Ostracism: An Essay on Exclusion

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Mark 6:4 NIV)

I am a social creature. Companionship is part of my essence. Group interaction my bread and butter. Acceptance is in my bloodstream. This recognition of the innate will in Man to congregate in groups, with those of his ilk whom he recognises as similar, was famously elucidated by Aristotle when he said that Man is by nature a social animal. And who could seriously dispute such an insight, even though it seems such a trivial one to make? We may all like to be on our own at times. But that doesn’t change the fact that no one would pine for a life of isolation and loneliness, a life that would supplant a bit of sociability here and a bit of solitude there. We may deceive ourselves that the insight of Aristotle is not strictly true, that there are, for instance, hermits. Recorded history has provided us with a rich source of material documenting the phenomenon of hermitage in monasteries and convents. But even here there is a community of believers, a support network for the splendid isolationists. In reality, these institutions are not so much prisons of isolation, but somewhere where those dedicated to living a pacified and quiet life can be with others of their kind. Whatever their reputation, convents and monasteries remain social organizations. Hermitage shouldn’t be misunderstood as social exclusion. By contrast, true isolation is hellish. Where people struggle to make acquaintances, or are not allowed to, life is unbearably hard and miserable. As I write this, a report has been published documenting a crisis of loneliness existent in Britain. And just one historical instance of enforced loneliness are the infamous separate and silent systems of Victorian prisons. These well-intentioned attempts to reform prisoners by turning themselves inward on their own consciences achieved the opposite, even driving egoistic criminals to madness and suicide. No doubt the argument of Aristotle will meet with objections. Someone may retort and say that “I am fine living on my own” or “I don’t need to join a group.” Often, what they mean is that they might not partake in gatherings of formal ‘societies,’ e.g. political parties, charities, sports clubs, etc … Yet, the people who remain aloof with respect to formal socializing, do yet exist in a society. They have contacts, they have networks and connections, and they rely on the vast architecture of infrastructure that modern society provides us to live our lives in a pleasant and luxurious manner. At this juncture, we do not need to labour this point and can concede to Aristotle that he was right.

So far, we have established that humans are naturally sociable and seek company. They feel incomplete in the absence of genuine warmth and companionship, suffering the pangs of psychological distress and turmoil. The other side of that social-acceptance coin, the need to be liked, admired, given time, made feel welcome, invited in, granted a seat at the table, is its polar opposite, the fear of exclusion. While I hope for acceptance, I fear being left out in the cold. For us humans, addicted as we are to social relations, rejection is an ever-pressing possibility. Ostracism hangs over you and me like a dark cloud. If the currency of sociability is to have any value, then its sting in the tail, the implicit rebuke to all those who violate the terms of sociability, is that of ostracism. What is the purpose of – or better yet, what is at stake with respect to – social interaction, without the punishment of ostracism? Fearing pariah-hood, being classed as a rogue-individual, enduring social sanctions, these fears are the condiment that season the taste of acceptance. Either you are one of the flock or you are a black sheep. Even those so-called rebellious spirits realize this. Seldom will they go to extreme lengths to be cast out totally of society. If they do deliberately invite exclusion from ‘polite society,’ be sure that they have a new group to enter. Criminals would fit this description, as with ‘free spirits’ who institute communes. Affiliation with the group is such an axiom for humans that material hardship, i.e. poverty, pales in comparison to ostracism. Social expulsion is the greatest impoverishment of all.

Now, just to be clear, rejection must be from a group of three if we are talking about ostracism or social exclusion. Unrequited love, or even an extinguishing of the flame of the consummated variety, are common sources of rejection. Indeed, I understand all too well the feeling of someone whom I love or just fancy not returning the compliment. But we really couldn’t use the term ostracism, or other terms like blackballing, with any sense of accuracy when it comes to bi-lateral relationships.

