Familial Anxiety

Perhaps Mary Douglas’ Catholic faith gave her great perception in her examination of the so-called “Bog Irish,” who emigrated from Ireland to London to find work in the mid-20th century.

This group of Irish Catholics found themselves in a country that had long persecuted them on some level, and who had slim tolerance for their faith. What bound them together was their observance from abstinence from meat on Fridays. Perhaps they did not always pray or love their neighbor as they should, but they faithfully avoided eating meat on Fridays. Whatever one feels about such practice, it had the effect of binding themselves together as a “peculiar people” in the midst of exile.

Of course, the injunction against eating meat went beyond mere cultural significance, as each Friday fast could link us in some small physical way to Christ’s death. In the late 1960’s modernist Catholic bishops made the decision to eliminate the obligatory Friday abstinence. Some of them seemed to worry about their parishioners seeming “weird” to the surrounding culture. In general, they expected that the faithful could take their zeal for Friday abstinence from meat and apply it instead to other more “meaningful” good works, such as prayer and serving their fellow man.

But the opposite happened. For Douglas, anyone versed in the actual history of human experience should have known this. The removal of the binding ritual did not create more good works, but less belief, and most likely, fewer good works. The “good works” asked for by the bishops, of course, should be done by any Christian, but “we live by symbols,” as Douglas states, and the removal of the ritual removed the ground that their faith rested on. No identity=no faith. Douglas writes,

The Catholic hierarchy today [1968] are under pressure to underestimate the expressive function of ritual. [They exhort] Catholics to invent individual acts of almsgiving as a more meaningful celebration of Friday. But why Friday? Why not be good and generous all the time? As soon as the symbolic action is denied value in its own right, the floodgates to confusion are opened.

[As] there is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system.. . . there is a dreary conclusion for those who turn to good works to solve problems about their own identity. They are liable to be frustrated on every count. First, it would seem that they must give their good causes over to bureaucratic energies of industrial organization, or they will have no effect. Second, . . . they will never be able to arrange their personal relations so that a structure of non-verbal symbols can emerge. For only a ritual structure makes possible a wordless channel of communication that is not entirely incoherent.

Douglas, p. 38, pp. 50-51

She then points out that the Maccabean martyrs (cf. 1 & 2 Maccabees) equated not eating pork with the entirety of obedience to God’s law. Their abstinence from pork formed an integral part of a whole way of existing.

Mary Douglas’ title, Natural Symbols, Explorations in Cosmology may be daunting to many, as it was to me. But she writes in a manner to match her clear, concise perception I thought her work superior to Ruth Benedict’s. Benedict could describe entwined patters of culture well, but she seemed to not quite grasp the meaning of these patterns. Perhaps Douglas built on her work, for she not only sees the patters, she perceives their meaning–perhaps her Irish Catholic background helped her with this.

As an entry point into this shift, Douglas first looks at how families function. She offers two basic modes, what she calls “Positional” and “Personal.”

Positional families

  • Value truth, piety, and duty
  • The cardinal sins relate to failures to live into the expectations of the group, or to maintain the appropriate ritual behaviors. Discipline takes the form of, “You should know that members of our group do not act that way.”
  • Have a wide network/structure over the individual, to which the individual has reference to

Personal families

  • Value sincerity, authenticity, individuality
  • The main sins relate to failures to “be all that you can be,” and discipline takes the form of “How could you do this to me?” or, “How could you do this to yourself?”
  • Celebrate the individual triumphing over the structure

For most of human history, we have had some kind of positional family structure, but now most everyone in the western world has grown up in at least a mostly “Personal” family. The consequences of this shift have profound implications for us, and involve, among other things, a movement from the concrete to the abstract.

Douglas points to the Reformation as the origin of this shift with some merit, but I will take a flyer and point to the Renaissance as when this began. We can see this in the art of the Renaissance and the medieval era which preceded it.

Many might assume that medieval religious art was ‘obscurantist.’ Certainly they used symbols in their art, but it communicated a concrete message. St. Anthony the Great, for example, had great stature but the depictions of him tell us that, “you can be like him, he is one of us.” So too the statues astride their cathedrals. Whatever “legends” may have been told about such saints, they lived real lives as you and I did.

But, to take perhaps the most famous example, who can be Michelangelo’s “David?”

Of course, no one can be such a man, and thus David becomes not a saint or even a man, but an ideal in the ether. The Renaissance also revived an interest in mythology. I agree that myths are not simply lies, and that they can have value in leading one to truth. But one must careful with such stories. The pagan could believe that Marsyas was literally flayed by Apollo, but not the man of the Renaissance. So any depiction of such an event ca. 1500 would inevitably be transmuted into an ideal. And indeed, the beloved Sister Wendy, in fact, explained Titian’s masterpiece as showing something akin to the intense “challenge of the artist,” whatever that might mean.

