So, a short while back I discussed the mainstream American ritual cycle, and it was so much fun I thought I’d do it again, but from the other side of the looking glass. Because there are many other rituals available to us that are not a part of the mainstream, and which are frankly much more interesting than the ritual most people are talking about this year, namely New Year’s Resolutions.
But since we’re here, let’s use that as a template for unpacking some of the more interesting implications of “ritual” in of itself. In the last essay I quoted my favorite academic definition for ritual, “the more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances mostly not encoded by the performers.” And I certainly think a New Year’s Resolution fits into that. The timing of the Resolution is pretty invariant, coming on the coattails of a the latest Gregorian calendar. The Resolution itself is a formal utterance, that of a pledge. The curious part is the “not encoded by the performers” bit, because at first glance it seems the Resolution is entirely encoded by one’s choice for what to put into that particular box.
Which is where the “mostly” comes from. I, for example, have resolved to exercise regularly, one of the most common resolutions. But even if I’d come up with something less banal, say, to start a graffiti campaign against the local Chamber of Commerce, or to kill the next billionaire I meet, there are still “codes” around the New Year’s Resolution in particular that do not apply to ordinary “resolutions” made in the middle of summer. For one thing, we usually don’t go around asking people if they’ve recently made any resolutions; no, the timing of the ritual allows it to be social, catching people up in it even if they’re not making a resolution. Secondly, there’s an expectation that New Year’s Resolutions will largely fail.
And this is actually a rather strange entailment to a ritual, an expectation of failure. We don’t usually see that in ritual activity. Usually ritual participants expect some kind of success, which is why they even bother to ritualize in the first place. But I would argue that New Year’s Resolutions aren’t meant as resolutions per se. Sure, sometimes they work. And yet we really don’t expect people to keep these “promises.” That’s because, in my view, a New Year’s Resolution isn’t a promise… it’s a confession. It’s an admission of failure, either in one’s self, or the world around us. And that, I think, is the encoding inherent to the New Year’s Resolution that the performers really can’t change, no matter what resolution is offered.
Dr. Martin Luther King Day
So, one of the first “holidays” in the American calendar is Martin Luther King Day. This is relatively new, coming into being just 30 years ago as a federal holiday, which means a day off work for certain federal employees. As of today, only about a third of Americans now get the day off. What’s more remarkable about MLK Day, however, is the ambiguity of its performance, especially for white people.
First, we should note that MLK Day has been the site of a ritual contest. In the United States, it’s been up to the various State legislatures to recognize the holiday at the state level. And at first a lot of states resisted, in various ways. Some just balked. Others tried to call the holiday something else, like “Civil Rights Day.” Others tried to merge the holiday with something else – in several former Confederate states, the fact that Dr King and Robert E Lee share the same birthday (the ostensible reason for marking the holiday in mid-January) led to various “Lee/King” memorial days, which is certainly quite ironic. In the private sector, the reluctance to honor the day seems less political and more pragmatic. While some reactionary politicians objected to MLK Day on the grounds that Dr King was a “communist,” I haven’t found anything citing this line of reasoning for business – rather, companies try to avoid paid holidays off for their workers in general, because it’s less profitable, and this one in particular given it comes so soon after a major interruption in business with Christmas and New Year’s.
This is not unexpected, however, for “nascent” rituals. It takes time for new rites to be accepted. Especially when they’re relatively poorly defined, as MLK Day is. The holiday is only the third in the US to be oriented around a person, the other two being George Washington and Christopher Columbus, who are practically ancient history as far as Americans are concerned, and both of whom serve as figureheads in the nation’s mythology. In this respect, that MLK Day exists at all is major victory for civil rights – it positions Dr King alongside “the founding fathers.”
We might even notice that MLK Day shares similarities with the observance of Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day. First, Washington’s Birthday has also been subject to a merge – Abraham Lincoln’s birthday falls around the same time, and now that such federal holidays are always scheduled for a convenient Monday to make a three-day weekend, neither MLK Day nor Washington’s Birthday typically fall on the actual dates of their births. Washington’s Birthday is even colloquially referred to as “Presidents’ Day” in many quarters, with the day devoted to any number of presidents, unofficially.