Ostracism or rejection must either require at least two ganging up on at least another one and expelling them, or at least two reducing the role and impact in the group of at least one, or alternatively at least two playing the role of ‘bouncers’ and refusing at least one admission to the ‘club.’ Even in a ‘benign’ rejection – where relations aren’t as warm as they used to be and a sort of mini ‘cold war’ takes place – the benignly ostracised does not exist at the level of intimate relations with members of the group. Cordial ties may be possible in a ‘soft’ ostracism or rejection, but real camaraderie is absent. This hurts and can be incredibly awkward.

For someone either excluded outright or losing a sense of intimacy, all kinds of suspicions and second thoughts materialize. Am I really out of the group? Do others know? How will I handle the embarrassment if this is public knowledge? What is being said about me? Is anything being said? Yeah, I can hear them laughing. Who is really lapping it up? Is someone sticking up for me? That bloke, yeah I know he likes me. Ok, I understand that he fears losing face. Next time, I’ll talk to him in private and ask what happened. What group will I go to now? Better not be too friendly too soon with a new group. Take it slowly. Everyone knows I’m a reject … and on, and on.

Have you been in this predicament? I am surely not the only one to suffer the stigma of exclusion and equally positive I don’t suffer from some abnormal desire to integrate and be accepted. To repeat, all the evidence I see around me tells me that people love to be in a group. We are social addicts.

On many occasions, like you the reader, I have tasted that bitterness of social rejection. Pain? The pain was enormous. I can see wisdom in some episodes and no doubt, it had a disciplining effect, making me either a better person, teaching me social rules, or just inoculating me against future disappointments in life. Being pushed out of a group is sometimes, with hindsight, a blessing. But the hurt never leaves. Somewhere deep down there is a former incarnation of me who feels stigmatized. Sometimes I was rejected because of an explicit act I had committed; something that made me ashamed and for which I could hold my hands up and say that I could understand the reasons for my expulsion. Other times I was left shaking my head. There are times when you want to fit in, but simply can’t, when a misplaced word has a domino effect, when obscure misunderstandings with the group you are attempting to integrate into tend to snowball. Note as well that I am a white male enjoying some privilege, so I have no experience of the expulsions, or exclusions, which ‘people of colour’ face. Whatever rejection they have endured, I can imagine it hurts, because the moments when I was excluded were the moments when I recognized myself as the ‘other.’ People who you know and look forward to seeing don’t always extend invitations to join them. They might plot against you or individuals may sacrifice you to gain access to another congregation. Or, your face just mightn’t fit. Cordons are put up, and no matter how polite the cordon, it still demarcates you from them. Those were the moments I realized that it was possible to be left out in the cold. It is a feeling that all the later generations who inherit the Earth will experience, as did the earlier generations, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I am powerless to stop history evolving. Rejection, and the consequent feelings of bruised pride and mental distress, are humanity’s lot.

Of course, the classic tale of social exclusion is The Ugly Duckling. Emotionally I can feel myself spurned just as the cygnet-duckling was, and have felt the same sense of happiness as the ugly reject feels when ‘things worked out.’ I have always loved that story and taken it to my heart, framing myself throughout life as an ugly duckling. But Andersen gave us a far too optimistic ending. We don’t end up as graceful swans. We are far more likely to end up as ducks who find a group of other rejects. A new version, Ugly Duckling 2.0, needs to be written perhaps!

Revealed religion speaks to us on both a personal and global level, and contains many narratives with respect to themes of ostracism and rejection, the Bible and Quran being the documents of revealed religion. There is the famous epigraph with which I started the essay; how the Prophet is unwelcome among his kith and kin. From the Quran, there is the story of Iblis, who was cast out from Allah’s favour for not prostrating to Adam. Consequently, Adam, Eve and Iblis were all expelled from The Garden on account of the first parents eating from the tree, although here, the expulsion was something of a benign exile. In the Bible, Cain fled after slaying Abel. Noah became a pariah, if not totally ostracised, for warning of the impending flood. Abraham had to flee from his people after they attempted to burn him alive. He was a stranger in a strange land. There is the story of Joseph who was cast out by his brothers. We have Moses, who was not expelled in the Quran, but who had to flee and suffered intense hardship until he met women at the Midian well who were tending their flocks. Eventually he was accepted into their group and this acceptance (God knows) was probably more of a relief than if he had merely been provided with sustenance. One of the lesser known Prophets, Shuyab, is threatened with expulsion in the Quran (example in 7:88). And of course, there is the story of the Prophet and the early believers of Mecca who had to leave their birthplace because of persecution. This emigration, which we may call a ‘creative’ ostracism (in the same way a creative dismissal is a de facto dismissal), marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. A Messenger accepted immediately by his people was Jonah, an exception to the rule that Prophets are rejected by their kith and kin.

