Resisting the ritualization of dissent

Being asked, ‘How was school today?’ often elicits a bored ‘fine’ from teenagers. But this is not the case with my teenage friend (or stepdaughter or housemate—depending on our mood). ‘How was school today?’ leads to revelatory conversations, often only revelatory for me.

On one such occasion, I learned about a tradition practiced at her high school in Groningen.

On the last school day for the graduating year (sometime in April), the students finishing high school are given free rein. This turns the school into a boisterous party. Hay on the floors, posters on the walls, loud music on the speakers, water pistols employed liberally, lessons interrupted, and many other teenage delights one can imagine.

School structures are transcended. Students graduate having experienced just how easily order can become disorder, and discipline can turn into chaos. The rules followed daily for many years now seem mere conventions. The students break them down. They make a mess. It’s a party like a tantrum.

I do not think I’m overinterpreting to see it as a transition ritual where old roles and orders are breached, defied, disrupted, and violated; students leave school behind.

The ground rules for this ritual are important to mention. Students are not allowed to use licentious language or cause harm. They are also not allowed to criticize teachers or school staff. Essentially, it’s anarchy with a syllabus.

What struck me about this ritual is its dual function.

By allowing students to make this controlled and regulated mess, the institution creates an outlet for dissenting energies

On one hand, it functions as a cathartic experience for the students. Symbolically, they are allowed to violate the constraints they have experienced in school. They move on feeling freer.

On the other hand, it functions as a mechanism of order. By allowing students to make this controlled and regulated mess, the institution creates an outlet for dissenting energies. These are directed toward innocuous manifestations, stripped of their potency. The old order continues unaffected.

What is the connection between this high school ritual and the student pro-Palestinian protests and encampments?

On both occasions, dissent is ritualized.

However, in the case of the student protests, the educational institution is no longer dealing with teenagers. Ritualization takes a different, more bureaucratic form. Instead of being allowed to express disobedience using water pistols, students are allowed to express it through the institutional apparatus: by attending closed meetings, by following an agenda they did not create, by speaking when they are given the word, by using the language recognized as valid by the institution. 

Invitations to dialogue result in minutes being taken, documents being written, statements being issued, teas being poured, change being intended – yet never accomplished. Dissent is restricted to controlled media, and it is rendered impotent.

Now, the decision to no longer engage in dialogue, condemned as it has been by many, is the gentlest rebellion. Like the quiet defiance of the mountains, it eludes ritualization; it is undeniably real. 

VALERIA CERNEI

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