Which gets to the next thing about MLK Day, which is that like Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day, it is a boring holiday for white people. I mean, the other two holidays are pretty boring for just about everyone, because other than a few people getting a day off in bad weather (February and October, respectively), they’re pretty much just used as excuses for certain “history lessons” in the school curriculum. And school lessons are boring, by and large. And even if you get those days off, January, February, and October are not good days for having a cookout in the backyard, or getting away for a long weekend with friends and family, given most of them won’t have the day off.
But MLK Day is certainly different for white people. Because this is a day that points out how white people have historically sucked, which is absolutely true. So it’s yet another day of confession. Furthermore, it’s a day to make amends – the federal holiday now includes a federal challenge for Americans to make this a Day of Service – in other words, to use the holiday volunteering to make the world a better place. Obviously, then, this is an admission that the world isn’t good enough, which again is true. However, it’s almost like a religious ritual in that it asks one to give up one’s time and energy doing something that isn’t fun and that largely benefits other people. It’s a rite of self-sacrifice. For white people, it certainly marks a moment in history when much of the privilege of being white in the US was sacrificed.
This is, of course, a good thing. And it’s good to be reminded that the fight isn’t over, and that there’s still so much work to do. But a part of me wonders about the efficacy of this ritual. Not just because it isn’t much of a party, and so lacks a certain amount of festivity, spectacle, and widespread participation, but because one of the features of ritual is that it demarcates a space and time that is separate from the mundane world. Ritual is a form of compartmentalization. To tuck something away as “not normal.” For example, think of Earth Day, typically celebrated on April 22nd. It’s a day when we all acknowledge how important the environment is. And then the rest of the time, the environment gets trashed. But wait, we don’t have to feel bad about that anymore, because we celebrate Earth Day! Not that this is true for everyone. And not to suggest that we wouldn’t trash the environment if we didn’t have Earth Day. This is only to mark another kind of ritual infelicity, that there’s a certain lack of efficacy to ritual. It never guarantees that something will happen, or not. It only creates a social contract, by which we will be judged. So it’s important to celebrate things like MLK Day, and Earth Day, if only to join in that social contract and be bound by that particular morality.
Speaking of compartmentalization, let’s talk about Mardi Gras, or Carnival as it’s known to most of the rest of the world. This isn’t really an American ritual so much as a local one. It’s biggest manifestation is in New Orleans. The second biggest, I believe, is in Saint Louis, which is what I’ll be writing about here since that’s one I’ve actually been to. The festivities peak on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, with a big parade and then a day-long party in one of the near-downtown neighborhoods called Soulard. There’s much revelry, drunkenness, debauch, and all kinds of pretty plastic beads. An encore parade is held on Fat Tuesday itself, in the downtown proper.
So, going back to our handy academic definition, Mardi Gras in Saint Louis certainly has its more or less invariant sequences. The timing of the ritual is very precise, but awkward. See, Fat Tuesday defined in relation to Easter. And Easter is established by the Catholic Church. We can usually figure it out for ourselves – Easter generally falls on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. Which is interesting in of itself – Easter is defined in relationship to one of the major natural cycles that we typically use to mark the beginning of Spring. But it’s not just defined by a Solar event – no, there’s also a Lunar event. Now, in western mythology the Sun and Moon are pretty much regarded dualistically. The Sun marks the day, and the Moon marks the night. They’re also mythologically gendered – the Moon is female, as it nearly mirrors a woman’s monthly cycle. Therefore the Sun is male. And there’s all kinds of other polarities that can be fairly easily discerned.
I point this out because to set a ritual in relation to the cycles of both the Sun and Moon represents a union of opposites, which is an alchemical concept. But these particular cycles are also Pagan signifiers. The equinoxes, solstices, and full moons are typically celebrated in their own right by Pagans; they are natural, material, worldly. Of course, adding a “next Sunday” to the recipe makes it uniquely Christian, and serves as… let’s say it serves as competition.
