Confucius said that community is bound together by ritual and ceremony. It’s not about what you think or how you feel. Human community is forged by active participation in rituals and ceremonies. It does not, at first, even matter whether you believe in what you are doing. The key is to be there and to do it.
By participating, people assert and produce the reality of community and affirm their place therein.
It’s a nice thought; it feels so bland that we tend to pay it lip service.
When I was writing my book about Saving Face, I started looking for a concrete example that would make the idea more persuasive.
Finally, I came up with the family dinner.
Families that participate in this ritual affirm everyone’s place in a social grouping. Better yet, they build character.
Regular family dinners do more to help children than quasi-therapeutic encounters with family members who are too rushed and too self-absorbed to sit down together for dinner.
Yesterday, these thoughts came back to me as I was reading a 2005 interview that Theodore Dalrymple’s did at the time his book Our Culture: What’s Left of It appeared. (Via Maggie’s Farm.)
Being a British physician and social commentator, Dalrymple usually limits his comments to what is happening on his side of the pond.
In the course of his interview he noted that the ritual of family dinners has fallen into desuetude in Great Britain. He added an analysis of the consequences.
In Dalrymple’s words:
About half of British homes no longer have a dining table. People do not eat meals together - they graze, finding what they want in the fridge, and eating in a solitary fashion whenever they feel like it (which is usually often), irrespective of the other people in the household.
This means that they never learn that eating is a social activity (many of the prisoners in the prison in which I worked had never in their entire lives eaten at a table with another person); they never learn to discipline their conduct; they never learn that the state of their appetite at any given moment should not be the sole consideration in deciding whether to eat or not. In other words, one's own interior state is all-important in deciding when to eat. And this is the model of all their behaviour.
Young patients now eat in doctors' offices; they eat above all in the street, where of course they drop litter as unselfconsciously as horses defecate. This is not evil, though it is antisocial, but you can easily see how people who attach such importance to their own desires, and lack any other criteria to help them decide to behave, come to do evil.
With the loss of the family dinner people have lost a primary means of socialization and self-discipline.
When eating is no longer part of a social bonding ritual, you are no longer functioning as a social being. You have become your appetites. You eat to satisfy hunger, but for no other reason.
The personal replaces the social; satisfying an impulse replaces asserting the good of the group.
I suspect that these new eating habits numb people to sensations. When you are merely a creature of appetite you are going to feel isolated, alone and rejected. The attendant feelings of demoralization will produce depression, and depression will kill your appetite and your ability to feel pleasure.
The loss of ritual does not make us more ravenous and does not fill our lives with more gusto. It numbs us to sensation.
Dalrymple says that people today seek out bigger and better thrills because they are bored. They would be suffering from what Baudelaire called: ennui.
In his words:
One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men - that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring.
In a world that has made a fetish out of feeling, it is worth noting that more and more people require excessive stimulation to feel anything.
Dalrymple makes one other point that is worth underscoring, if only because it also echoes an idea we owe to Confucius.
The Chinese sage stated that society cannot function if people do not use words properly. If a “cow” is one thing to you and one thing to me, we cannot have a real conversation about “cows.” We will never connect if we are unsure of what we are talking about.
Similarly, you cannot do business with someone if you do not know what he means when he says that he will deliver the goods tomorrow.
In a community where words are used correctly people do not haggle over levels of meaning. They do not require contracts to define all transactions. They trust each other because they are both using words correctly. They know that when you say that you will be there at 4 you will be there at 4.
Confucius called it “the rectification of names.” Dalrymple describes what happens when, in the name of communist ideology or political correctness, people are forced to use words incorrectly, to state as facts things they know to be untrue.
In his words:
Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.
In the published interview Dalrymple does not offer examples of what he means here.
Some examples pop into mind immediately. When schools tell children that they are the best, and when they insist that everyone go along they are simply trafficking in lies.
And this tends, as Dalrymple notes, to humiliate, thus to demoralize and depress.
When we are told that men are women are the same, that there is no fundamental difference between a man’s experience and a woman’s and when we are, as was the unfortunate Larry Summers, excoriated for thinking that there might be biological differences between men and women, we are being forced to assert a lie.
We are being forced to act the fool in public, to the detriment of our emotional well-being.