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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 72 JANUARY 2005 / BACK
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exclusion and inclusion

Rituals of humiliation and exclusion

John Hoover and Carole Milner

Understanding the rituals used by children to humiliate and exclude their peers – as well as the adult rituals they mirror – is an important first step toward preventing bullying and the physical, psychological, and emotional harm it can cause.

Throughout the ages, societies have occasionally found it expedient to remove certain individuals from their midst, either literally or symbolically. As long ago as the third century B.C. in Attica, potsherds (called ostraca in Greek) were used to record ceremonial votes regarding whom it would be expedient to banish (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1961). The word ostracism comes down to us from these classical origins. Today, in the small societies that constitute our schools, the community’s members often cast their votes by bullying, and the method of removal takes the form of exclusion rather than banishment.

Many students are bullied by peers; approximately 10 to 15 percent severely enough that they suffer psychological harm (Hoover, Oliver, & Hazler, 1992; Perry, Kusel & Perry, 1988). Moreover, scapegoat status tends to be consistent over time (Olweus, 1996). Nevertheless, the mechanisms whereby victimhood is conferred and communicated to others are poorly understood (Mihashi, 1987). Mihashi employed an archaic Japanese word, transliterated as kegare to describe the process of marking individuals for abuse as outsiders by forcing them to execute a humiliating, public act in which dehumanizing symbolism is often implied. For example, Mihashi relates the story of a student who was forced to eat grass, an “unpalatable” act denoting an animal-like nature.

This kegare action most likely serves three interrelated functions in American schools. First, humiliating actions notify members of the social group that the person is to be an object of ridicule. Second, these polluting behaviors dehumanize the individual, lending legitimacy to the abusive actions by members of the victimizing group. Finally, such ritual humiliation of one or a few may tighten the cohesion of the larger social structure (Alexander, 1986).

While these activities are most often harmful when perpetrated by children on their peers, Lapin (1995) pointed out that all exclusions from a society are not bad in themselves; the cohesion of a social unit frequently depends upon adherence to a few deeply held norms that may require enforcement via exclusion when cultural taboos have been broken. Under certain circumstances, such exclusion may actually have this educative and motivational component, albeit a conservative or preservationist one. Among the Pukhtunwali people, for example, ostracism is undertaken when an individual's action puts their relationship with neighboring tribes in jeopardy of devastating conflict (Mahdi, 1986).

Humiliation Rituals (Kegare)
There are at least two clear benefits of demystifying and better understanding the “humiliation rituals” (an English rendering of kegare) by which students are “made polluted.” First, people with the responsibility for the well-being of young people may find methods to interrupt behavior sequences associated with humiliation rituals and prevent school bullying. Second, bringing subtle or hidden aspects of culture to light is useful in itself. Only by making these rites public and explicit can we begin asking young people to reconsider their actions. The following examination of formal and informal humiliation rituals thus attempts to begin deciphering the cultural and linguistic codes of bullying.

Exclusion and Humiliation: Games Played by Adults
In common usage, ostracism has retained its meaning from classical times: removing a person from an organization, group, or culture. In Athens, the ritualistic behavior of voting on archaic potsherds legitimized and granted power and mystery to the more mundane matter of banishment. Three adult practices closely related to ostracism – excommunication, shunning, and blackballing (Gruter, 1986; Rehbinder, 1986) – are all formal versions of ostracism that still exist today, albeit rarely. A related version, hazing or “aggressive conversion,” though intended to initiate, often includes actions and words intended to humiliate, as well as to break an individual's ties to a culture (Taff & Boglioli, 1993).

Banning an individual from participation in his or her community is the most extreme form of dehumanization, short of execution – that is, killing an individual's personhood or reality. In some groups, such as the Old Order Amish, banning or shunning (Meidung in German) prevents individuals from pursuing their livelihood, to the extent that a traditional way of life is dependent upon social relationships (Gruter, 1986).

