Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dances in the Dark

Paul Saffo, in his essay "The Ghost Dances" used an old Native American ritual named the Ghost Dance as a metaphor for modern anxiety around technological change, and the cultural changes that often follow. Early in the essay, he describes the modern Ghost Dance as: "a painful and contradictory accommodation that at once reaches back to grasp disappearing cultural norms while simultaneously rejecting and embracing disruptive alien novelties."

The man known as Mule, who is currently traveling throughout California on foot, accompanied by three pack mules that carry their supplies, is perhaps a particularly apt example of this. Mule sees suburban sprawl and ever-increasing development of public lands as a threat not only to his "off-the-grid" way of life, but to the way that we were all meant to live. But to get his word out, he's felt the need to have a website and a Facebook page, and he carries with him cellular telephones, voice recorders, a digital camera, GPS and a tablet. He simultaneously rejects the increasing commercialization of the Web, yet believes that without it, he doesn't have a voice in our modern world. He is concerned, and perhaps rightly so, that his use of technology to preach against modernity will come across as hollow and inauthentic.

But this isn't his only worry.

There is always a balance between people's freedoms, and the needs of a community.
Mule's lawyer, Sharon Sherman
The fact that Mule has a lawyer is indicative of another, conflicting, Ghost Dance. Saffo also describes Ghost Dancing as a way of assuaging the fear of making the wrong choices by outsourcing choice to an in fallible higher authority. The fact that a man traveling through California with three mules provokes complaints and calls to the police is perhaps a variation on this, as the unnerved residents of the communities that Mule passes through seek to force him back into the mold - and life - that he rejects. Their mold and their life.

I think that, sometimes, our communities become too caught up in a perceived need for everyone to be like us - to see the choices the collective "we" makes as ironclad imperatives, and therefore, other choices as somehow dangerous and threatening. Given time, this metastasizes into a need to coerce others into acquiescence and conformity, allowing ourselves to purchase our own self-acceptance through the conviction that the choices that we have made are not only the correct ones, but the only ones, and that to reject those choices (and by extension, to reject us) is to invite destructive anarchy. We cast ourselves as the infallible higher authority that must be obeyed for Order to prevail. The collective "we" Ghost Dances for reassurance. And woe betide those who refuse to follow our tune.

Our willingness to adopt a way of life that frays easily when people choose otherwise is a recipe for conflict. When we set the needs of our communities directly (and more or less intentionally) at odds with the freedoms of others, we have a recipe for, for lack of a better word, tyranny. It becomes easy to enlist the majority and its power to harass and bully those who won't give us the satisfaction of mirroring our ideal selves back to us. And then we marvel, worry and rage over the conflicts that arise.

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