Modern Rituals

Rituals are generally associated with religious or folkloric practices, but one of the great ironies of our modern age is that the more we reject the practices of our past the more we seem to need something to fill their place. The age of enlightenment should have replaced such past-times as childish or archaic, but it has failed to do so, as anyone witnessing hen and buck nights staggering about town centres on weekends can testify. They survive because they serve an ongoing need. They bind us together, they make us feel safe within a group, with the downside that it makes outsiders less welcome and at times can condone or encourage what can appear as anti-social behaviour.

Many years ago I belonged to a hiking club in Australia that often went camping on weekends in wild country. It was hard, exhausting but exhilarating, but the risks of injury, exposure meant that we had to help each other out. We spent a lot of time together, exchanging ideas and experience or just enjoying the silence. Leaders organised the trips for free, and navigated the routes. We shared transport and tents. And we all kept together; we all took turns walking with the slower members of the group so we all stayed together.

Except for one guy – let me call him ‘Tom’. He was fit and had all the best equipment, but he never helped anyone out. He sometimes led walks, but refused to walk with the slow coaches. He also got his mother to buy the food for the trips which didn’t go down well either. One weekend he surprised us all by bringing a female companion. So, when we got to our campsite for the night we waited for him to pitch his tent, then we all surrounded it with ours. He got up and moved as far from us as possible. So we again waited, then with saucepans and spoons we did a ‘fertility dance’ around the tent.

Now, you might be thinking, we were a bunch of prudes, maybe we were jealous of the couple, maybe we did this to every couple. But that would be taking it completely out of context, like reading a short newspaper clip of an act of shaming from the distant past.

I have no idea who suggested the fertility dance, nor if it was the first such incident of shaming someone for being a couple on a trip. Nor were we a group of moral judges: most of us were young, and many relationships were formed in the club. Tents were shared to save weight, and on one instance comments were made about the smell of cheese in the tent at night. And at the end of a long hot hike skinny dipping was common.

But only Tom got the rough musicing, and his girlfriend was never seen again.

In retrospect, what we did was a ritual humiliation, akin to that reported in England centuries ago, but there is no way any of us knew this. So it seems such behaviour can arise spontaneously in response to what is perceived as bad behaviour, when a person is not pulling their weight in the community, contributing to the common good. Because other couples sharing tents did not get this treatment. Most were too tired/sweaty/scratched/sunburnt to find the energy to do more than sleep.

Schoolkids are famous for their shaming of others who do not fit in by their behaviour, their dress, size and shape or their beliefs. They establish gangs, they agree what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and mock or abuse those who do not follow it. Shaming helps them to enforce conformity and also to exclude others, and also allows them to let off steam beyond the rules of the classroom. Much of this behaviour becomes acceptable when we become adults, as we recognise how harmful it can be, and how it is in our own best interests to behave well towards our neighbours.

Which raises the question as to how to relate isolated cases of humiliation such as the effigies carried about in Hardy’s ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ to the number of adulterous couples in the community. Henchard was not a popular man, and was often difficult to deal with. He was also an outsider, a self made man who did not marry into the village, though he did rise to importance, his fall seemed to have been grieved by few, so he was easy prey. Which makes me suspect that acts of ritual humiliation were not markers of adultery per se, but of adulterers who had annoyed their neighbours in some other way(s) which meant they were easy prey. They did not undermine the local community by their adultery alone, but caused offence in some other way, and the adultery was in effect a justification for being rejected by their neighbours. If this is so, then there must have been lots of adulterous couples who got on with their lives, worked hard, raised their children, and went to church with their neighbours, all of them knowing that the couple had done wrong, but being adult enough to accept that we are all human, and no one is perfect.

This rough music was not the only time Tom got punished. He came on a long weekend and had forgotten about the extra day, so he didn’t have enough food. I think a few people helped him out, but at the top of a long hot hill we all took a break, another guy got out a big bag of dried fruit and nuts. He went along the line of us collapsed by the side of the path, handing out large handfuls, until he got to Tom. He handed him a single peanut, then kept on going with his handfuls.

Tom was too surprised to react. Just sat there staring at his peanut.

The rest of us laughed.

Were we mean or teaching him a lesson?


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