Pariah is an old label used to describe despised people living among a larger, and far more privileged population. We think of the Untouchables of India before that country’s emancipation from British rule. But it also applies to Jews in ancient Persia, to Buraku of Japan, to Cagots of west France and north Spain, to Romas (Gypsies) in Europe, to Al-Akham of Yemen and, perhaps, to the newest emergent pariahs, Moslems currently living in Europe. We know about the very low status of such people. But there is also much we do NOT KNOW. I am talking about the persistence, sometimes over centuries, of the lowly and perilous status of pariah peoples.
But first, what we DO KNOW about the often despised status of pariah peoples is the ways they were traditionally forced to live, the ways they “fit” into larger, dominant societies. A poignant description comes to us about Jews in 19th century Persia from Gina Nahai’s book, “Cry of the Peacock” (cited in The Forward, January 23, 2015):
“The Jews, as anywhere else in Persia, were considered impure and untouchable. They were not allowed to live and work outside their ghetto, to plant their own food or drink from public waters. The men wore red or yellow patches on their clothes, the women covered their faces with thicker veils than those reserved for Muslims. Anything a Jew touched became soiled forever. If accused of a crime, a Jew could not testify in his own defense. He could not even step out of the ghetto on a rainy day for fear that the rain may wash the impurity off his body and onto a Muslim’s.”
About Cagots we have equally poignant information from Wickepedia:
“Cagots were shunned and hated. They were required to live in separate quarters … which were often on far outskirts of the villages. Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door, and during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water soup was reserved for their exclusive use. They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress, to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck…. So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefoot or drink from the same cup as a non-Cagots. The Cagots were restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.”
The latter is a common feature: Pariahs were usually required to fill despised occupations – such as Jews in the Middle Ages were obliged to perform the money-lending that Christians were forbidden to perform, but was needed to keep the economy going. Pariahs are often consigned to dangerous or polluting activities – such as handling the dead, and other “disgusting” dirty work that needed to be done. Or, as Turkish guest workers in recent German history, they were brought in to do the fairly lowly work that other Germans did not want to do.
How is it that a group’s pariah status can persist for centuries? And in the unlikeliest places! What keeps it going? Why did crude, ancient anti-Semitism — that nurtured pariah status for Jews – persist in Germany, a country with a distinguished history of modern accomplishments? In Germany, surely, ancient anti-Semitism should have been extinguished long ago. But clearly it was not. It may merely have gone underground, existing in dormancy, but available for activation when a Hitler came along and exploited it.
We get some understanding of the history of pariah peoples when we see the striking similarities between the fate of Jews and Romas (Gypsies). Each was expelled (sometimes repeatedly) from countries where they had long been living after their forced dispersion from homelands – from ancient India in the case of Romas, from the Near East in the case of Jews. Jews were expelled from parts of Germany in 1182 (and in 1454, from Wurzburg, my future neighborhood), from Milan in 1493, from Lucerne in 1471, from Spain in 1492, from France in 1306, from England in 1290, from Denmark in 1536. I could have listed many more.
Similar patterns of expulsion were inflicted on Romas.
Throughout, each group retained some of their old religious roots – Hindu in the case of Roma, Judaism in the case of Jews. Each also retained linguistic ties to their past — often blending their ancient language with the language of their current host country. Perhaps these retentions fostered some distancing, and lingering estrangement, from their host settings, the countries where they lived at any particular time. And finally, these may have contributed to the ultimate madness that saw each – Jews and Romas — targeted for total annihilation – and actual genocide – by Nazi Germany.
Those are speculations. I have no firm, definitive answers. But I do have two more thoughts about why the pariah status persists so stubbornly. One is sociological, the other is cultural.