Similarly, Hyland (1928) noted that medieval theologians likened excommunication bans – formal removal from a religious fellowship – to experiencing death. The symbolic nature of excommunication maybe particularly terrifying in that a separation from God is symbolized (Logan, 1968):

After the judgment of the Angels, and with that of the saints, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch de Espinoza with the consent of God ... the Lord will not pardon him. We command that none should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed by him. (Browne, 1932, p. 41; citing the ban of excommunication of the philosopher Spinoza from the Amsterdam synagogue)

Similarly, when joining armies, fraternal organizations, political movements, or religious orders, new members must frequently be separated from aspects of their past lives and formally embrace the mission and beliefs of the new association. The rites and actions involved, qualitatively similar to humiliation rituals, are termed hazing or aggressive conversion. Aggressive conversion includes three phases. First, one must become isolated from the past life and from significant others. Second, the former self is exorcised “through humiliation and guilt” (Taff & Boglioli, 1993, p. 2116). In a final phase, the initiate assumes the group identity and worldview.

Hazing differs from other humiliation rituals in that initiates ostensibly agree to the process. However, inductees may not be entirely clear about the requisite commitment. The attempt to break an individual's will – to change via humiliation – is actually qualitatively similar to the harassment that some experience involuntarily. In addition, the rituals, designed to sever the initiate from his or her past life, can be cruel and severe. Chidley (1995) cited such activities as sleep deprivation, public nudity, childish pranks, drunkenness, gross racial slurs, and beatings. In many cases, initiates symbolically show solidarity with the new entity by breaking taboos that might produce censure or even ostracism by their old community or affiliation. In one particularly graphic example, freshman football players are forced to parade in public naked, all the while holding each other’s penises in the “elephant walk” (Chidley, 1995, p. 18).

Forms of Humiliation Practiced by Children
A number of similarities exist between the more formal rites of exclusion practiced by adults and the bullying behaviors observed in children. Young people seem to partake in a range of behaviors that perform much the same functions as the adult rituals of ostracism, shunning, excommunication, black-balling, and aggressive conversion. These behaviors by children can be categorized into verbal bullying, physical bullying, symbolic humiliation, and hazing.

Verbal Bullying
While nearly all dehumanization processes require speech, verbal bullying refers to speech directed toward a victim, usually in the presence of others. Teasing, verbal humor, renaming, rumor spreading, and directly informing a student of his or her status are all different types of verbal bullying.

Teasing and Verbal Humor. Alexander (1986) argued that verbal humor can play a primary role in communicating to other young people that a person is not worthy of association. Bullies use humor to lower the victim's status by repeatedly making the person the butt of verbal jests, practical jokes, or humorous situations. Alexander argued that the social role of “put-down” humor is to increase the social cohesion of the group that is party to the humor. Thus, the humiliation of one or a few serves to unify another group, thereby making teasing and angry humor appealing to children who feel the need to be both powerful and connected.

Students across many grade levels report a great deal of confusion about teasing and verbal humor. Although a majority of students felt that most teasing was done “in fun, not to hurt” (Oliver, Hoover, & Hazler, 1994), a majority of scapegoat students also reported that the primary mode of bullying they experienced was teasing, and that they were bothered by it. To students, teasing can be both playful and inclusive or exclusionary and humiliating. Whether or not a humorous or teasing episode is perceived by recipients as harassment probably depends upon the relative social standing of those involved, the recipient’s psychological resources (self-esteem, social skills, etc.), participants' culturally based expectations (Gardner, 1985), the literal content of the humor, and its symbolic content. These aspects of the perception of verbalizations are not well understood and deserve the attention of researchers.

Although the folk wisdom that responding to teasing emotionally causes it to be intensified is not well established scientifically, most youngsters believe it firmly (Hoover & Oliver, 1996). If it is true that responding emotionally increases the risk of being deemed the dreaded outsider, weaker students are faced with a cruel dilemma. By reacting, they probably exacerbate the ritualistic nature of the action. However, being forced to swallow abusive action is likely experienced as the height of humiliation. One student hazed as part of a football initiation remarked that “the humiliation was tons worse than physical injury” (Plummer, 1993, p. 52).

Renaming Rites. While many traditional rites of passage have included bestowing a new name on the initiate to indicate his or her new status in the community, this process can become another method of dehumanization in the hands of bullies. In these cases, to-be-excluded students are assigned labels associated with stigmata. For example, one student was renamed “Boxer” after a cartoon dog (Hoover, 1996), and another student was called “Dumbo” because students perceived him as having wide-set ears (Hoover & Oliver, 1996). Gardner (1985) clarified that name-calling depends on “pointing out any outstanding physical, mental, or behavioral characteristic the speaker feels will upset the listener” (p. 19). Occasionally, renaming fits Mihashi’s (1987) criteria of being both degrading and delivering subhuman symbolic content, as in the comparison of a student to the dog “Boxer.”

Rumor Spreading. Another form of verbal bullying is rumor spreading, regardless of whether the tales spread are true, partially true, or false. The functional variables are whether the student being discussed desires to have others aware of the putative information and whether the telling is in some sense degrading to the individual being “told about.” In a study of rural Midwestern students, several females related that they had been rumored to be sexually promiscuous (Hoover, Oliver, & Hazler, 1992). Males frequently complained that rumors were spread that they were gay (outing), often with serious physical safety ramifications (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).

Teens find rumors especially difficult to manage. To dispute the claims made by others requires bringing up a topic that is degrading and painful. Very few young people possess the remarkable combination of self-confidence and interpersonal skill to confront the rumors. Also, the logistical problem of identifying the rumormongers is nearly intractable. Nonetheless, teens invest considerable time and energy in these often futile efforts.

Unfortunately, watching a victim squirm may just further satisfy a rumormonger’s need to exercise power.

Other Rhetorical Devices. Students sometimes use more straightforward rhetorical devices such as merely stating that a student is anathema. A common version of this reported in bullying studies, particularly among females, is the pointed exclusion of certain individuals from parties or other after-school and weekend social events (Hoover, Oliver, & Thomson, 1993). Younger individuals may employ a singsong voice (Naaa, Na, Na, Naaa Na), alerting others explicitly to the desire to reduce the status of an unlucky peer.

Physical Bullying
Besides using various forms of verbal bullying, children often communicate that a student is fair game for humiliation by forcing him or her to submit to dehumanizing physical contact. The most common form this takes is for stronger and older students to hit, poke, trip, smack, or otherwise overpower weaker individuals. The physical harm itself, while considerable, is not the problem associated with humiliation rituals. Rather, it is the public, observable nature of the person's physical humiliation which establishes inferiority and symbolizes the victim's weakness. For example, a student beat up in a neighboring city by hoodlums may actually carry some prestige back to school along with his bruises, while a person physically attacked by a younger student in the hallways may accrue damage to his prestige.

Other physically humiliating actions, venerable in student folklore, include “swirlies” (dunking a student’s head in the toilet while flushing), pantsing, and snuggies (Hale, FarleyLucas, & Tardy, 1994). With these actions as well, the symbolic content of the humiliation may be most pernicious, rather than any overt physical damage.

Finally, unwanted sexual touches are a form of physical bullying frequently experienced by females (and some males) in schools (AAUW, 1993; Shakeshaft et al., 1986). Shakeshaft et al. noted that females seen as attractive and those having developed secondary sexual characteristics earlier than average frequently suffered this type of peer abuse. Educators, parents, and students should be aware that this type of bullying constitutes sexual harassment under Title IX, no matter the age of the students involved (Marczely, 1993).

