Be yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you what to do! Who cares, am I right? …except a lot of people care. From breaking oaths to living on boats, from your family’s past to your social caste; sometimes, society decides where you belong before you ever can. In our first deep dive of the 2019 season, we explore discrimination in all its ugliness, and in most cases, confusing peculiarity.
It’s the 5th century BC in Ancient Rome. The sun is radiant, the hawkers incessantly loud and a patron is no longer considered a human.
The figuratively poor, but literally affluent man made a devastating mistake. Being a landlord, he provided housing to the lower sections of Roman society, offering apartments in his insulae. Being a Roman, he was well-aware that he was not above the law. Being a rich Roman, however, he was also well-aware he was more or less above his tenants in societal status.
No one wanted to be homeless. To be so was to be socially invisible, completely exempted from the everyday social life of Rome. The landlord, aware of his power, attempted to bully a poor tenant of his into paying a rent higher than the one they’d both agreed upon.
Unfortunately, the tenant had a friend in the aristocracy, and the landlord had more enemies than he could count. A lost legal battle later, he was declared to have broken his oath to his tenant, and was now legally a “homo sacer”.
This meant he was now no longer a person. Any offenses against him were now legal, up to and including murder. Why? Because he was now “sacer”, roughly translating to “sacred”. He now belonged to the gods. A peculiar side effect of this was that he could no longer be used as a sacrifice, because he already belonged to the gods.
These confusing forms of ostracism and exclusion repeat themselves throughout history in multiple ways, in every corner of the world. As forms of punishment, social segregation or even a political insult. Throughout the piece, you will notice a recurring theme: exclusion and segregation to those whose livelihoods are attached to the unwanted labels of society - especially those relating to common rituals. Across an entire continent, in Africa - specifically South-East Nigeria - we see an area known as Igboland, with a similar system to the Ancient Romans. Any people who refuse to follow the divine code known as “Odinani” set out by the supreme god “Chukwu” are considered “Osu”. Osus are separate from Nwadiala, which are essentially the rest of society.
They are dedicated to the deities (Alusi) of the Igboland, and as such are made to live in shrines and marketplaces. Intermarriage of a Nwadiala with an Osu is considered a mark of humiliation
Originally a system of ostracization, it’s now considered a violation of human rights. Shift focus to East Asia, and we see a slightly less logical form of discrimination. An aversion to death, and as an extension: an aversion to anyone associated with death.
In Japan, we have the Burakumin, which literally translates to “Village People”. These people tend to be considered “Kegare” or “defiled”. This is because they’re apparently “tainted with death”. Executioners, butchers, tanners, undertakers and workers in slaughterhouses are some examples of the Burakumin.
Move a little further West of Japan, and we reach Korea. Here, we have the Baekjeong, a little similar to Burakumin in the sense that they were also butchers, or basket-weavers. This is where the haphazard nature of castes comes into light, as we see an almost laughable situation. In the Goryeo period, these people were “untouchables”, but in the Joseon dynasty, the word was used to refer to literally all the common people in the kingdom, which is a bit too large of a group to be considered a minority. In modern-day Korea, it is still used to refer to butchers and executioners, and people are still discouraged from pursuing these professions. Yet, there are actually quite a few barbeque restaurants with the word “Baekjeong” in their name, so it can be assumed that, in most sections of Korean society, the stigma is no longer that prevalent.
Taking a trip to South-West of Korea, a country where the climate gets a lot more communist, we arrive at Vietnam. You might come across someone you’d call a “street urchin” in America, but a Vietnamese person the label might be “bụi đời”. The translation of this is deceptively poetic: “the dust of life”, but in reality just highlights the outcast status that these people are considered to have.
Recent years have seen this term referring to the wandering, homeless people with an unstable (and often criminal) future, hence the name. Bụi đời Chợ Lớn might ring a bell to those familiar with modern Vietnamese films, which tells the story of street gangsters in Saigon – bụi đời in a sense. However, it also took on another connotation, which was popularized by a play called “Miss Saigon.” The term was used to refer to Amerasian orphans left behind after the Vietnam War. This was an unfortunate misconception. Although not really used nowadays, other terms for Amerasian children exists: Mỹ lai (mixed American and Vietnamese), con lai (mixed-race child), or người lai (mixed-race person).
But perhaps more interesting, is the political term that’s probably used in the communist Vietnam: Lumpenproletariat. The term, however, did not originate in Vietnam, but was used extensively by the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to refer to the people that are considered part of the proletariat - roughly the working class - but, aren’t willing, or care enough to engage in revolution. Marx, Trotsky and Lenin basically ignored these people, considering them more or less lost cases. However, Chairman Mao of China believed that the right leader could mobilize these people if needed. (Reference: Proletariats also serve as the main figures in Giuseppe Pellizza de Volpedo’s painting,The Fourth Estate) Speaking of executioners in Asia, let’s move further south to Tibet to explore the Ragyabpa. In Tibet, there were three main social classes: The High Division (Mostly Monks), the Middle Division (Nobility and Merchants) and the Low Division (Common People). Each class had subclasses, and the Low Division’s lowest subclass were the Ragyabpa, or untouchables. These were also split into sub-sub-classes, with fishermen, blacksmiths, goldsmiths and our recurring job: executioner. Free cookies for whoever can guess what the lowest occupation. Spoilers: It was executioner.