Now, Fat Tuesday is the day before Lent, which marks the beginning of a period of ritual fasting or sacrifice for the forty days before Easter. So, as people are wont to do, the day before such self-abnegation is a day of excess. But because we live in a capitalistic society that demands a Monday through Friday work-week, in Saint Louis the main festivities are moved back to Saturday, giving everyone a full day to recover before going back to work. Again, ritual competition – this shift of the celebration is an acknowledgement of the power of the capitalist ritual system.
(Incidentally, this same kind of “competition” is what gives us April Fools’ Day. It’s not uncommon in most ritual calendars to set aside a day for practical jokes, but the date of this one seems to have originated from the establishment of January 1st as the New Year, when previously it had been defined as the last week of March… or, in other words, the week after the Spring Equinox, a Pagan holiday. Moving the New Year back to January, then, is a ritual victory for the Gregorian/Julian calendars, which were originally Roman calendars (the calendar of Empire) promulgated through, yet again, the Christian church. So when the various “Pagans” – in this context the indigenous people of Europe who were attuned to the rhythms of nature as opposed to the grinding wheels of Rome – celebrated their New Year at the Spring Equinox, they were mocked by their oppressors. Not as much of a fun holiday anymore, is it? So sorry about that.)
The “formal acts and utterances” may be completely wild, but this is what the ritual calls for – the formality comes from it being sanctioned. It’s not encoded by the performers – it’s something set up through other social institutions, and with its own ritual logic. Once again, we have to acknowledge how Mardi Gras or Carnival ends up being an inversion of the “normal” or mundane world. Which automatically means that hedonistic excess is now classified as “not normal.” That is the ritual logic. And indeed, I couldn’t help but write “excess” there – it’s deep down at the level of our conceptual structuring of the world around us.
Which rather begs the question – how do we go about changing the very stuff in our subconscious? It can’t be a matter of “will alone” because by definition the subconscious is inaccessible to the conscious mind. So, in other words, how do we go about reprogramming ourselves? Is this something that nascent ritual might be able to help us with?
No, this is not “the answer” to previous posed question. Rather, it’s a sideways step into looking at how we might go about creating rituals and ritual systems that better serve our needs. So. By “NeoPagan” I’m obviously making reference to the previous term of “Pagan,” by which I referred to the pre-Christian people of Europe whose liturgical orders were generally oriented around the cycles of nature. “NeoPagan” is simply the modern expression of that, though obviously post-Christian.
Now, “NeoPagan” is an incredibly broad category. There are all kinds of denominations or groups who worship in cycle with nature, or worship pre-Christian nature-based gods and goddesses, or even post-Christian invented gods. Several such groups would even balk at being called “Pagan.” Whatever. What’s key here is that the groups in question are not a part of the world’s “established” religions. There’s little to nothing in the way of “establishment.” No agreement on rites, liturgy, beliefs, what have you. Which means it’s ripe for all kinds of creativity.
I’m not proposing we create a NeoPagan religion. Instead, I’m going to share a couple of my experiences with NeoPagan ritual, both as a participant and as a co-creator, so as to provide an idea of what “alternative ritual” can look like, and how it can come to be. So, my first experience was back in college, couple decades ago. I went with my friend Jen to a lecture held by Starhawk, a feminist Wiccan priestess fairly well known now in Pagan circles. This is what happened:
The first time I see the Witch is back in my twenties. She's giving a lecture at one of the local theater venues. Jen is the one who implored me to go, not wanting to go by herself. I come along out of a sense of obligation, not any interest of my own. The crowd is strange, and this is coming from someone steeped in hippie culture. A lot of older heavyset women in colorful garb, many holding hands. I meet a Santero, a cheerful bald fellow with a tattoo on his head; he worships Chango, and describes leaving bananas on the altar he made for his deity.
But this is not about him. No, this is all about the Witch. She has such presence; I swear I see a lavender aura surrounding her. And yet... she seems... harmless enough. She's not particularly tall. She resembles a stack of dumplings, with a bird's nest for hair, and strong beady eyes. Her voice creaks, like the cellar door to a dilapidated cabin out in the woods. She too has funny clothes on. She gives her speech, which is greatly appreciated by the audience. I don't remember any of it, only that I thought it sounded reasonable. Mostly. Except for all that Goddess stuff.
