Equality needs rituals, NOT flattening


If you care about equality, beware of what flattens society.Especially…

Equality needs rituals, NOT flattening /img/formality-and-rituals.jpg

“The members of the High Table, wearing academic gowns, have processed into the refectory to a table laden with candelabra and silver accoutrements from the college treasury, each place set with cutlery and glasses. The students, also in gowns, rise from their seats to acknowledge the High Table, and stand until the presider…”

The paragraph above is the beginning of a long post about why societies need “highly formal rituals in order to make life more democratic”.

That ritual happens at every dinner: “We wear gowns. To formal dinners. It is not casual. It is not ‘modern’”., says Antone Martinho-Truswell, dean and head of house of Graduate House at St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney.

The dean “firmly and invariably” believes that life in the 21st century is “too informal and empty of ritual, and that we should encourage and erect more needless formality.”

Why care? Because I think the dean is right to say that “formality, ritual and ceremony - not casual approachability - are among the most effective ways of making the world and its institutions more inclusive and egalitarian. We all need much more formality in our lives.”

Instead, says the dean, after acknowledging that “the past century has been a good one for individual freedoms - in almost every respect”

  • Comfort is king in the modern world; and comfort is the excuse proffered for the evaporation of formality from daily life… But the freedom of informality comes at a cost
  • Formality is the bulwark against some of the nastiest human impulses, and acts as a vaccine against our most dangerous tendency: forming in-groups and out-groups.
  • We are a tribal ape with a brain built to exaggerate our allegiance to our small band while manning the barricades against others distinguished by vanishingly tiny differences. Individuals can, with great effort, consciously suppress this nasty bit of programming, but populations on the whole will fail.

The solution, concludes the dean, is formality: “Formality gives us something harmless around which to form an in-group: namely, knowledge of the rules of that particular formality, with its own trials of membership and rules of initiation.”

“The opportunity to be a crowing pedant about the rules of formality gives one something to do instead of in-grouping around more exclusionary traits, such as to which expensive school one went. More importantly, the rules of formality are ultimately accessible to all.”

“The already powerful can afford not to make too much fuss. For the up-and-coming, or the downtrodden, formality gives an unparalleled sense of membership to a grander body.”

Wise words, I say. Too bad they are much harder to follow if one gets lost in Twitter, Facebook and other platforms specifically designed to flatten and insulate every single user, and then cancel every context, isn’t it?

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