They described these ceremonies and rituals as public acts, designed to transform the public identities of people to bring them down a peg or two, shame them and ultimately—if the denunciation were successful enough—to expel them from their status position in the group.
To be most effective, the accusers in a degradation ceremony need to demonstrate, among other things, that the accused has done damage to the community and that the accuser has the righteous weight of the community behind them. As Garfinkel described it: a degradation ritual is a communicative production, “whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types.”
In anthropology, a ritual is understood as central to the creation and maintenance of social integration. By publicly identifying a person as negative—not just in their behaviour but also in the motivations behind that behaviour—degradation rituals provoke moral indignation that can enhance wider social cohesion and group solidarity.
In a similar way to rites of passage designed to mark positive personal changes—like a graduation, or two individuals becoming a married couple—degradation rituals can bestow negativity onto a person’s identity that brings people together too. For example, in prisons a strip search is a degradation ritual because it is designed to humiliate the prisoner and socially integrate the prison guards as superior.
And in a court of law a criminal prosecution is designed to not simply punish criminal activity but also to publicly shame the criminal and restore social order.
Another field where degradation rituals are common is politics. In fact there are days when one might assume politics has nothing to do with negotiation and service to the public but rather is all about who can discredit and degrade their opponent best. In politics one available degradation ritual is a motion of no confidence.
It is an opportunity to redefine the moral character of the accused. It is a chance to do this where all can see. And to publicly chastise a government and its members for not acting in the best interest of the social good or maintaining appropriate professional conduct. Now one of the things about degradation rituals is they are not always successful. Alongside the performance of accusation and denunciation, the ritual often provides a space for the accused to face up to their denouncers.
So when Dr Rowley went after the Government with “e-mailgate,” his job was only half done. Yes, he made his denunciation in the name of the public, which, in a ritual of public accountability, is what drives the power of the degradation ceremony. And yes, this sense of righteousness and proper conduct in office also worked to create social cohesion and solidarity among many members of the public.
We might even dare to say that on the Monday his accusation seemed to transform the character of the Government. Because for an afternoon, the Government wasn’t just accused of unacceptable behaviour; in the public court of moral opinion it seemed to stick as moral indignation swept social media and everyday conversations. It was almost as though many people all at once were nodding, “I told you so.”
Yet the accusation and speaking in the public’s name is only a part of the ritual performance. For the moral indignation to stick and for the public identity of the people accused to be transformed and discredited, the accused cannot be allowed to repair the perceived breach. In this sense Dr Rowley failed in making the degradation ritual effective.
By Tuesday morning he seemed to be losing the cohesiveness of public opinion which, like him and some of his colleagues who were now absent from Parliament, didn’t look like returning (although maybe he has more evidence). And by Wednesday afternoon, when he walked out of Parliament with his party in tow, Dr Rowley was no longer speaking righteously for the public as things had fallen back into partisan politics.
As a study in the culture of politics he had lost the moral high ground and with it the degradation ritual fell apart. The public was no longer whole in its moral offence and it might even be said that the Government fought effectively to turn the degradation ceremony back on its author. We wait to see.