Symbolic Humiliation
Sending a dehumanizing message of any kind “even a note or a silly picture “may constitute a humiliation ritual if that message is received as intended. Symbolic behavior that does not exactly fit any other category described includes sending messages regarding status via notes and pictures; “defiling” a person or property with contextually objectionable substances, such as excrement or blood; and theatrical actions or visual symbols, such as mimicking or visually mocking. For example, a girl with cerebral palsy complained that her fellow students mimicked her gait. Making faces and giving dirty looks are also symbolic ways to humiliate one’s fellow students. In a North Dakota case, students built snowmen that were clear caricatures of a fellow student with wide-set ears (Lister, 1995).

Hazing among Students
A considerable amount of hazing continues to occur in schools and school-related programs (Chidley, 1995; Plummer, 1993). Educators must consider carefully their stance toward any hazing that has become traditional in their settings. Although mild ritualistic behaviors, handled sensitively, may aid the development of a sense of belonging, these rites also possess tremendous potential to hurt and exclude. When authorities overtly or tacitly support hazing, they run the danger of teaching and communicating approval of behaviors that may escalate into bullying. Small exclusions and cruelties have a way of burgeoning into hateful and dangerous ones.

School officials should examine critically whether traditions and rituals of their schools foster belonging or humiliation. The key question should be: Is the hazing that goes on truly experienced voluntarily or has it become a form of bullying? It is important to have a conversation on whether such rituals have the tendency to teach unintended lessons about cruelty and separation. In addition, part of an institution's “hidden curriculum” is the degree to which teachers and administrators tolerate or even encourage humiliation, as long as it serves the institution's purposes. It is difficult to control when and where such behavior takes place.

Preventing Humiliation Rituals
The following recommendations and conclusions for educators and parents may help prevent the harmful effects of humiliation rituals in our schools:

Ask the right questions to determine if a child's behavior constitutes a humiliation ritual. We suggest that parents and educators look beyond the literal configuration of children's behavior and consider the potential for hurt and exclusion in their actions. One clue that behaviors constitute humiliation rituals is that the action is detested by the individual toward whom it is directed. Another consideration in deciding whether an action constitutes ostracism is the symbolic nature of statements and actions (e.g., do they liken a child to an object or an animal?). Finally, with some exceptions, whether or not actions can be considered humiliation rituals depends upon the physical and psychological vulnerability of recipients. Actions that are identified as humiliation rituals using these three criteria should be addressed immediately by adults.

Help young people discuss statements or actions that are dehumanizing. Students should be given opportunities to critically examine social behaviors and the criteria for whether or not, or how, they encourage exclusion or dehumanization. Such discussions can also be appropriate as part of core subjects taught in classrooms. For example, excommunication and shunning fit nicely into middle and high school social studies curriculums. The symbolic content of language and behavior also fits English or communications coursework. Novels such as The Lords of Discipline (Conroy, 1980), and Lord of the Flies (Golding, 1954) can generate useful discussions of ritual exclusion and hazing among students and educators. Hoover and Oliver (1996) offer specific suggestions about the use of bibliotherapy with younger students.

Carefully examine your own behavior and the behavior that the school sanctions. School and other program officials must ponder the degree to which seemingly harmless hazing traditions lend themselves to bullying on the one hand or to group cohesion on the other hand. Students should be brought into this discussion. In addition, teachers and youth workers should self-critically examine whether the verbal humor they employ in front of young people is non-exclusionary and, if so, whether this benevolent intent is clear to students. If an educator or counselor employs an acerbic wit, an increasingly hard edge in their students' exchanges should come as no surprise.

Create a culture that does not permit bullying to go unaddressed. A key to ending bullying is the refusal of bystanders to serve as a passive audience. An ambiance must be created in the institution that encourages bystanders to intervene on behalf of victims.

By better understanding young people’s rituals of humiliation and exclusion, as well as taking proactive steps to circumvent them, our families, schools, and neighborhoods can truly become communities where everyone belongs.


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This feature: Hoover, J. and Milner, C. (1998) Rituals of humiliation and exclusion. Reaching Today's Youth 3(1), pp28-32

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