After her lecture, a question and answer period. The Witch seems more comfortable now: she leans on the podium, relaxed. Afterwards, from this less formal stance, the Witch invites everyone outside for ritual. The lights from the playhouse block out the stars, what stars could even be seen between the September leaves of the towering trees. They find a spot between the trees large enough for a couple hundred people to gather. We have to crowd in a bit, into three concentric circles, and we're holding hands. The outer circle breaks and joins the middle circle, the middle circle breaks and joins the innermost circle, and now we are a spiral.
The Witch is in the center, she has a drum, and she drums. The rhythms vibrate through the ground, up to the tree tops and into our bones. Her voice calls out, stretching across the night. She invites us to remember, to remember the air we breathe, the water running through our veins, the warmth in our skins, the earth in our bones from the meals we have eaten. Remember. I'm good with all this. I get a little uncomfortable when the Witch calls out to Kore, otherwise known as Persephone, the maiden goddess who leaves her mother every fall to be with her husband god of the Underworld, but who returns every spring to rejoin the world. Like a breath. In. Out. In. Out. “Please, come,” the Witch begs. “Be with us. Join us. Change us. Dance with us.” And then she begins to sing.
She changes everything She touches,
and everything She touches, changes.
She drums, she croons, and soon we are all singing; it’s a very simple chant and melody. And then the spiral begins to move, slowly. It begins to rotate, slowly spiraling into the center. It has to move slowly, or the tail will spin out of control. It has to move slowly, or we will not accomplish what is about to happen next. The Witch is drumming and singing at the head of this immense “snake” of people, in the center, and then she turns around and faces the person immediately behind her. The spiral follows her, following its way out of itself. As it spirals out, everyone sees into the eyes of everyone else in the spiral. Everyone comes face to face.
Soon, the head of the snake passes me. The Witch looks deeply into my eyes, she sees my fear and my thrill, and she drinks me in. And the next person looks into my eyes, and I into hers, and we drink each other in. And so on, and so on, the spiral turns. Slowly. To give us time.
Change is, Touch is
Touch is, Change is
I reach the center of the spiral, and I turn. And now I'm spiraling out. And I see the faces of those behind me. Joy. Tears. Fear. Ecstasy. Pain. Awe. I'm spiraling out, and then... I see the drummer, the Witch. The head of the snake. Spiraling in again, even as the tail continues to spiral out. I get to see every face again. Oh, I remember him. Hi, nice to see you again! Now this one, her eyes have changed from nervousness to rapture, wow! And we continue singing, and I reach the periphery... and then the spiral spirals in, one more time.
Change Us, Touch Us
Touch Us, Change Us
The spiral spirals in, becoming more tightly wound, more densely packed. The song rises in pitch, the drumming becomes more distinct, more energetic. The energy rises. Our arms and hands rise. The song becomes a voice, wordless, a symphony of tones and cries, and we converge. And it all rises, out to the pitch black above the leaves.
And then... silence.
We return to the earth, down to our hands and knees. “The Earth will take whatever you give her, whatever you want to sacrifice, whatever is too much to handle... and whatever you need to keep, She asks for not at all. All of us are Kore in return.” That’s what the Witch cries out. Something like that.
We breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
We rise. Many hug, or cry, or both. And then the Goddess is thanked. The elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air are released. The circle is opened, and the end of the ritual is pronounced.
I have just looked into the eyes of two hundred people, and in every one I saw something authentic. Sincere. Genuine. Raw. Different. And they have looked into me, and held me in their eyes without aversion, but with grace and compassion. We have all been witnessed. The masks had fallen away, in that spiral dance. Unlike theater, there is no fourth wall to break down. Because there is no differentiating "performers and audience", there is no "us and them". Instead, we have communion, with each other, with the Earth, with the night sky. I feel light as a feather, and higher than a kite, even though I’m dead sober. And in that state, Jen and I go home, and we are changed forever.