Not only were individuals banished by their people in the narratives of revealed religion. The Promised Land often excluded, or seemed to exclude, the Children of Israel at times. Almost like a default position, no matter where the Children of Israel went in the Mediterranean or Middle East, or at a later date no matter where the Jews emigrated to in the world, Judaea and Samaria stood still, looming large in the Jewish consciousness. After the wandering in the desert, the Children of Israel had to force their way back into the Promised Land, the Land of Isaac and Jacob. They suffered the Babylonian exile, and later expulsion by the Romans, an event commemorated at every Jewish wedding. They had some freedom of movement in modern-day Israel and Palestine under the Caliphs but until only relatively recently could they return in large numbers unimpeded. It’s a quite remarkable story of exclusion, almost as if the land itself regurgitated the Jews periodically before welcoming them back with open arms.

Parables of Jesus Christ are particularly interesting as they inform us about the rejection the disbelievers will suffer in the next life. But the stories really resonate with us because we are so accustomed in this earthly life to the experience of exclusion. Since exclusion and rejection often offend our sense of justice and ‘what is right’ we take pleasure in seeing the tables turned. The mighty and haughty who placed barriers, who delighted in the superiority a sense of exclusivity gave them, now, when the Truth of the world is revealed, have to contend with what they happily imposed on others.

For starters, there is the parable of the ten virgins who wait for the bridegroom. The five foolish ones are shut out of the wedding feast after leaving behind their oil. Then there is the parable of the great banquet. Let us quote this one in detail:

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt., NIV 22:2-14)

Many are invited, but few are chosen … heaven is a welcoming place, but not all that inclusive! In addition, there is the parable of the talents. The moral of this story is that the one who didn’t use their talents wisely is exiled, being cast out with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There is the parable of the sheep with its theme of acceptance, where the one who was lost is worth more than the ninety-nine who were always under the watchful eye of the shepherd. And finally, there are the verses which Muslims interpret as announcing the advent of the Prophet Muhammad in Matthew 21: 42-43 (KJV):

Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.

Because of parables like these, Christianity adopted a more inclusive posture towards human relations than had previously existed. Granted, the history of Christianity provides us with many examples of exclusion (the Spanish Inquisition a notorious case), but the all-embracing tendencies were ever-present in Christianity and some reason had to be found for expulsion (soon, we will see this wasn’t always the case). The new religion greatly upset the dynamics of the ancient world, although there were changes afoot in the Roman Empire, which may suggest that Christians took advantage of a new paradigm and emphasized those parts of the Gospel most conducive to spreading their message. This is just a speculation but whatever the truth of the matter, we can say for sure that the new religion of the Roman Empire gave a sound basis on which to construct a multi-national, multi-racial, community of believers. Such an idea would have been completely foreign to the ancients where there was a tight interplay of the religious, the communal, the cultural, and the political. Fustel de Coulanges particularly emphasized the religious aspect with regard to the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy in the ancient world:

The citizen was recognized by the fact that he had a part in the religion of the city, and it was from this participation that he derived all his civil and political rights. If he renounced the worship, he renounced the rights. … at Sparta, one who did not join in [public meals, which were a religious ceremony], even if it was not his fault, ceased at once to be counted among the citizens. At Athens, one who did not take part in the festivals of the national gods lost the rights of a citizen.

At Rome, it was necessary to have been present at the sacred ceremony of the lustration [a communal purification], in order to enjoy political rights. The man who had not taken part in this — that is to say, who had not joined in the common prayer and the sacrifice — lost his citizenship until the next lustration. (The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges. Batoche Books: Kitchener, 2001, p. 162)

De Coulanges then continues by succinctly stating that if “we wished to give an exact definition of a citizen, we should say that it was a man who had the religion of the city.” (Ibid.) The corollary of this is that the outsider who didn’t have the local religion consequently hadn’t the rights of the city.

