When rites of passage disappear from public life, civilization does as well, and one result is young men running amok.
The riots in British cities over the summer have been assimilated by our opinion-formers into the easy categories that govern their thinking. Leftwing writers have cited urban deprivation, poverty, and racism—in other words, factors for which the rioters cannot be blamed. Right-wing writers have pointed their fingers at multiculturalism, the welfare trap, and the breakdown of family life — again, factors for which the rioters cannot be blamed. The fact is, however, that those responsible for the riots were those who took part in them. Rioting is natural to human beings, and is a frequently observed effect of our inherent savagery. Young men are particularly prone to riot: and in the conditions of the hunter-gatherer it is to be assumed that, between sleeping, copulating, and eating, they didn’t do much else. Young men lapse into riot as soon as there issomething to be gained from doing so, and whenever there is nothing serious to be lost. What needs explaining is not the fact that they riot, but rather the far more extraordinary fact that on the whole they don’t. What is it, down the ages, that has contained the energies of our youth, and ensured that they respect the lives and property of others?
The answer is “civilization.” But that answer repeats the question. What exactly makes a civilization? What is it that lifts human beings out of their savage condition and endows them with the respect for order, the consideration for others, and the habits of obedience without which the claim of humanity for a special place on our planet is no better than the claim of rats, toads, or mosquitoes?
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists had the chance to observe societies that had neither writing nor formal institutions of government, but which were nevertheless in possession of the precious thing that herds, packs, and riots lack, namely perpetuity. Those “primitive” societies existed from generation to generation, and each new generation absorbed the customs and acknowledged the obligations that were passed on by its parents, unconsciously preparing itself in turn to pass those benefits to its offspring. Although there were disputes and rivalries, and although violence would erupt from time to time, and sometimes exist in ritualized and repeated forms, the normal condition was one of peaceful association, in which each member of the tribe felt bound to every other in a web of obligations that could not be guiltlessly transgressed. The many “I’s” were subsumed in a single “we,” and what made this possible, more than any other factor, was the interest that the tribe took in the critical transitions on which its perpetuity depended. Each birth was acknowledged as an event in the life of the tribe, as well as an event in the life of the parents. The transition from childhood to adult responsibility was not, as now, a private accomplishment, to be achieved anyhow or not at all, but a public concern, to be given ceremonial recognition. In the ceremony of initiation obligations would be solemnly assumed and the interest of the tribe acknowledged as greater than the interests of any individual. Marriage was likewise a public rite, and when, at last, the individual was laid to rest among his ancestors, that passage too was marked out as the concern of everyone.
Rites of passage (as Arnold van Gennep named them a hundred years ago) still exist here and there in our world, notably in societies untouched by modern communications. But nobody can deny that they are disappearing from Europe in general, and from Britain in particular. When the right-wing commentators complain of the breakdown of family life, they don’t really mean that homes are now fungible and troubled. That has been the case from the beginning of civilization. I was raised in such a home. What the commentators mean, or ought to mean, is that the crucial institution on which children depend for their security, namely marriage, is disappearing. Out of wedlock births are now the norm in Europe, and the only people who urgently seek to get married are homosexuals, anxious for a recognition that is rapidly losing its real significance. The absence of this crucial rite of passage means that birth, too, is a private matter, no longer an event in the life of a community but a private passion of the mother, who is helped through her ordeal (should she choose to go through with it) by the same welfare system that will take charge of the child.
But perhaps the most important loss is that of the rite of passage out of childhood. Coming of age was a formal welcome offered by the community. In response to this welcome the adolescent assumed the benefits and burdens of membership: maturity ceased to be a biological phenomenon and was recreated as a social gift. In complex societies like ours this transformation was not marked by a single ceremony, although here and there the old ceremonies existed. It was marked by a multitude of small-scale undertakings: local offers of membership and conferrals of responsibility that were looked on with pride by the participants and by those in charge.
Teams, scout troops, schools, and clubs all offered their local rites of passage; Bar-Mitzvah, Confirmation, and first Communion were religious icons embossed on the same ready currency. In a hundred ways adults maintained the boundary between childhood and maturity, and offered maturity on terms — terms that involved the whole community, and which could be accepted only by conceding the right of the community to obedience in the things that mattered most to it.
I GUESS WHAT I AM SAYING HERE is plain common sense. If so, however, why should we be surprised if our societies lose the precious gift of perpetuity, when the great transitions in which membership can be publicly acknowledged no longer exist? Children stumble into adulthood today, unprepared and unendorsed. Little or nothing protects them from the spectacle of adult disorder. The traditional goals, such as marriage and family, are no longer held out as stages on life’s way. And the proliferation of sexual imagery and temptation destroys both the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adult life, so that the boundary between the two is erased. In a very real sense children are left to fend for themselves, to forge out of the debris that they witness the only kind of membership that can be rescued from it, which is that of the gang.
The essence of the gang is that it lives in antagonistic relation to its surroundings. The world around the gang belongs to others, to those who have no claim to membership and whose property and lifestyle mark them out as alien. Hence the gang emerges into a world already closed to it, and it must do something to make its presence known. Various avenues suggest themselves. One is to vandalize the public space and leave a rival mark on it. This is the real meaning of graffiti, which are the signatures of gangs, designed both to deface the public space and to privatize its meaning.
Other self-made rites of passage are available. The violent confrontation with other gangs is one of them, and in British cities this form of initiation is quite common, leading in recent years to many deaths through knife attacks. Riot too can be a rite of passage — a way of “joining in” that offers both membership and liberation, and which fulfils the longing for vengeance against a world that has hitherto offered nothing but the sign of others’ ownership. It does not normally escalate to the extent that we have witnessed in Britain this last summer. But riot is there in the background of adolescent life, as everyone knows who lives close to one of our large inner city schools.
It is not only in Britain that these effects are witnessed. Every public space in Germany has been defaced by graffiti, and little or nothing is done to punish those responsible—after all, punishment belongs to the authoritarian way of life that the Germans are trying so hard to forget. At the same time, this freedom to deface does not satisfy the hunger of young Germans for membership or their anger against a world that has failed to provide it. Every Friday night for the past four years automobiles have been set alight in Berlin, and an article in Die Welt am Sonntag recently compared the situation in the German capital with that in Tottenham, where the British riots began. Nor is the German obsession with neo-Nazism entirely absurd. Deprive young people of a rite of passage into the social order and they will look for a rite of passage out of it. That, in my view, is the true explanation of the Norwegian mass murderer Breivik, a man whose father had rejected him, who found no society that would include him, and who took his revenge on young people who seemed to be enjoying the very membership that he lacked.
It is one thing to acknowledge the need for rites of passage, another to propose a way of rediscovering them. So far the efforts of politicians in Europe and America have been negative. The effect of current policies has been to subsidize out-of-wedlock births, to remake marriage as a contract of cohabitation, and to drive religion, which is the true guardian of rites of passage, from the public sphere. Those policies have been embarked on with the best of intentions, but with a remarkable indifference to what we know of human nature. The way back to perpetuity will be long and painful, but it is surely evident that the first step must be to stop subsidizing the alternative.
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