Yeah, that was a thing. Now, before I go into a very brief foray into the logistics of ritual planning, I want to point out some of the interesting elements of the above ritual, and some of the natural entailments of its performance. First, notice that it’s not a part of a larger liturgical order. It wasn’t a full moon, or a summer solstice, just some ordinary Thursday in a now-forgotten month. But there’s still a set of more less invariant sequences, I just didn’t know it at the time – the casting of a circle, the invocation of elements, the calling of the Goddess, these are fairly all standard “rites of separation” in Wiccan ritual, which formally mark the beginning of the rite and establish the “ritual space” and indeed “ritual time” of the performance. In the middle we have what’s called “liminal rites” or the thing that’s supposed to bring about some kind of change – in this case, the spiral dance, with its drumming, chanting, and looking into everyone’s eyes, culminating in a climax. Finally, there are “rites of incorporation” – a way to transition back to mundane space. That period of time just after the climax, of just breathing together, it’s a way to ease out of the trance we were in. And then the reversing of the invocation, again fairly standard in Wiccan ritual. I didn’t need to know, of course, because just the reverse of the beginning made it fairly clear everything had come to an end.
Now, there are some other important concepts to touch on with this ritual, the “formal acts and utterances” and the “not encoded by the performers” bit. First, it should be abundantly clear that this is a kind of ritual just from the formality of it. The steps of the spiral dance, for example, are much slower than walking speed. Looking into so many eyes, not something we do for such a sustained period of time – the whole thing probably took at least a half-hour. The drumming, creating an invariant rhythm, even though it gradually increased in pace. The repetition of the words, over and over and over again. All of these things carry their own sense of formality. Not to mention, of course, the very theatrical presentation of Starhawk, from her unusual clothes to her resonant voice.
The acts themselves also carry certain entailments – this is the “encoding” bit. Looking into another’s eyes is a form of intimacy – it creates momentary bonding and trust, which we wouldn’t expect from total strangers. That we are witnessers and witnessed has its own psychological impact. But the most significant thing is the dimension of simultaneity. Every step taken more or less in union – our bodies are in sync. The chant – our voices are in sync. The drumming also contributes to a sort of entrainment. Being so close together, and drawing even closer still at the end. This simultaneity strongly opens up the possibility of having a communal experience – of experiencing one-ness with other people. Naturally, because the similarity of everyone doing the same thing breaks down our normal sense of otherness, of being separate.
And this is why certain ritual systems in NeoPaganism, at least, are aligned with celestial events. It’s that “as above, so below” principle. If our actions are synchronized with the “actions” of the universe, then it’s possible to experience communion not just with a group of people, but with the entire world. That, in turn, can create a very strong sense of belonging.
These are the kinds of things that kind of have to be kept in mind when planning ritual. What do various acts and utterances mean in terms of their metaphorical import? In how they are experienced, regardless of the “meaning” of such acts and utterances? In a way, it doesn’t really matter what Goddess is invoked -- though invoking a Goddess in patriarchal society can be a thrill by virtue of it being taboo. The words in a song might have a certain meaning in the moment, but chanting it together is practically timeless. We have different associations with processions, sitting, singing, kneeling, and the various ways we can interact with each other, regardless of the ostensible purpose.
Of course, most people really aren’t going to be interested in doing such rites. That’s not the intent here, only to look at the “how” of ritual. For example, consider the similarities of a school lecture and a church sermon. The “congregation” sits facing a stage, or pulpit, or blackboard. A person stands facing them, delivering a speech. Regardless of the words spoken, the implicit “coding” here is one of authority, just from the act of a group in a lower vertical position listening to a single person in a higher vertical position. That’s an encoded message, which can sometimes be at odds with the ostensible content of the lecture or sermon. If the intent of the ritual is to confront the structures of hierarchy, a different form is practically required. A form that’s participatory, and on equal footing. Like a spiral dance. Now sure, there’s still a leader. But that’s something different. A leader is simply someone who goes first.
So, here’s another ritual that’s not particularly American, but is certainly practiced in America. And that is the rite of coming out, which is probably the central core ritual of the LGBTQ* community. It may surprise some of you to think that “coming out” is actually a ritual. Let me explain.
