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Friday, 18 March 2011 14:30

The powers and perils of collective understanding

Ruth HorowitzRuth HorowitzEditor’s note: We are pleased to introduce Ruth Horowitz to our readers. Horowitz, a freelance journalist in Cranston, will write for The Voice & Herald every other issue.

It’s the big day. An excited crowd has gathered. Some people have dressed specially for the occasion. Friends greet friends and strangers exchange knowing glances as more people pack in. Then someone steps up to the podium. When certain words are spoken, the crowd erupts as one.

These same lines have been said before, but they never fail to thrill. They paint the world in simple terms. It’s clear to everyone listening who the heroes are in this narrative, and who is the villain.

This shared understanding creates a heightened sense of solidarity, the surge of strength that comes when many voices join together. This unity reinforces the crowd’s collective vision, its shared definition of right and wrong.

I was part of a scene like this last month, when Rhode Islanders rallied for marriage equality on Smith Hill. I’ve seen clips of similar events at tea party rallies. I followed online as the same basic script unfolded in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And every year I share this experience in synagogue, during the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim.

Purim? Purim’s just a fun holiday, the Jewish Mardi Gras, a time to celebrate the end of winter, wear costumes and generally let loose. The story of Haman and Esther is a classic fairy tale, in which the villain is satisfyingly evil, the heroes brave and good, and the triumph of good over evil clear cause for rejoicing. As for the annual reading of the Megillah, that’s just a time-honored pageant with lusty audience participation.

Purim is all those things. But, like those other, more overtly political, events, it’s also a prime opportunity for collective-consciousness building.

Collective consciousness can be a good thing. It sure felt good at the Statehouse in February. My husband and I wore red to show which team we were on, and we cheered with our side, even when the echoing rotunda garbled the speeches. We weren’t there to learn anything, but to provide strength in numbers – a message to the legislators and to the community we were supporting. A friend who is raising two kids with her lesbian partner greeted us with a grin and said, “I hadn’t anticipated how incredible it would feel to see all these people who think I should be married.”

But one person’s feel-good gathering is another’s dangerous exercise in group-think. The handful of folks from the other side in that room probably felt the way I do watching tea party rallies. Those people are brainwashed, I think. How can they be so simplistic?

Other times, it’s hard to know what to think. Tracking the Egyptian revolution on Twitter, I was riveted. As a Jew, I couldn’t help but see Mubarak as Pharaoh. And when a young Egyptian who’d lived his whole life under dictatorship tweeted, “For the first time I feel like I matter,” I heard him echo the Israelites of the Exodus experiencing their first taste of freedom. But it was also impossible for me, as a Jew, not to worry about the fate of Israel in a post-Mubarak world. And as popular uprising morphed into military coup, I wondered whether the simple demands of the people in the square might be a bit simplistic.

The story of Purim is, of course, more straightforward. A smart man and his brave niece prevent genocide. No moral ambiguities there. Or are there? Consider poor Vashti, banished for the crime of self-respect. And what about Vashti’s replacement? As Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall recently observed, Esther certainly shows courage when she “outs” herself as a Jew, but she only has Ahasuerus’ ear because she’s a babe. When we encourage our daughters to dress up like her, what are we teaching them about their value as females? And then there’s the end of the story, when the Jews slaughter 75,000 men. That’s reason to party?

Communal catharsis has its place, and there’s nothing as cathartic as a rousing tale of good and evil, especially when you throw in a bunch of noisemakers, costumes and perhaps a little schnapps. It’s just important to remember, once the fun is over, that the real world is rarely so simple.

Horowitz, a former journalist with Seven Days, a Vermont newspaper, now works as a freelance writer and blogs at ruthhorowitz.wordpress.com. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 

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