Sunday, July 15, 2007

Death and Social Order

I've been reading an article that is more philosophical than my usual taste. It deals with the position of death in social order:
A culture that closes down its public forms for the expression of mourning—a society that eliminates rituals and ceremonies with at least a claimed origin in the most emotionally meaningful portions of its history—has forgotten the hazards that those rituals and ceremonies once channeled and controlled. When grief can find no public outlet, it will make its own in the infection of social hysteria and the return of the blood feud. The inexplicability of mortality can, under the pressure of grief, issue in astonishingly destructive hunts for someone to blame. Grieving people are dangerous people.

People incapable of grief are also dangerous, however. Ritual and ceremony exist in part to siphon off the dangers of grief, but they also exist to allow use of the remainder of grief for public purposes. Just as the private dead can bind us to something greater than ourselves in the family, so the public dead can bind us to something even larger: The story of their suffering becomes part of our story—with the same demands as though a brother or a sister had died.

The political use of grief is thus an expansion into the public realm of the private relation to the dead. Even here, however, culture matters: Without well-formed, solemn, and generally accepted funeral rites, a society’s sporadic attempts at unifying itself around the public display of the newly dead will appear to be what those attempts typically are—arbitrary, artificial, and ineffectual.
One of the facets of Middle Eastern culture that is least understood is that of death and grieving in the political arena. The, to us, exaggerated posturing and public display of grieving by Arabic cultures, may, according to this article, have a pollitical purpose. We need to understand its meaning.

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