This same religion, so long as it held its sway over the minds of men, forbade the right of citizenship to be granted to a stranger. (The Ancient City, p. 163)

Since the attachment of the ancient man to his land was mediated through his religious beliefs – and, as we have seen, his entire life was governed and legislated via religion – expulsion from his country was like death itself. We simply do not have these concepts nowadays. Most people love their country and would hurt at having to leave but they don’t see God Himself, or all the trappings of religion and family, as being exclusive to that one place on Earth. This wasn’t the way it was in the ancient world. Homeland was everything. We once more quote from de Coulanges:

Exile was really the interdiction of worship … Exile … placed man beyond the reach of religion. “Let him flee,” were the words of the sentence [pronounced in ancient Athens], “nor ever approach the temples. Let no citizen speak to or receive him; let no one admit him to the prayers or the sacrifices; let no one offer the lustral water.” … Every house was defiled by his presence. The man who received him became impure by his touch. “Any one who shall have eaten or drank with him, or who shall have touched him,” said the law, “should purify himself.” Under the ban of this excommunication the exile could take part in no religious ceremony; he no longer had a worship, sacred repasts, or prayers; he was disinherited of his portion of religion … religion was the source whence flowed civil and political rights. The exile, therefore, lost all this in losing his religion and country. Excluded from the city worship, he saw at the same time his domestic worship taken from him, and was forced to extinguish his hearth-fire … He could no longer hold property; his goods, as if he was dead, passed to his children, unless they were confiscated to the profit of the gods or of the state … Having no longer a worship, he had no longer a family; he ceased to be a husband and a father. His sons were no longer in his power; his wife was no longer his wife … and might immediately take another husband. (The Ancient City, pp. 167-168)

By contrast, Christianity proclaimed Jesus a saviour of all mankind, not just a local god. In so doing, they also proclaimed the ‘homogeneity,’ in a spiritual sense, of all lands on Earth. This was something also performed by Islam, where all the world became a mosque for worship. The heterogeneity of geographical location inimical to the ancient world, was suppressed during the Middle Ages, although it made a comeback in the era of the nation-state whose origins can be traced to the era of the absolute monarchs and the Reformation. After Christianity conquered the Roman Empire, it no longer sufficed as a threat for someone to be expelled from a geographical area. A great expression of this are the retreats monks built in places like the Skelligs off the South-West Irish coast or Iona near Scotland. Men could find God wherever they pleased. God had created the entire world, his presence was ubiquitous, and the soil, if anything, served to distract Man from his Lord, whereas previously an enclosed territory had validated Man’s very existence. So if, as we have said, association is to have any currency, how could the Church, in the absence of expulsion from the land, institute a form of ostracism that would both steer the wayward aright and protect the integrity of the corpus mysticum?

Excommunication (literally, exclusion from the community) was, and remains, the final punishment of the Catholic Church for its straying sheep. It is still practised but that ‘sting in the tail’ is greatly reduced. In the Middle Ages, over the entirety of the Christian world, and up until lately in many other traditionalist countries, excommunication was an exile of the individual spirit from the mystical body of the Church. It was more of a profound ‘internal exile’ when the Church dominated the political, social, and cultural landscape of Europe than it is now. For example, up until the Reformation in England, Church life was at the centre of people’s existence. One can see that pre-eminence physically and up until this day, the largest and highest buildings in many British towns remain those of the Church. One’s entire social existence was mediated through the Church and excommunication meant to live as a pariah, as an ‘unclean’ person. Once we understand this, we can then understand the tremendous political risk Henry VIII took in risking excommunication for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Let’s not forget either the risk that Martin Luther took in pinning his theses to the church-door at Wittenberg. However, his defiant act of protest would have come to naught if he had not found a new group to support him and Luther could be just as zealous as any Pope in expelling heretics. Calvin repeated this pattern.

