Culture Unites, Not Just Divides Us

But It is the Structure of Ritual that Moves and Shapes Us … and Shapes Our Social Boundaries

American culture’s violent streak isn’t unique; it’s just striking as a contradiction to the otherwise peaceful, deliberative values inherent in democratic rule and decision-making. The reason that symbols of violence can be effective in creating common identity in any community–at pretty much any scale–is that these symbols add drama to rituals and myths that move us. Of course, rituals and myths that move us–creating strong shared emotional associations, memories, and the basic embodied know-how and understanding for acting effectively in society in the future–do not require violence. Thus, in contemporary entertainment media, professional sports and competitive elimination-based reality shows incorporate various degrees of staged or symbolized violence and exclusion into ritualized settings, which we experience as marked excursions from the normal humdrum or challenge of everyday life and responsibilities. Because we can return from witnessing violence and exclusion, however aware we are that it is staged, we go about our lives again with a bit more resolve, ease, sense of security, or humor. Indeed, rituals in any form can shape our symbolic worlds AND our emotional engagement with them, essentially giving us the symbolic tools and emotional associations to make daily experience seem meaningful and worthwhile. Traditional rituals or ritualized entertainment that are peaceful, inclusive, redemptive, or cleansing can have just as strong an emotional and symbolic effect on us and the way we deal with the world.