Pariah peoples are accepted “at arms-length” within a given society or country — the flip side of the “distancing” by the Pariah groups themselves, I mentioned a moment ago. They are rarely fully embraced by their host country. They tend to be accepted when they are economically useful – for example, as a source of income for an English king to whom they are personal vassals and a source of staple revenue. But when, for economic reasons,they become an inconvenience for that king – as for King Richard I in England, it would lead to Jews being expelled, in 1290. And when, as for Spain’s King Ferdinand, they conflict with that king’s ability to cope with emergent power seekers, this led to Jews being sacrificed, and be expelled, in 1492. The Jews had not only been an economic factor in the life of Spain, but important political allies of the king, who now had to cope with emerging power-seekers who, in conflict with the king, found the king’s allies to be a convenient targets for injuring the king. The king ended up sacrificing the Jews, his erstwhile friends and allies.
In short, pariah peoples are accepted by a controlling society as long as they remain subservient and useful. They are in a weak and vulnerable position, subject to sudden expulsion or worse, even mass murder and organized efforts to annihilate them.
The status of pariahs is typically supported and perpetuated by persisting MYTHS about them. Untouchables, for example, were believed to be genetically structured to inherit and deserve their status. “It is their nature.” “It is naturally passed on from generation to generation.” Scientifically, this cannot be proven. But this makes no difference to the believer of such myths. Believing something – such as the genetically dictated inferiority and despised nature of Untouchables – does not mean that it is true. But believing something can seem to make it so. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treating Untouchables as unworthy, despised people, can justify one’s own behavior – that Untouchables are quite normally in despised occupations, doing things we, good people, would never want to do. They surely deserve their lowly status – that’s what you “the good citizens,” are apt to believe.
What is even more striking is that such myths about a whole category of people can have a very long and most unusual life. They can be the major motivating ingredients for massive attacks, even periodic assassinations of the pariah people – as Jews frequently were in medieval England where, in the 1180’s fanatical zeal about Jewish supposed apostasy led to repeated assaults – most notoriously, the massacre of the town of York’s Jews in 1189. Attacks on Jews continued intermittently, culminating in the actual expulsion of Jews from England a century later.
A myth can persist in a dormant state, long after one would have thought that it has passed into deserved oblivion in times of modern Enlightenment. In that dormant state it can expand and grow – in what I call a Second Path – and develop into grotesque levels of absurdity, yet be available for activation into a mind-set I have been calling a Closed Moral World, where alternative moralities are closed off, are forbidden from being considered on supposedly high moral grounds.
Turning again to Nazi Germany, we saw it in such horrors as the Nazi Holocaust. Its starting assumption was that Jews were terrifyingly dangerous people. The resulting mind-set was buttressed by survival of specific old, even ancient, anti-Semitic myths. They included the Blood Libel of Jews – of Jews supposedly murdering Christian children as part of their religious celebrations. And they included the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” myth, about an organized Jewish plot to control and infect the entire world. That second myth, long after it was exposed as a forgery, lives on to this day. It is still being published and used in education programs in some countries. Many still believe its message.
The sociologist in me says that myths are not an aberration. On the contrary, they are a significant part of ordinary people’s ordinary upbringing. From the moment of our birth we are exposed to myths. They can be visions that guide us. They can urge us to become artists, scientists, promoters of a better world and, yes, doctrinaire zealots bent on annihilating supposed non-believers.
My thesis is that although myths can be entirely benign, useful ingredients in how we live, myths can also promote ghastly thinking and actions, such as those that underwrite the pariah phenomenon. And myths can have a live of their own, sometimes totally devoid of truth and impervious to reality, yet have great impact on how people live. We need to understand how this works if we are to end being innocent bystanders or, even, actual implementers of the denigration of innocent people we call pariahs.
Finally, those of you familiar with Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” will see that I differ quite a bit from his views. He saw myths as addressing some of the most profound human yearnings and needs – such as transcending and confronting life’s traumas, suffering and death. His work is powerful and important. My focus is on seeing myths dispassionately – as an anthropologist might – as among human practices that can be used for good and ill purposes. They are not inherently noble or evil. They are merely part of our human makeup – which we desperately need to recognize and understand.