To the degree the Church raises its stock in any country, the threat of excommunication gains currency. In the Catholic Encyclopaedia (CE), no punches are pulled when it comes to the topic of excommunication. This extreme act, the CE tells us, expels someone from ecclesiastical society. It is the most “serious penalty the Church can inflict.” While other instruments of punishment are at the Church’s disposal, this one threat is at the summit. The fall from grace means that a lay person cannot receive any of the rites of the Church, while a cleric cannot administer those rites. The purpose of excommunication is to reform and once the guilty have served their sentence, they can be received back into communion. Only those who have been baptised can be excommunicated.

The CE makes a crucial point germane to the discussion. In order to justify the very existence of excommunication, the Encyclopaedia states that the

right to excommunicate is an immediate and necessary consequence of the fact that the Church is a society. Every society has the right to exclude and deprive of their rights and social advantages its unworthy or grievously culpable members, either temporarily or permanently. This right is necessary to every society in order that it may be well administered and survive. (Emphasis added)

This is a bald statement of fact, and trades in reality. Yet the genie of idealism unleashed by the Church, its subjugation of the powerful to the Nicene Creed, its missionary zealousness, and exaltation of the poor, its otherworldly and transcendent metaphysics – all these had a psychological effect which extended far beyond the faithful. For those estranged from the day-to-day (or even Sunday-to-Sunday) mechanics of Church worship, any sort of ostracism, no matter how well justified on theological or even practical grounds, seems immoral and grossly unjust. This ethical history has been passed in more hyper-moral terms to a secular world, by which I mean that Socialism and Liberalism are Christian ethics without Christian theology, jurisprudence or metaphysics. Generally in Western Christendom, there are those at one end who define their culture, if not their beliefs, by Christian history. At the other end are those who are outside of the Church but who still wish to integrate moral tendencies of the Church, for example its tendency towards universalism and inclusivity, into a morality and politics secular in nature. These poles define the conservative/right-wing and liberal/socialist dichotomies of virtually every Western society. Of course, there are many grey areas in-between. Often those who are deeply religious are sensitive to genuine desires of outsiders. On the other hand, someone on the left of the spectrum may sometimes sound almost like a caricature of a Medieval cleric in opposing progressive measures. But this polar model – one pole a particularist, Eurocentric, Christocentric, world-view, and the other pole that of an ethical-Christian tinged universalism, is, I argue, a fair one to make.

Today, these two parties are locked in a bitter dispute over multi-culturalism, which is essentially a non-ostracising approach to relations with traditionally ‘alien’ outsiders. And the debate centres on whether minorities in the West, particularly Muslims (although in the past it could be blacks and Asians), can be integrated. Integration is one of those “if I had a pound every time I heard that …” words. It’s partner, social exclusion, is rarely used in public discourse. That in itself means that the debate is weighed in favour of integrationists because a positive espousal of something often carries the day over an accompanying negative resistance. No one, or at least only a few, say “we need to exclude those people.” No, instead they will discuss the problems with integrating such people. Under such terms of discussion, the problem isn’t that we are running an exclusive club, a ‘tight ship,’ which, to some degree, is intolerant. No, ‘they’ are the problem. They haven’t accepted us. Our group will disintegrate, or even worse become ‘polluted,’ so to speak, if we accept them. Such sentiments are easily understood once we grasp the fact that humans are so dependent for their identity on their group membership. Integrationists who welcome migrants do so because they do not have the same fanatical loyalty to a national grouping and are likely motivated by the terms of association which define participation in trans-national social structures. This of course is just the problem of integration re-stated, not elided. What if groups were arriving on our shores who hated these trans-national groupings? An unlikely scenario, but yet one that is possible, Cuban migrants in the US one group who are viewed with suspicion by those on the left.

