“Ritual” – Observing a Servile Culture

It’s a useless waste of time
Useless waste of time
Forms imposed change nothing
Why fool yourself with lies
To believe in something?
Useless waste of time
Why try?

The blind bind
To ritual games
Their fears pacified
In false security
You hide in your mind
Narcotic states of faith
Ordained thoughts to mirror

Paint, pierce, remove, resize
Mindlessly mutilate and mime
Replay the paradigm
Paint, pierce, remove, resize, baptize

The grind designed
To stifle change
The years pass you by
In mock stability
You follow your tribe
Flaunting the flesh with marks of paint
Mindless masses grapple
With eternity

Right hand raised
Left on this book
So help me, God
An oath I took

Paint, pierce, remove, resize
Mindlessly mutilate and mime
Replay the paradigm
Paint, pierce, remove, resize, baptize

Don’t ask why
Reason denied
Why pray?
‘Cause it’s our way
Should I
Even reply?
Why pray
When it’s all the same?!

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.

“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”)

Frederick Douglass. Wikipedia.

Frederick Douglass. Wikipedia.

I once visited a strange, 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 aspects 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 certain people 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 and quickly gained admiration and praise from peers.

Oddly, the individuals involved in this rite seemed to assume that it provided them with a means of self-expression and individuality. But nothing could have been further from the truth, as the presence and style of the markings was always determined according to the expectations of a particular group. Indeed, the entire point of allowing oneself to be marked in such ways was to display the markings as a sort of public announcement of belonging. Rarely, if ever, did the markings 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 supposed worth. One group, for instance, would move about public spaces while creating deafening roars with devices that they had affixed to the flashy carriages on which they would travel. They would also wear flamboyant clothing, often stamped with the emblems of the tribe that assembled those carriages, thus marking their perceived territory both visually and sonically.

Most females of this land were perplexing. They would vigorously protest and make all sorts of noise whenever a male or some other tribe attempted to exercise control over their bodies. One almost got the impression that they were attempting to defend some sense of personal freedom. But that impression faded quickly, as such females would just go on in fear of shame to decorate and dye their bodies in the various ways that their own tribe, esp. the male members, expected of them. 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.

mutilateWhenever an infant was born, 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 other 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 physical pain and distress they were inflicting upon the child.

The selection of leaders in this culture was equally bizarre. Whenever the stars had returned to a certain position in the sky, certain loud individuals who happened to have more possessions (and thus power and status) than the others would stand before crowds of people while uttering the same sounds and performing the same gestures over and over, just as other such individuals had done so many times before.

The whole ritual, I believe, was some sort of collective form of role-play in which tribe members would act as though they had free choice, much as a rain dancer attempts in his actions to recreate, and thus control, the rain. The two most notable contenders would pretend to oppose one another and behave as if they represented not only one tribe or the other, but also the entire populace and its descendants. But the contenders themselves clearly had little in common with the people and rarely any clue or concern about what was really best for the community. The crowd would then divide into two halves, each side shouting at the other, often in mockery, though they were expressing essentially the same ideas.

Following the shouting performance, members of each tribe would raise their hands to select one of two most notable individuals, while a group of chieftains from each tribe would pretend to tally all 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 some sort of mystical authority in larger numbers but not lesser ones.

When the ritual was complete, the new leaders would then cease making those inspiring noises and gestures, often even proceeding to make opposite ones. They would then continue to preoccupy themselves with amassing possessions, power and status, all at the people’s expense — both those who did and those who did not select them to lead.

The two previously opposed tribes, however, would no longer care about hearing those noises and seeing the gestures to which they had once reacted so passionately. Instead they would simply return to their daily routines, drudging through lives that this silly little ritual hadn’t improved much at all, and living right alongside members of the tribe that they had not so long before vehemently opposed.

The single most perplexing aspect of this primitive society was its members’ apparent admiration for something they called ‘free-dum’. They appeared to believe that this idea was inherently important and necessary to their society — that is, if one can say that any idea at all lay behind what was largely just inarticulate grunting. In fact, whenever the tribes selected their leaders, they would show most interest in those individuals who promised to protect the ‘free-dum’ of all tribes. The reality, however, was that the tribes were selecting leaders to restrict, suppress, remove and trample ‘free-dum’ because the presence of this thing, which they pretended to value so highly, in truth made most of them feel very frightened.

