“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” — Frederick Douglass (“The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”)
I once visited a foreign land. I was shocked to witness its people habitually engaged in activities that seemed exceedingly irrational. It was amusing to observe how progressive and free they presumed to be culturally and as individuals. For, unknown to them, a deep-rooted tribalism of the most servile sort dictated most of their lives.
For instance, certain tribes would drill holes into their members’ flesh, highlighting the openings with pebbles of various shapes and sizes. Many of these members would also allow others to carve obscure sketches and symbols into their skin in exchange for goods and services. At first, those receiving such modifications would express discomfort, which led me to believe that the process was punitive. But upon completion, the subject would leap up with an expression of deep pride, quickly gaining admiration and praise from peers.
Oddly, the individuals involved in this rite seemed to assume that it provided them a means of self-expression and individuality. But nothing could have been further from the truth — for the presence and style of the markings was always determined according to the expectations of the group. Indeed, the point of allowing oneself to be etched in such ways was to publicly announce belonging and to boast about it. Rarely, if ever, did those tags remain concealed and personal.
In addition to self-mutilation, loud barbaric noises were common as a method of proving one’s tribal identity, status, and worth. One group, for instance, would move about public spaces whilst creating deafening roars with devices affixed to the flashy carriages on which they traveled. They would also wear flamboyant clothing, sometimes even stamped with the emblems of the tribe that assembled their carriages, thus marking territory both visually and sonically.
Many females of this land were perplexing. They would vigorously protest and make all sorts of noise whenever a male or members of another tribe attempted to exercise control over their bodies. One almost got the impression that they were attempting to defend their personal freedom. But that impression faded as the same women would proceed, out of shame and peer pressure, to decorate and dye their bodies in ways their tribe (esp. the male members) expected. Hair, eyes, lips, nails, skin, artificial body parts, stilts to increase height — not a single aspect of their appearance could be considered free or personal. The males, in their own ways, also decorated their bodies according to the tribe’s expectations. But many also applied cosmetic modifications to their material possessions and carriages in an odd effort to announce virility and prowess.
Whenever an infant was born in this culture, the adults would not fully accept it unless a local shaman had taken a sharp rock and sliced away portions of its tiny genitalia, thus marking tribal membership in yet another bloody manner. Similar tribes would shun their newborns until a man who dressed differently from the rest had doused the helpless infant in water over which he had waved his hands. During these senseless rites, the infant would usually scream in pain or fear. But the parents and adult witnesses did not seem to care. After all, the pride that followed upon this fresh sense of belonging far outweighed, in their savage minds, the pain and distress they were inflicting on the child.
The selection of leaders in this culture was equally bizarre. Whenever the stars had returned to a given position in the sky, certain loud individuals who happened to have more possessions than the others would stand before crowds of people while uttering repetitive sounds and performing the same gestures over and over, just as other such individuals had done so many times before.
This political ritual, I believe, was some sort of collective form of role-play in which tribe members would act as if they had power over outcomes, much as a rain dancer attempts in his or her actions to recreate, and thus control the rain. The two most notable contenders in this game would pretend to oppose one another and behave as if they represented not only one tribe or the other, but also the entire population and its descendants. But the contenders themselves clearly had little in common with the people and rarely any clue or concern about what was best for the community. The crowd would then divide into two halves, each side shouting at the other, often in mockery, though they were usually expressing the same ideas.
Following the shouting performance, members of each tribe would raise their hands to select one of the two most conspicuous individuals, while a group of chieftains from each tribe would pretend to tally the raised hands. For some reason, these exceedingly odd people believed that the best policy was always the one that the majority — no matter how slight — believed was best, as if there was a sort of mystical authority in larger numbers but not lesser ones.
When the ritual was complete, the new leaders would cease making inspiring noises and gestures, often proceeding to make opposite ones. They would then continue to preoccupy themselves with amassing possessions, power, and status, all at the expense of the others — both those who had been conditioned to yearn for them to lead, and those who had been conditioned to dread the thought.
The two previously opposed tribes, however, would no longer care about the noises and gestures to which they had once reacted so passionately. Instead they would return to their daily routines, drudging through lives that the silly ritual hadn’t improved at all, and living peacefully alongside members of the tribe they had not long before hated vehemently.
Upon leaving this land, I was pleased to return to the rationality of my own world, where freedom and individuality would never succumb to sociopolitical pressure and tribalism. In retrospect, I concluded that the primitive obsession with social control I had witnessed was a defense mechanism. The fear of change and death was so strong among the tribes that they were willing to believe that repetitive speech and behavior — or, ritual — gave them a purchase on immortality. The bonds of unquestioned tradition, as these folks believed, at least on a subconscious level, would always outlast the whims of individuals forced to engage in it. Freedom, to the savage mind, is oblivion.
© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.