In multi-cultural societies, suspicion of the ‘other,’ Muslims in particular, is nothing new. Most Muslims are law-abiding. Or, if the number of those who identify with Islam are involved in crime to a greater degree than members of the general population, this typically indicates social stigma. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that this is the case (for example, rates of Muslims involved in crime in the US are low, but high for ‘excluded’ minorities like blacks and Hispanics, but this may change in the future as Muslims become increasingly stigmatised in the US). Criminality is often an expression of effective internal ostracism. Whatever the case, the suspicion we see today of Muslims is similar to that existing historically, for example in ancient Greece, from whence we got the term ‘ostracism’ from. In Athens, someone could be ostracised because the public doubted their loyalty. No crime had to be proven. The ostracised could be exiled for 10 years, although possibly re-integrated after that time. Citizens of the polis merely had to feel uncomfortable and whoever was adjudged by popular expression to be a menace to public order (again, without any concrete evidence to indicate that they were) could find themselves facing a steep punishment. In a less formal way, multi-cultural societies have instituted the same types of punishment for some Muslims – the so-called ‘extremists’ – via public discourse. Nevertheless, the general direction of Western history, framed either through Christianity or universalism, means that formal ostracism is fraught with problems. Any rejection must be framed in the language of public health and safety, i.e. ‘we are clamping down on these people because they threaten our way of life,’ an infinitely elastic judgement to make.

Multi-culturalism is all about integration, openness, and acceptance, and yet we continually find ostracism. There is ostracism by the general population of minorities but also exclusion within minorities. A minority group like Muslims exclude their own if they fall foul of accepted standards. And no, it’s not just the Muslims (or even Jews, Baruch Spinoza a famous historical case of someone ostracized by that community, and anyone who reads about Israel knows that there are Jewish pariahs there) who exile their members. Muslim converts can be marginalised or ostracised by members of the general population. Furthermore, look at David Irving, who denies the numbers killed in the Holocaust. He lives as a persona non grata. Blacks have traditionally found it difficult to be accepted into British and American society. Someone who makes a perceived racist comment can easily find themselves ostracized. I am sure a socialist group would marginalise someone who leaned towards a British nationalist party, and vice-versa. Let’s not forget the classic case of ostracism, that occurring within families. Isn’t that a painful experience? Can you imagine a mother or father ostracising their offspring? (Of course, there may be valid reasons). That is why the saying about the prophet being rejected in his hometown really strikes us in the gut. We get it. We get the point that the burden of one’s conscience or mission comes with that most painful of albatrosses, social rejection. Prophecy is the ultimate paradigm of a lone individual challenging the status quo, challenging the shoddy ties that bind, risking ostracism, risking what many of us would not be prepared to risk under normal circumstances. As well, we may be so ill-disciplined that we can’t avoid the bullet of exclusion, and the stories in the Bible of sinners repenting and being re-integrated like the prodigal son speak to us. Some of those who are socially cleansed are cast out for good reasons, others for following what they believe to be true. Everyone understands, however, the millstone that is the stigma of exclusion.

So we have established that multi-culturalism excludes both those who fall foul of general population metrics of good behaviour and beliefs, and also that within multi-cultural communities themselves, social rejection exists. This failed attempt at a totally accepting, integrated, and tolerant society, really just brings a certain phenomenon into close focus; namely, that social inclusion and exclusion are two sides of the same coin. Historically, this is also evident. For example, during WWII, Lord Haw-Haw defected from England to Germany and was summarily vilified. Jews wore the badge of their ostracism within German-held territories. In the US, the Japanese were physically separated from the general population. The Cold War also threw up many characters like the Cambridge spies who suffered stigma for their espionage. In the Spanish Inquisition, non-Christians had to wear garb that identified them. There were Jim Crow laws and Apartheid, experiments in social exclusion. My own race, the Irish, suffered stigmatisation and there were signs up in rented properties in the UK saying ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.’ In the British Empire, subtle forms of exclusion existed. Non-white races had to know their place in social settings. They might work as bar-tenders but could not socialize. In cricket, for a time, there was an unwritten rule in the West Indies that batsmen had to be white, whereas blacks could be fielders. In Muslim societies, there were those who held dhimmi status. Non-Muslims were denied certain rights open to the Muslim community although this was justified on the basis that such religious communities could apply their religious laws among themselves, i.e. loss of power was compensated by legal jurisdiction (I am sure though that such exclusion tempted many non-Muslims to convert to Islam so as to enjoy a higher status).