A case in point: One of the most ancient rituals in this society involved the exchange of polished white stones between two members of the oldest tribes. The exchange was meant to symbolize a pledge of bondage between the two individuals. None of the other tribes had ever participated in this ritual or even seemed to care about it. I presume the reason for disinterest was this: The ritual required making unrealistic promises, and it often ended in the unhappiness of the two people involved, who were forced to remain together regardless of significant changes in feelings, lest the leaders become involved and exercise an even greater control over their lives.

markingsAnyway, in recent times, the leaders did become more involved in this bondage ritual in general and began to pressure people into taking part. They did so by agreeing to compel two people bound together in this way to surrender fewer of their possessions to the leaders than they would have been forced to surrender if they had remained unbound. Naturally, the newer tribes now wanted to take part in the bondage-stone rite. After all, why should the leaders take more from them just because they hadn’t gone through some silly ancient ritual?

So the new tribes joined together and began to grunt the socially prescribed refrain ‘free-dum’, ‘free-dum’. This of course caught the attention of the leaders, whose job it was to pretend to defend ‘free-dum’. It also caught the attention of some of the older tribes, who felt the need to protect their ritual by denying this ‘free-dum’ to the newer tribes. This, of course, was odd because the older tribes strongly pretended to value ‘free-dum’ in general. They even agreed that every tribe should have equal access to ‘free-dum’. And yet, these older tribes refused to allow the newer tribes access to the polished stones.

Naturally, the newer tribes became confused and angry. They complained to the leaders and insisted that the older tribes should be forced to provide access to those little white stones. It was not right, they felt, for the older tribes to refuse to comply with the wishes of the newer tribes. This was not ‘free-dum’, they cried.

In response, the older tribes also complained to the leaders. Some simply asked that they not be forced to provide the others with the white stones. But some among the older tribes, who found the behavior of the newer tribes offensive, went so far as to ask the leaders to prevent the other tribes from taking part in the bondage-stone ritual. To seal their request, they added a loud cry of ‘free-dum’, much as other, similarly primitive societies follow up expressions of their own hopeless wishes with ‘a-men’.

Now then, as it would happen, it was some of the newer tribes who supplied the polishing materials to the older tribes to prepare the bondage-stones. So in retaliation, these newer tribes refused to sell their materials to all the older tribes as a sort of punishment for what they deemed to be offensive behavior. The newer tribes then shouted ‘free-dum’ and continued to ask the leaders to force the older tribes to sell them bondage-stones for their own rituals. “All tribes exist to serve the public,” they cried. “So no tribe should be allowed to refuse to provide service to any of the others!” At the same time, however, the newer tribes continued to refuse to provide service to the older tribes.

I have provided here just one small example of this barbaric society’s contradictory treatment of an idea that the majority of its people can rightly be said to value only superficially. Despite this pretense, I am convinced that the ideals held in highest esteem by most of its members were two: 1) controlling individuals by asserting tribal identity; and 2) submitting to authority, whether the presumed authority of the leaders or of the tribe itself. ‘Free-dum’ rarely entered genuinely into their thoughts or actions, while conformity and social servitude predominated.

coerceUpon leaving this land, I was pleased to return to the rationality of my own world, where freedom and individuality would never succumb to socio-political pressure and tribalism. In retrospect, I concluded that the primitive obsession with social control that I had witnessed was a defense mechanism. The fear of change and death was so strong amongst the tribes that they would do and believe anything to convince themselves that they had some sort of purchase on immortality. Tribe and tradition, they believed on some subconscious level, would always outlast the individuals who comprised them.

The problem I see with this, however, is that repetitive, patterned behavior still does not qualify as permanence. Nor does expecting others to acknowledge marks of tribal affiliation serve to reveal anything relevant about the character of the individual or group that bears those marks.

Just because one ball team uses the same name, uniforms and logos as a team that played the game fifty years ago, does this mean that it has anything substantial in common with its predecessor? Do the symbols make the team? Does a group deserve respect and obedience simply in light of how it represents itself publicly? The inhabitants of the primitive, slavish nation I have just described would undoubtedly grunt in the affirmative.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.