As always, I like to look at other rites, examine their structures, then see how they compare to the subject at hand. Luckily we have a really easy example to draw from – the Wedding. It’s not exactly controversial to suggest that a wedding is a Rite of Passage ritual. We get invariant sequences – beginning, actually with a Proposal and Engagement, which are the rites of separation. There’s the liminal act of the wedding itself, which creates a sanctioned social contract between two people that previously didn’t exist, and which to some extent changes their identities. And then there’s a Reception and Honeymoon, which are the rites of incorporation, transitioning back to the mundane world in a new social state. There’s all kinds of formality – engagement rings delivered from one’s knee, special outfits, a particular order of seating arrangements, the procession, the vows, the pronouncement, and various local rites for throwing away bouquets, giving toasts, and finally having sex if you’re not completely fucking tired by the time it’s all done. Even the honeymoon vacation is a kind of expected formality, even if it’s done entirely in a swimsuit. And of course the encoding of “being married” comes from all kinds of social and legal expectations, regardless of whether you have a white wedding or a Pagan handfasting or an “arrr, you may now walk the plank!” pirate wedding.
Even if they elope, the happy couple is performing a ritual – albeit one with a different encoding. The rite of separation is leaving the mundane world for a courthouse, or some other location where an officiant can pronounce and mark the liminal rite of passage, and then incorporation becomes a matter of coming out to all those people you didn’t invite to your wedding. Or even just doing your taxes together. You’ve still created a new social reality, all through this little ritual of a wedding.
Okay, coming out. I’m now talking primarily of the queer ritual, the one I’ve had experience with. So, there’s something you should know. For the record, I’m pansexual, though I’ve fluidly become asexual over the past six years or so now that I’ve passed a certain age when I just stopped getting horny. My sexuality has gone through so many changes, I just prefer to say I’m “queer” to capture the all-encompassing experience of it. Anyways, I’d appreciate it if you’d not assume I’m just plain straight (though really I mostly don’t give a damn). Thanks!
That’s it. That’s the ritual.
Well, maybe. I’m one who believes that ritual is properly enacted as an embodied experience. Just writing it on the Internet, there’s a physical dimension that’s lost, and with it a certain psychological element. Because when we do things with our bodies, the subconscious mind can’t help but get engaged – after all, so much of our movement is subconsciously driven in the first place. But we also remember what our bodies have done, and necessarily have to accept that our bodies have done certain things, an intrinsic acceptance that has to do with the “encoding” of ritual that’s beyond the conscious acceptance or rejection of certain statements.
So let’s look at the elements of coming out. First there’s the rite of separation – an announcement that there’s “something you need to know.” Coming out to parents, for example, the time and location are often planned in advance. It’s a thing prepared for, after a period of self-reflection and self-acceptance. Then there’s the statement of being some kind of queer, that liminal moment when everything changes. This is followed by incorporation, the establishment of a new status quo.
Note that, like any ritual, there’s no guarantee of success, at least the sort of success that we might hope for. We might like the “incorporation” phase to include lots of hugging, but sometimes it leads to rejection, a loss of relationship, even a loss of home and family. But note that this still indicates a new social relationship, a new identity. One has definitely established one’s social position as being queer, and added to the growing corpus of the queer community that makes being queer more and more recognized as a thing many people in society actually are. It’s still a change in the status quo.
Ah, but what if the person you come out to is so forgetful, or in denial, that they still treat you heteronormatively? Well, here’s the thing about ritual. There is always a message, a transmitter, and a recipient. Often several, but always at least one. Because in ritual, you are the transmitter of the message, but you are also, at the very least, the receiver of the message as well, and sometimes you’re the message as well. Just by coming out, over and over again, you communicate to yourself an increasing self-acceptance of who you are. If anyone wants to talk about the ritual of just blurting out “I’m gay!” without the other ritual aspects of coming out, I’ll see you in the comments!
(Incidentally – gosh I love the word “incidentally” after essaying The Feast of Steven – incidentally, I wonder about the trans ritual of coming out. It’s like coming out as some kind of queer – there’s a new social reality being created, especially if one is going to transition. But what about after transition, when one is presumably now easily identified as one’s true gender? Does coming out after that change the widespread social reality of being gendered, and possibly endanger being correctly gendered? But then how else does one continue to create the social reality that there are trans people in the world? I find this a bit of a conundrum. Have to think more on this.)