Of all the groups in history who have been associated with exclusion and social stigmatisation, one group in particular stands out, that of the Jew. Jews are the perennial outsiders, although their status changed dramatically over the last two centuries in Europe when Enlightenment ideals no longer portrayed Christianity as a ‘superior,’ or the one true, religion. In the teeth of resistance and even reluctance on the part of the newly free, Jewish assimilation was slowly achieved. By the time, anti-Jewish feeling was no long public policy in the West, Jews were being expelled from Muslim countries where they had been tolerated because of anger over the creation of the State of Israel. Even today in the Middle East, Israel is far more of a pariah-state amongst its neighbours than Iran. What is unusual about the Jewish diaspora (and I have already touched on this) is that the Jews, by contrast with the ancients, almost carried the Holy Land on their backs wherever they went. Their sacred space was portable. Even in an age when secularism has rendered the old divisions between Jews and Gentiles officially obsolete, at least in the West, there still is an intense love for Israel among diaspora Jews. The fact that Jews have this attachment to Israel, regardless of their physical position on Earth, has meant that many of the more religious or self-identifying Jews have taken to their ‘outsider’ status comfortably and have not felt a pressing need to integrate. This embracing of outcast status is another ‘twist’ inimical to Jewry. Curiously, and this is an important point, it is untrue that Jewish ghettoes were wholly the work of the Gentiles; Jews genuinely wanted to live apart from the general population. Their exclusion was somewhat voluntary, and the leaders of the Jewish community welcomed the self-reinforcement of identity pariah status endowed. As Norman Davies tells us:

In many Italian cities, walled and gated quarters reserved for Jews had existed at least since the eleventh century. They resulted from the concordance of view between the municipal magistrates, who demanded segregation, and the Jews’ own religious laws, which forbade residence among Gentiles … Formal ghettoes were unknown, however, in the Jews’ main refuge in Poland-Lithuania, where royal charters of protection were in force from 1265. Several Polish cities, including Warsaw, enforced statutes de non tolerandis Judaeis, which excluded Jews from districts under municipal jurisdiction. (Nobles, peasants, and officers of the Crown were similarly excluded.) The effect was to channel Jewish residence on to noble-owned land in the immediate vicinity of the city-gates. Small Jewish shtetln or ‘townlets’ also grew up under noble patronage alongside manorial centres in the countryside. The Jews of Poland-Lithuania possessed both local autonomy and, in the Council of the Four Lands, their own central parliament.

No Jews were permitted to reside in Russia prior to the partitions of Poland. After the partitions, Catherine II turned Russia’s ex-Polish provinces into the core of a huge Jewish ‘pale of settlement’ … But closed ghettoes of the Western type did not reach Eastern Europe until the Nazi advance of 1939-41.

To escape from the ghetto was no simple matter. Would-be escapees had to defy the laws and customs both of the Gentile and of the Jewish communities, and to risk dire penalties. Until modern times, formal conversion was often the only practical way out. (Europe: A History. Norman Davies. Pimlico: London, 1997, p. 338)

It is a fact of nature that whether one introduces a good foreign organism or bad foreign organism into their body, the body will tend to reject either. Good blood will be rejected by the patient’s body if it isn’t compatible with their blood-type, and same goes for a virus that will be fought against. That most classic of political metaphors, the human body, is eminently useful when it comes to characterizing the relationship of the ‘in-group’ to an ‘out-group,’ or someone expelled or excluded from the in-group.