Alas, one of my great heroes, A.J. Toynbee wrote that such “etherialization” of concrete principles was a prime factor in the growth of civilizations, but Douglas argues that what this usually leads to is cultural confusion.* This movement toward abstraction continued in the west as the Reformation over time removed the liturgies, images, and sacramentalism from their worship. This put everything inside one’s head or heart, and again, put things in abstract categories–such as the unknowable “elect” for the Calvinists.

The different ways of conceiving reality always take on particular manifestations in our bodies, the main way we express meaning and our cosmological belief. A moment’s thought about this shows its truth. When Douglas wrote this book (1970), of course, it was even more obvious. The 1960’s started tight and neat but ended with long hair, open collars, psychedelic prints, and so on. We know the “Law and Order” look–what policeman has long hair and a scruffy beard (unless going undercover to mix with the more dangerous types)?** So too, no non-denominational pastor could ever think of wearing anything but jeans, and perhaps a polo shirt.

Thus, what happened in the 1960’s was a real revolution, and not just kids blowing off steam. Douglas cringes at contemporary commentators who called the destruction wrought by various riots and protests in the 60’s as “mindless.” College campuses exist as liturgical institutions, a manifestation of a particular order and authority structure. Today we see many of the same things as in the 60’s, such as more casual dress and campus protests. It would not surprise Douglas to see such behaviors coupled with a loosening of other body oriented morality, especially the highly charged area of sexual morality. Perhaps some of the intended meaning of such acts may not be conscious, but they are far from “mindless,” as they point towards a very definite goal.

Most educators have noted a rise in the anxiety of their students. Different theories exist for this phenomena. Some explain it with the rise of social media and their attendant lack of real personal connections. Others point out that the 9/11 generation has come of age in the age of terrorism, where threats can come from anywhere anytime.

No one I know of has pointed out that the rise of anxiety may come from the continual loosening of our societal structures, both in worship, family, dress, and so on. But Douglas hints at this quite strongly. True, the “Personal Family” structure brings many benefits. She mentions that this path often develops strong verbal skills and meshes nicely with the need to do well in social environments like school, which dominates the lives of children. Besides, even if we wanted to orient ourselves in a more “Positional” way many of us have no tradition, social class, or family history to build upon.

Teens today not only have jobs and careers to choose, but whole selves to construct, a heavy burden to carry.^^ Add to this that the reasons for doing or not doing a thing could be endless. Douglas writes,

Above all, the [“Personal Family”] child’s behavior is controlled by being made sensitive to the feelings of others, and by inspecting his own feelings. Why can’t I do it? Because father’s feeling worried; because I have a headache. How would you like it if you were a fly? Or a dog?^ In this way the child is freed from a system of rigid positions but made a prisoner of a system of feelings and abstract principles. (emphasis mine).

Douglas, pp. 26-27

We have had many good anthropologists, but I am not aware of any who wrote with such clarity as Mary Douglas.


*I acknowledge that energy can be released in the early stages of breaking with concrete societal forms, and perhaps this is what Toynbee saw and admired. I liken it, however, to taking a fussy toddler bundled in bulky clothes. You take them out of the crib, remove the onesie, and they are so happy, arms and legs unfettered! They whirl around like spinning tops for five minutes. But then, the look of, “What do I do now?” strikes them, and of course, the pajamas will have to come back on sooner or later.

I should say that Douglas may disagree with me, as she thinks that loose “etherialization” (to use Toynbee’s phrase) can continue indefinitely if it is paired with loose social structures.

**Douglas asserts the universality of the patterns she describes, but how to explain the long beards of Orthodox monks, priests, etc? The Orthodox are likely the most liturgically formal of all Christian denominations, yet have the most unkempt facial hair. Perhaps we could see the connection in a kind of manly disdain such priests/monks have for the world. But again, there may be limits to this, as for Old Testament Jews–another structured and highly liturgical society–long beards for men were normal and could not be seen as a form of distancing oneself from society.

But . . . this pattern certainly played out in Greece and Rome, two similar civilizations. The Greeks loved the sea, and thus valued beards and more fluid and flowing hair. Their society was more fluid as well. The Romans valued farming, and with it, law and order. With that comes shorter hair and clean shaves. Not until the empire was past its prime did we see the Romans going native, sporting beards and longer hair.

The pattern hold also for the Egyptians (clean-shaven, less ornamentation in dress, more order focused) and the Babylonians (more fluid as a society, more fluid in their dress).

^We might add today, “Do you feel like a boy? Or a girl?” The Personal Family’s predilection for rebelling against all forms of imposed identity have stretched out to rebelling against Nature itself.

^^It is no coincidence that we invented technologies to help us in this very endeavor, and that these technologies would further advance abstraction. In addition–we usually view the creation of public schools as a response to industrialization. Douglas might want us to view the creation of the public school system as a response to the dominance of the Personal Family model. If we have a self to construct apart from the family/neighborhood, we will need a tangible place to do so.


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