There’s another interesting queer rite to consider, which will make a nice segue into the final section of this essay. And that’s the ritual of Gay Pride or Pride Fest (there really are quite a lot of names), typically in the form of a parade held in larger cities throughout the month of June, stemming from the Stonewall riots in 1969. A large scale event, of course, is something that is much more visible to society, broadly speaking, than sitting down with your friends and family and telling them about yourself. In some respects, actually, a Pride Parade is in some respects an inversion of coming out. At a large scale event, attended by hundreds or thousands in the parade and often even more in the audience, there’s a certain anonymity inherent to the rite – you can even wear a mask, and though I think that’s a bit gauche, I respect anyone who feels they need to maintain their anonymity while simultaneously wanting to add to the numbers and hence the spectacle of the ritual. Many in the parade will be wearing special costumes not worn in the mundane world. Most of all, it’s celebratory, and it’s big. It’s a ritual that visibly demonstrates how widespread queerness is, and how widespread the support is for a queer social reality.
And lest you think such ritual doesn’t matter, at least in America we’re finally starting to see widespread acceptance for gay marriage, for example, with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails. That doesn’t come from staying in the closet. In other words, there’s a real, tangible political impact that can come about through such ritual activity as we’ve described. Which leads us to…
People complain that protesting doesn’t do anything. Ritually speaking, I beg to differ. In America we have a rich tradition of political protest. Such ritual activity doesn’t always accomplish what it sets out to do, true. Indeed, sometimes it can completely backfire. But regardless of the results, the rituals of protest always accomplish something, just by virtue of their ritual quality.
Take, for example, a March On Washington. It’s probably the most visible sort of protest at the national level. Back in my college days, several of my friends and I drove to Washington DC to protest the first Gulf War. Now, America is a big place. The drive to Washington DC to us ten hours, but there were many people from the West Coast who’d driven for days. It’s a huge investment in time and, to a lesser extent, in resources. We marched past the White House. We gathered en masse at the National Mall, under the shadow of the Washington Monument. Tens of thousands of people? A hundred thousand people? I have no idea how to measure crowds, but the march seemed to go on forever, and we were packed like sardines into a huge, huge open space. And there were all kinds of chants, and pamphlets, and speeches. It even made it onto fucking TV.
Did we stop the war? Fuck no. But we still accomplished something. First, we saw just how widespread the sentiment against the war was, and that was revitalizing. We made connections with people. We learned a great deal about a whole lot of other issues. Even back then, intersectionality was a thing.
Again, though, the thing about ritual, is that there’s never no one watching. Even if it’s not on TV, and not seen by politicians, and attended by only a scant few – even if you’re the only person there, there’s still someone watching: You. You are the transmitter of the message, the recipient of the message, and indeed the content of the message. You prove something about yourself to yourself. There’s an implicit acceptance of the liturgical order simply through participation. (And this even extends to insincere participation – it’s an acceptance of the social power of the liturgical order.)
But it’s a lie to say that political protest doesn’t work. Because it does. Remember when the Berlin Wall came down? When all those old authoritarian orders succumbed? That was in the face of massive protest. It worked. And look at the Arab Spring. The social protests of the Sixties, that opened up a new understanding and acceptance of more liberal social mores. It’s social protest that secured Civil Rights. That promoted Women’s Lib. Hell, even in America recently, #BlackLivesMatter secured a victory in Ferguson, getting the United States Justice Department to investigate civil rights abuses, which resulted in the resignation of their police chief, the firing of five city officials and police officers, and even the repossession of certain military equipment on the part of the Pentagon.
So don’t think that protest is empty rhetoric. It’s not. It’s not always effective, but it’s not always ineffective. What’s truly ineffective is not participating.
Actually, when I think about it, for politics to even happen, there must be ritual. Going to vote is a ritual. The halls of government are ruled by ritual documents. Even in the times of kings, there had to be a coronation, a formal acknowledgement of power. Isn’t this true? Power is something we give to each other. And it’s something we can take back. Does ritual always work? In some ways, yes, in other (often more important) ways, no. But sometimes... something amazing happens.
It's something we can take back.
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