Rituals and symbols; are they visible forms of invisible power?

It is said that power is the ability to convert ideas or attitudes into new personal and social inclinations. Power is also the ability to preserve attitudes and ideas from personal and social rejections. Therefore, power does not imply physical force only, the most effective and enduring expression of power is mental persuasion. Accordingly, the boundary between free will and induced believes is very small and power infiltration into social texture occurs when society mechanically embodies it and instinctively subjects itself to a blind consent. Indeed, this happens in the way popular beliefs (symbols and rituals) are perceived as unconditional truths.

Symbols are adopted in both private and public life and rituals are their daily implementation into society. They both give emotional substance to individual and social identity, becoming the material expression of a social congregation and of a social handle. By naming things, by adhering to specific acts, people are accepted by their community, thus they get assimilated to the social center. They are the point of convergence; they teach us how to approach both history and daily life by providing a collective memory. Symbols and rituals work as social glue. They give substance to social solidarity in the way they provide a common cultural background to refer to, in order to find a self-confirmation, then self-affirmation. That is the reason why they become OBVIOUS features to our existence, a habit, a form of “A PRIORI knowledge”, and an innate force which is very much the metaphor of teaching a fish how to swim.

Accordingly, it may be assumed that rituals and symbols get spread throughout generations. To this end, they depend on both private adhesion and public opinion. In fact, people can choose which kind of symbols and rituals to personify and therefore, this could be stated as we are the personification of what we want. In better words, we could assume that we are mentally free to choose who we want to be.

However, society as a confirmed social body has an effective role in preparing its members on how to act privately and socially. The reason is what John Locke would call as “law of opinion” or “law of fashion” on referring to how the need to keep up with a social reputation influences people’s conduct. Therefore, it could be stated people passively accept a range of beliefs and rituals, once they start to conceive society as an inflexible entity to answer to. And so, they do not choose anymore. They passively conform themselves to the flow in the way the social order becomes their mental order. This is the principle of surveillance: not to act spontaneously because the majority could see and could not approve, leading to the assumption that public opinion is the depositary of an idea of the majority. It is easy – not always appropriate, though – to attribute a sense of rightness to it. This is the reason why the majority may represent the social control or the so-called cultural mechanism of power, which is the power that is symbolically constructed. In Bourdieu’s words, rituals are “an adherence to relations of order which […] are accepted as self-evident”.

Here comes the moment in which popular beliefs become unconditional truths. It occurs when feelings and emotions prevail over rationality when social texture cares more about duties rather than rights when we uncritically embody habits when we do not allow social evolution because we think symbols and rituals must be kept the same through the years. It happens when we do not recognize that progression does not necessarily mean to disown the past but it means to adjust the past to the present. In better words, rituals are “not only models of what they [people] believe, but also models for the believing of it” (Clifford Geertz). It is clear now that rituals and symbols are not only structuring people’s actions but also people’s personalities and mental dispositions. Indeed, we end up to be cultural products. We end up to be forms of power.

Here stands the invisible representation of power through rituals and symbols: the entire world lives through them. The entire world lives through definitions, though. Indeed, while building up local units, symbols and rituals create differences, separations, barriers. As a result, their power of inclusion is automatically generating a condition of exclusion of others.

Undeniably, we are nowadays using symbols and rituals as political filters to approach other geographical realities. And, whenever we consider the others’ rituals and symbols are inappropriate or eventually wrong then, we are manipulated through populist statements in favour of a symbolically unilateral world. We are keeping dividing humanity through hierarchies of rituals and symbols. We are encapsulating populations into rankings of more or less human respectability depending on their rituals and symbols.

We must not forget our personal ability to use rationality as an essential source to cohabit the world. Indeed, to live peacefully in a collective realm we should favour our natural will and our liberal thought. We should not forget the idea of what right is and what wrong is in rational terms and not confer the conceptions of justice and freedom upon traditional conventions. Ethics and morality carry inclusion. Rituals and symbols can carry delusion as well. No matter which symbols and rituals we live through, we are more than the personification of them. By Maddalena Migliori

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