Unlike the human body, however, some social structures are more porous than others. They are more welcoming and accept outsiders into their bosom more readily. Despite the fractious debates occurring in liberal, multi-cultural societies concerning integration, it is yet generally true that individualist cultures are at least more open in theory to the outsider than, say, Middle Eastern societies. Liberalism seeks to suppress the importance of the group and supplant it with the rights of the individual, whose worth is intrinsic and for whom possession is 9/10ths of the law, if not a greater ratio. Yet, the irony of the liberal society has been touched upon with regard to multi-culturalism. In the political sphere, partisan-groups form, each promoting individualism. The socialist seeks ultimate freedom through class action, the liberal through legal and political change, the conservative through the preservation of private property. If you don’t believe that things can’t come to a head between groups which promote individualism, you mustn’t have read about the Spanish Civil War or indeed understood the causes of disagreement which fuelled the Cold War, both of which – when one gets down to the finer details – were about conflicting views on ways to secure individual freedom. Communists and Socialists sought human freedom through reform of economic, social, and later cultural conditions, while Liberals sought legal and political reform to unleash liberty. One infamous example of an exercise in ostracism to defend the individualistic values of the West were the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as its companion McCarthyism. The public shaming of those considered sympathetic to Communism was the last great marquee public expression of ostracism in the US.

International relations (IR) presents us with more ostracism. Again, the promise of IR is that of tolerance, inclusiveness, and open-ness. Again, mechanisms exist for ostracising the recalcitrant. We have rogue-states and international pariahs. At present, this depends greatly on who the US thinks is unworthy of inclusion into the international order, but the cited example of Israel is instructive that this is not always the case and Apartheid South Africa suffered from its own international apartheid despite US support. There are also deterrents like sanctions which have targeted, for example, Russia and Iraq, or else there are subpoenas to the International Court.

An even more disturbing manifestation of ostracism is related to our most prized possession in the modern world, that of democracy. As the jurist Carl Schmitt said in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy:

Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises – elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.

In modern democracies, this means that whole populations can be easily expelled or reduced to a status worse than that of slaves. As soon as democracy was proposed as a universal system, the universal system, after WWI, massive movements of peoples across Central and Eastern Europe took place, whole portions of nations scurrying across borders in the wake of the collapse of the old Empires who had sheltered them. The US, who imposed this new order, is built upon homogenizing its population by exterminating the native Indians and carefully controlling new immigrants so that Northern Europeans are in the majority. At least, it did do so up until 1965 when immigration controls were relaxed. In 2016, tensions between Europeans and Hispanics may have reached the point of no return with the election of Donald Trump, and undoubtedly exclusion of Hispanics (via the wall on the Mexican border) was a powerful draw for Trump. The new President-elect has talked about expelling three million Hispanics, as well as stricter controls on Muslim immigrants, a position deeply controversial. As another example, Turkey expelled its Christian population from Anatolia after WWI and this somewhat complemented the expulsion of Muslims from places like Greece in the 19th century. Palestinians are one group of perennial refugees and the Rohingya of Burma have fallen ethnically and culturally ‘foul’ of that majority population. There was the Rwandan genocide and of course the Yugoslav conflict, all fought with the intent of one party expelling the other. Even in Ireland where I am from, the Northern Ireland Troubles exploded as a result of Catholics being pushed out of their homes. Democracy sets itself specific terms of association and will not hesitate to cast out ‘aliens.’

In conclusion, we have all experienced ostracism and rejection and so are empathetic towards those banished into the darkness. Perhaps we have visited this evil upon others or seen it as necessary to maintain a group integrity. Whatever the case, the pain of social rejection is sharp because of our innate desire to be accepted. On the other hand, wherever we find association, we also find expulsion. This essay has proven that basic point. Ostracism is fundamental to any organisation, any group worthy of the name, although it functions differently depending on which society is discussed. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia intimates, the end of any form of ostracism is the end of a group. And, with exclusion, we can really see the ‘limits’ or boundaries of any society. This is becoming ever more evident in multi-cultural nation-states, where a narrative of informal ostracism is being forged. Nor can we ‘make ostracism history.’ We will have social exclusion as long we have groups. But while we may be realistic about ostracism, it is something we simply can’t accept emotionally because we are geared not to do so. Rejection upsets us, watching others being excluded invites pity, but the human need for identity is as unstoppable as the revolving of the world on its axis. Hence, ostracism is something we must live with.

Colm Gillis, Norwich, 10/12/2016

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My thanks to Jamilah Bee for her comments and corrections on an earlier draft of this essay. Any corrections or suggestions to this essay are welcome. A pdf version is available below. If you like what you have read, be sure to share and also visit my Amazon page.  

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