Neighbouring Tibet is Nepal, where ostracism occurs for different reasons altogether. We revert back to punishment, as we explore the Bitlaha. Generally a temporary title, the Bitlaha status was given to a Nepali by the village council for any serious crime. Most of the time, however, this term was used to deter “sexual misconduct” among the youth.
The Bitlaha status was considered something akin to infectious, and a Bitlaha’s family was affected by it just as severely. Not being invited to festivals and other social gatherings, and being looked down upon in society as a rule was not a comfortable situation to be in. Most families paid whatever the severe penalty was to remove the status from their relative. Sometimes, entire villages were scorned for this status. Important to note is that even if the communities wanted to, they couldn’t simply get rid of their relatives or inhabitants by disowning them, but had to suffer the consequences along with them. Moving on to a more common form of discrimination, we finally come to something similar to racism. In the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, amidst the scorching sand and sweltering sun, people still found a way to divide themselves. The Akhdam, derived from Al akhdam, literally “the servants”, consist of a substantial proportion of Yemeni society. Estimates range anywhere from 500,000 to 3,500,000.
Theories state that the Nilotic Sudanese people accompanied the Abyssinian army as they occupied what is modern-day Yemen, and then decided to stay back in society. This theory was denied and described as a myth by Hamud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sana’a University. Yet, the Akhdam are still considered unclean, filthy and are often forced to perform uncomfortable tasks such as sweeping the streets or cleaning latrines.
But while we’re on the subject of discrimination for weird arbitrary reasons, let’s explore Asia one last time, shall we? In the coastal province of Fujian, close to the town of Fuzhou live the Fuzhou Boat People, more commonly referred to as the Fuzhou Tanka People. These citizens have a peculiar homestead, living on boats for the vast majority of their lives. Unsurprisingly, their livelihood consists of fishing and ferrying people across shores.
The Tanka also have interesting views on marriage, as pre-marital sex and remarriages are allowed in their society, differing greatly from the views on the mainland. Often, these people were not even allowed to walk on land lest they receive death threats. They weren’t allowed to wear silk clothes, and were even referred to as Kuoh-Dah or “bowlegged” by the coastal inhabitants.
But this historical journey would not be complete without a look at one of Europe’s, and arguably the world’s most confusing instances of discrimination yet - The Cagots. Living in areas in Western France and Northern Spain, the Cagots were a minority discriminated against in a multitude of ways. They were often forced to live out of town in areas known as Cagoteries. Like the Ragyabpa and Burakumin, they were not allowed to intermarry. Considered unclean, similar to the Akhdam, they were not allowed to touch food. Like the Bitlaha, they were excluded from society, being forced to enter churches from different entrances. But unlike most of these instances, no one has any idea why the Cagots were discriminated against. They were sometimes accused of being cannibals or murderers (most likely untrue), but most often, simply being evil. Just like other marginalized minorities who have hereditary statuses, such as the Ragyabpa, after a few generations passed there was no need to justify the reason for their discrimination, biases had already been made and it was an injunctive norm to continue to dehumanize and discriminate against these individuals.
Note that they’ve been called “a minority” and nothing else. That’s because ethnically, religiously, culturally and obviously biologically, they were the same as their neighbours. The only distinguishing feature they had was being descended from Cagots. The utter absurdity of this instance is jarring.
Yet, going through all these instances, let’s retrace our footsteps. Is there really any proper justification for these groups being considered different?
Alright, Homo Sacers and Osus broke the law, but why would the gods somehow take away all their human rights as a result? Don’t many criminals get away with crimes? Why did we need a human court to prove a divine ruling?
And the Bitlahas? An entire village has to pay for one person’s crimes. That encourages social conformity to a large extent. It’s your choice whether you prefer that or not.
But what of the Burakumin, the Baekjeong and Ragyabpa? Something interesting to note is that soldiers and other types of warriors are actually highly respected in these societies, yet they’re just as associated with death, if not more. What a ridiculous double standard, you might say.
The “dust of the earth” in Vietnam chose to be orphans, just as much as the Akhdam chose to be born the way they are. The Tanka may have a different society, but a choice to live on boats does not mean it is alright to banish people to the ocean.
Of course, communists may believe that Lumpenproletariat are simply uninterested in the ultimate goal of revolution and socialism, but it is not exactly motivational, to be told that you are an ultimately pointless member of society.
It seems every form of discrimination has fundamental flaws in its existence, and perhaps fundamental lessons to learn as well. Yet, in today’s world, we’re generally considered egalitarian to a large extent. Especially if we give everyone the vote in a democracy. Perhaps, we should reconcile these edges of society, or perhaps some ostracism is required. Regardless, knowing the edges of society lets us understand what’s inside those edges and where we fit in - or don’t.