Civic Rituals

In Nina Eliasoph’s excellent book Avoiding Politics, she explores, as the subtile indicates, “how Americans produce apathy in every day life.” For this thoughtful, sociological study Eliasoph embedded herself with numerous civic groups – including volunteer, recreational and activist organizations. Through her detailed observations, she notes many factors that impede successful civic and political activity.

This morning I was struck by a passage on civic rituals – practices which are seemingly good for civic life but which ultimately discourage public-minded discussion in the public sphere.

Reflecting on numerous special events organized around various community concerns, Eliasoph observes:

The practice of ritual production was one of the most important messages of the rituals. This sporadic and indirect method of showing concern made “care for fellow humans” seem to be a special occasion, something that could happen just a few times a year, easily incorporated into a busy commuter’s schedule without changing anything else.

Lest this point be misinterpreted coming on the eve of Veterans’ Day, I do think it’s important to mention – and Eliasoph agrees – that civic rituals are not inherently bad.

Voting is, arguably, a civic ritual. It is definitely habitual, with prior voting being a strong predictor of future voting behavior. While one ought to do far more than vote to be civic, I think it’s still important to have this ritual in one’s civic life.

But, I think about rituals like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The topics of racial justice surfaced around that holiday are deeply important and critical for us to collectively tackle in our communities. But too often, the day becomes little more than a day for pontificating by public officials. An opportunity for us each to dedicate one day to racial equality, feel good about our commitment to diversity, and then continue to go through life discriminating and blindly committing microaggressions.

In this case, the civic ritual is indeed problematic. We give the issue just enough attention to check it off our list without ever really taking the time to tackle the hard work of confronting it.

Arguably, it’s better to have something than nothing – having no days to acknowledge the realities of racial injustice would indeed be a travesty. But if we didn’t have these simple, ineffective rituals to satisfy our morality – would we then be more likely to tackle the issue more fully?


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