Friday, April 12, 2013

A universal we?


I had a few words to say yesterday about Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, and his thoughts on ritual as "the glue that holds social groups together." I was drawing on a story in the 24 January issue of Nature.

He is quoted further: "Emotionally intense rituals have bound us together and pitted us against our enemies throughout the history of our species. It was only when nomadic foragers began to settle down did we discover the possibilities for establishing much larger societies based on frequently repeated creeds and rituals."

The big question, according to Whitehouse, is whether the "glue" of ritual can be extended to humanity at large.

Indeed.

At first glance, the internet might seem to offer possibilities. Does Facebook count as a ritual? Are the social media universal enough and adhesive enough to bind together California Valley Girls and Afghani war lords? Is any imaginable global ritual cohesive enough to overcome already deeply entrenched alliances? Will Muslims and Christians ever sing kumbaya together.

If not the internet, what about consumerism? Consumerism seems to be doing a pretty good job overcoming ancient animosities between Asia and the West. Can the shopping mall be our new temple/cathedral?

Or maybe Dancing Matt?

I'm not optimistic. The key might be in the Whitehouse quote above: "bound us together and pitted us against." Whatever ancient cultural, perhaps innately behavioral, influences incline us to ritual, they were undoubtedly forged in a dynamic of "us" versus "them."

Rituals can divide as forcefully as they unite.