by Ash Bishop
It’s hard to forget the image of Britney Spears shaving her head poolside. There were various theories about why she did this, from avoiding DNA drug-testing to an old-fashioned breakdown. She allegedly told her hairdresser that she was simply tired of people touching her hair.
Regardless of the reason, the world went bananas, with paparazzi shooting from every available corner and people following closely on sites hosted by Perez Hilton (don’t worry, his time would soon follow). She was committed to a thirteen-year conservatorship shortly thereafter.
I stayed away from the whole debacle because something about it tugged at an unhappy memory. It felt, faintly, like I was back in high school.
In high school, I had never been able to come to terms with how cruel everybody was. I hated how folks seemed to go out of their way to break each other down. At a giant public school like the one I attended, a single social slip-up, heck, even a simple misunderstanding, could haunt you through your entire education. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest R.P. McMurphy called it a pecking party:
“The flock gets sight of a spot of blood on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it, see, till they rip the chicken to shreds, blood and bones and feathers. But usually a couple of the flock gets spotted in the fracas, then it’s their turn. And a few more gets spots and gets pecked to death, and more and more. Oh, a peckin’ party can wipe out the whole flock in a matter of a few hours, buddy, I seen it. A mighty awesome sight.”
Though I remained small and quiet to avoid this possibility, even when spared by the flock, I still struggled with depression. For a sensitive person, it’s tough to see what appears to be random cruelty flying every which way, even when it’s not coming directly at you.
In 1993, my first year of college, I read an article that I have never forgotten – in fact, it’s not an overstatement to say that it changed my life and brought me a lot of peace. I was in a community college class studying Anthropology, and the article was called “Eating Christmas in the Khalahari.”
The story is a fairly simple one. Anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee goes to South Africa in 1969, and lives for a year with the !Kung bushmen. At the end of the year he wants to thank them for being good hosts and so he buys the largest, fattest Ox he can find to share in a Christmas feast. For a peoples constantly working hard just to stay above the sustenance line, it seems like a grand gift.
Unexpectantly, the !Kung immediately turn on Lee. They line up to insult him about how thin and weak the ox is:
“Are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck? That ox is thin to the point of death!” “It gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing.”
As I read the article, I puzzled at what had caused the !Kung’s attitude to swing so drastically. Why were they being so cruel in the face of a genuine gift, a hearty Ox that was anything but old and scrawny?
Lee was puzzled too, but he eventually unlocked the mystery. One of the bushmen, Tomazo, explained the phenomenon:
“When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
As a unified tribe, the !Kung would sense when someone was starting to feel arrogant. In response, they would make a coordinated, tribal effort to emotionally deconstruct that arrogance; in laymen’s terms, to break that person back down to size. With this new knowledge, Lee eventually settled on a label for the !Kung’s aggressive verbal behavior. He called it a “social-levelling mechanism”. Britney’s downfall might have brought me memories of high school, but I suspect it would have transported Lee all the way to the vast planes of the Khalahari.
It’s February 9th 2022, and right now we’re levelling Joe Rogan. I don’t have much of an impression of him as a person. We’ve never met and I’ve never heard his podcast. I did watch a few episodes of Fear Factor back in the day, but my main focus was on how many bees people were able to eat. Still, friends whose judgement I trust are canceling Spotify, and Joe, in righteous anger.
I don’t question the righteousness, but I am curious about the pattern. At least a portion of our collective ferocity seems to be coming from something much older, and deeper. Something imbedded in our own tribal roots. We’re trying to protect ourselves from Joe’s arrogance – speak of his meat as worthless- to keep him down on our level. As Tomazo says, “so that we may cool [his] heart and make [him] gentle.”
Did social-levelling work for Britney? Or did she pay a much, much higher price because of the way we went about hammering her with ridicule and shame? Was it anything short of cruelty to take a child and lavish her with praise, listen to her music, buy her clothes (did she sell clothes?), let the media take her up, up, up, all the while waiting patiently for the inevitable opportunity to tear her back down again? Watching Pam and Tommy on Hulu, makes me think that same cycle might not have worked out that great for Pamela Anderson either.
A smarter man than I might argue that constantly indulging these ancient leveling instincts isn’t healthy in a culture predicated on instant communication, gratification, and celebrity. (Whoopi, Aaron, Dave, James, Ellen, Armie, Marilyn, Louis, J.K., et al; “hi!”)
I am not that smarter man. Instead, I’ll just keep doing what I did in high school. I’ll stay small, and quiet, and hope the generalized other doesn’t ever decide I need a good levelin’.
Fortunately, the first step to avoiding the great pyre of public burning seems to be to stay away from demonstrations of significant social power. I’m off to a pretty good start on that: