specifically (the boundaries, if you will) with a legal framework that encapsulates the relationship (or, a fence around it, if you will).

So, what Robert Frost was condemning was not the phrase itself, but rather the tendency of human beings to latch on to a proverb or saying and applying it to every case that seems even close, regardless of whether those new situations meet the original criteria that generated the phrase to begin with.

I think Frost would agree that definitions matter.  Meaning matters.  Context matters.  The dilution of meaning by a lack of precision when speaking or applying definitions or phrases causes language to become imprecise.  And that lack of precision results in phrases, words, and definitions ceasing to mean the same thing to everyone.  That creates confusion and misunderstandings.  And misunderstandings create bad blood and hard feelings.  Few are the people who are willing to sit down and discuss misunderstandings for an hour and a half to uncover the source of the disconnect and repair it.  More often than not, it creates resentment.

Throughout history, the drifting of definitions has caused more damage than anything else.  How we use words is directly responsible for molding the way we think.  Don’t believe me?  In English, we use the term “willpower” to refer to the ability to resist something.  It’s a passive term, referring to NOT doing something we really want to do.  It’s a relatively flaccid term.   However, the term for willpower in German is dramatically different, and refers to perceiving a desire within your mind and making it manifest in the world.  It’s an active, aggressive drive to imprint one’s desire on reality.  So, when you read the German philosophers like Nietzsche, the entire context of his philosophy changes depending on whether you read willpower to mean either “Boy, I’m going to resist the urge to eat chocolate” or “I will go into the world and force my will upon it!”

The Part Where I Bring This Back To Eve

Since Frost isn’t condemning the saying “Good fences make good neighbors” per se, but rather the application of it any time a fence is involved regardless of whether the fence is serving its purpose (or more generally, applying a proverb without being able to answer how it’s directly relevant to an emergent situation), the phrase itself, when appropriately applied, is still valid, as are any words strung together.  And one of those proper applications is the agreements between Eve players, particularly regarding PvE.

There is a clear distinction between having a renting alliance whose participants have no aspirations to PvP and incorporating PvE corporations within an otherwise PvP alliance.  The former establishes a clear relationship through a rental contract.  “You give us X and you can do whatever you want within this space.”  The latter, however, creates a PvE subculture that changes the definition of what the PvP alliance is about.

In Razor, every player is treated equally (note “player”, not “character”).  They all must participate in PvP operations and the same set of standards is applied to everyone.  A player must deploy with the alliance and participate in PvP operations or find himself kicked.  He can certainly rat in Tenal, but he can’t exclusively rat with all of his characters.  He must contribute to the furthering of alliance goals to remain in the alliance, and those goals are PvP in nature.

The definition of what is expected of a Razor member would change if Razor accepted pure PvE corporations whose only contribution to the alliance was in rental fees or taxes to fund the war machine.  It would mean that not all Razor members were the same, and invariably create a subculture and probably a subclass within Razor that would tear apart our identity and create dissonance.  The definition of “Razor member” would cease to have a unified meaning (whatever you think that meaning is) and as a result would cease to mean anything.  By incorporating pure PvE corporations who live by a different set of rules, you undercut the uniformity of the rules to the point of that they cease to hold sway.

Culture matters within an Eve Online alliance.  When an alliance falls upon hard times, the thin line that separates those who failcascade from those who endure and resurge is the strength of their shared culture.  There’s a reason Solar Fleet survives every time they lose their sov.  Their culture is uniform and shared by all.  They’ve had years of experience and practice working together; they have a shared culture built from repeated intereaction and – most importantly – “good fences” in the form of clear expectations of how everyone will behave.

Saying “You are not us,” isn’t elitism.  It’s categorization.  It’s a recognition that a widget is not a bobble.  You don’t say, “Okay, so we have soldiers.  Let’s adopt more people into our soldiery, but all they’re going to do is handle waste disposal.”  You keep the definition and expectation of soldiers what it is and you create a new group called “sanitation workers”.  To do otherwise is to undercut the culture of your soldiery and create subcultures, set up separate and distinct expectations and values, and undermine what it is to be a “soldier”.  In extreme cases, you can cause categories to lose all meaning entirely.

And I haven’t even touched on the mechanics-side of things that result in clear ramifications of having a corporation set to blue or within your alliance.

Good fences make good neighbors.  In Eve, the “good fences” are clear separations among groups based on expectations and obligations, and the “good neighbors” are long-term partnerships in which both sides feel the other is clearly delivering on expectations, while both sides can maintain their own cultures and play the game the way they want.

Too often, players of one group seek to denigrate players of the other.  They say the other is “bad”, “useless”, or “wrong”, when that’s simply not true.  By all means, debate whether one play-style is more compatible with the essential nature of Eve (I personally think all aspects of Eve are structured in such a way that, if you had to put one in the center, it would be PvP, and that as a result Eve is “about” PvP).

But don’t condemn others for playing up a different aspect of the game than you choose to focus on.  This is annoying when done by a player, but it’s also bad business when done by an alliance.  Ultimately, that’s what an alliance is about: “This isn’t personal, Sonny, it’s just business.”

If players play the game a different way than you, your response should be, “How can I exploit that play style to make money off of it?” not, “How can I force them to play the game the way I want them to play it?”  That’s the difference between tyranny and freedom within a sandbox game.  Don’t ruin their game, just find a way to profit off it.  In the long run – throughout changing expansions and the rules of sov warfare – the type of play-style that tolerates and profits from other play-styles will win out.

There’s a difference between dividing people, groups, or things into categories and applying an elitist attitude to them.  That’s a distinction that, sadly, too few people in this world recognize.


  1. Well reasoned and thought out, enjoyable read and I agree!

  2. Myself and a couple of corpmates sounds pretty awkward coming from Master in English.

    1. Proper English would be "A couple corpmates and I". I claim the "vernacular" defense!

      But since it bothers you, I've changed it.

    2. It wouldn't have bothered me if you'd not made an issue of your credentials. It's the incongruity that bugged me.

    3. It's a fine line to tread. You certainly can't write the way you would in a scholarly paper when you're talking to Internet readers. You have to write in the vernacular. You may notice that I also sometimes end sentences with prepositions and have some sentence fragments as well, when the need arises. Conversational grammar is quite different from academic grammar.

      If anything, I think I tend to write a bit too formally for the medium!