It Takes a Village to Shun a Child

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European and American literature don't ignore the petty rivalries and cruelties of rural and small-town living. But it's tempting to imagine that people in the countryside of the developing world are still living in a relatively uncorrupted age of community.  A New York Times report suggests this isn't always so:

Made Rai is a frail man with lank white hair and eyes that are glazed with a milky film. He estimates that he is in his 80s: much too old to recount with confidence just how his family started feuding with this Balinese village. He is, however, fully aware of the feud's results.

If he leaves his family compound, his neighbors look away and refuse to speak to him. He is banned from the village temples, normally central to Hindu spiritual life in Bali, and when he dies, his body will be rejected from the village cemetery.

Mr. Rai's grandchildren, who play at his feet, rarely venture from the family compound and are "psychologically affected" by the situation, he said. Unborn when the dispute started, the children are barred from the village school and, under the same village rules, are forbidden to exchange a word with the other children who play in the streets outside.

Mr. Rai and scores of relatives are victims of kasepekang, Bali's traditional punishment of ostracism and exile. In a society where the entire cycle of life and religion is tied to ancestral villages, kasepekang is likened to a social and spiritual death sentence.

Yes, you don't need hidden webcams and the Internet to bully people. You don't need differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or gender orientation. Journalists and social scientists are always looking for profound historical and structural reasons for the nastiness of small communities. It's certainly possible that local customs became more severe in in the partial vacuum created the downfall of Suharto's centralism, just as "traditional" Appalachian feuds were catalyzed by conflicts over resources and the failings of state officials and judges. But long-simmering tensions are familiar in small communities everywhere, unrelated to religious and separatist militancy, for example in Turkey. The ostracism described in the article isn't sanctioned by Indonesia's Hindu leaders; it's purely social coercion, unlike the shunning in Amish communities that is intended to bring back wayward members to the spiritual fold. Amish church membership is also a voluntary adult decision of every generation.

Romantic attachment to the small community dies hard. Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but one passage of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 hasn't lost its punch after over 150 years:

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.

Of course twentieth-century urban Marxism had a fratricidal idiocy of its own. There is also a warm and supportive aspect to traditional face-to-face communities. But the countryside has an oppression all its own, and hereditary enmities, which for centuries have made anonymous city struggle for existence seem Utopian by comparison.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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