An Anthropological View of the Kyle Rittenhouse Trial
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What is your first thought when viewing the picture above?
For most, I daresay, the first thought is Nazism.
In actuality, the picture is from a Goa Lawah Temple in Bali, Indonesia, which is a Hindu temple. The swastika is, in fact, an ancient symbol. And its meaning has to do with the culture in which the symbol is situated.
In a Hindu temple, the swastika is a revered symbol “conducive to well-being.” In Germany of the early 20th century, it was a symbol of racial purity for the Nazis indicating a German’s blood affinity to the ancient Aryan culture of “civilized” Indo-Iranians of central Asia.
What is important, though, is that its meaning as a symbol is contingent on the culture and the time of its creation and use, and that means it must be interpreted, both contemporaneously and over time.
That notion gave rise to a branch of anthropology known as “symbolic anthropology.”
A society is a dynamic form of culture full of change and symbolic meaning.
Including American society as it deals with the challenge of accepting the decision of a jury in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial.
What is distressing is that, after the verdict was delivered, there are so many who are rejecting the basic symbols of American society. It does not bode well for our future.
Victor Turner in particular writes about social change, how it occurs, the disruptions attendant to it, and how societies manage to rearrange itself as needed to address its challenges.
Turner has a basic paradigm of how social change can occur. In a four-step process he calls a “social drama,” the first act is a “breach” of the social order sending people to different sides in a dispute, which then leads potentially to a “crisis” as the dispute hardens into a destabilizing social conflict that threatens the overall wellbeing of society.
The third stage is a “redressive action” of some sort to salvage the situation, resolve the conflict and, it is hoped, restore the stability of the social structure. If social stability cannot be restored, there is a schism, a split within society.
Historically, religions have gone through schism. In the Christian Church, for example, the fact that there are Catholics and Protestants is as a result of a schism. The most violent form of schism is civil war.
The fourth and last stage of Turner’s scheme is “reintegration” as whatever changes occur are accommodated and those involved in the dispute make needed compromises, and then join again in union with the society at large. It is a re-stabilization, if you will.
It is in that third stage that the real action takes place. In some honor cultures, for example, redressive action takes place through vengeance, or perhaps through fighting a duel, or a family feud in which one family eventually obliterates the other in retaliatory acts of blood-letting.
In America, though, for the most part, impactful redressive actions take place in our courts.
With roots in English common law, American jurisprudence has evolved as a generally effective way to avoid further violence, or worse, a cycle of violence, as disputing groups keep retaliating against the other when a breach and crisis occur.
When a homicide takes place in American culture, the state takes over in order to remove the issue from the powerful tendency many will demand for revenge. Thus, a cycle of violence is nipped in the bud. It’s not a member of the McCoy family that will punish the Hatfield members for their act of violence, but the state. So McCoys, don’t go after the Hatfields.
At least that’s the civic ideal.
So, Kyle Rittenhouse is charged with homicide of two males in Kenosha, WI, and the attempted homicide of a third. If it is murder, he should be punished, and the families of the murdered should then stand down and not retaliate against other members of the Rittenhouse family. If the homicides are justified, then Rittenhouse should not be punished, and the families of those killed should still stand down.
It all has to do with the deep symbolic and ritual meanings of what takes place in a courtroom during such a trial.
Pay attention to how space is used in a typical American court, where the judge is always placed higher than any other person in the courtroom. The jury generally is placed in the second highest position. The witness stand is often raised a step or two. As for the prosecutor, defense attorney and defendant, they are equally at ground level, though the prosecutor, representing the state, almost always is placed between the jury and the defendant to protect the jury, again symbolically.
Invariably, there is a barrier of some sort between the players in the trial and the public at large who may be observing the trial. For the trial’s duration, that space is a kind of sacred space, immune from the passions and wishes and poisoned hatreds of the general public behind that barrier.
As the final arbiter on process, the judge’s deific status is symbolically shown in his elevation. The jury, which acts symbolically as The People, also has a higher status than the witnesses and attorneys because they, ultimately, act as society in deciding whether the defendant will be punished and more permanently separated from society, or freed and allowed back into society.
What makes the jury a powerful entity is that they are the only ones with, presumably, no direct interest in the result. They are, ideally, impartial. As such, they receive all – all – the pertinent and germane evidence. Some elements may be kept from the jury, and that is something that is decided by the protector of the process, the judge.
The jury may often be asked to leave the courtroom for a period of time while attorneys hash out an issue in front of the judge. The judge then makes a decision with prejudice, which is to say the issue should not have to be dealt with again. It is decided. The removal of the jury is done to maintain its integrity and impartiality, which is sacrosanct.
After both sides make their presentations to the jury, final arguments are made. The prosecutor has the first crack at the jury, the defense attorney the second, and the prosecutor the final argument.
Why? Because the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the charge is justified beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high bar to meet. Defense only has to show a “reasonable doubt” exists for his client to go free.
After final instructions to the jury by the judge, which essentially maps out the process the jury should follow in rendering a verdict, the jury will retire and begin to deliberate.
That is when another important concept discussed by Turner generally takes place.
Turner adopts a concept from another anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, having to do with his work on initiation rites. Van Gennep divides such rites into three stages, the rites of separation, the rites of transition, and the rites of integration.
Take the initiation rite of a child coming to be recognized as an adult man or woman by the group. During the transition period of the initiation rite, the person being initiated is no longer a child, and not yet an adult. The person being initiated is in what van Gennep calls a “liminal state.”
Turner takes this notion of a “liminal state” and applies it to other aspects of culture than initiation rites. For example, his notion of liminality can be applied to the jurors as they deliberate.
While in that jury room, the jurors are no longer who they once were. All the social structures that gave privilege and pride of place in society to some of them and not to others simply does not exist in that jury room. They are “betwixt and between” the roles they normally play in society and will return to once their jury duty is completed.
They are absolute equals for the extent of their time in the jury room. One vote counts no more and no less than any other, whether that vote comes from a bank president, a college professor, a truck driver, or a casino card dealer. They are, corporately, the faceless voice of society-at-large.
When the verdict is given, in a healthy society that is the end of the matter. People adjust to the decision and a reintegration of all back into society can take place. The social breach, for them, is now past.
But that is not what happened with the Rittenhouse verdict. News sources like CNN and MSNBC and progressive politicians and race hustlers continued their narrative of a white supremacist crossing a state line armed to do mayhem in Kenosha. And that as an active shooter he murdered two and did great bodily harm to a third.
And all of that is a lie. It runs counter to the clear evidence of self-defense as presented at trial and, more importantly, as deliberated and adjudicated by a jury. The media simply reject out of hand the basic symbols of American civic society, through its courts and its jurisprudence, in order to maintain their own malicious narrative.
What they want is not reintegration of those in conflict, but a continuation of the conflict and schism. By doing so they allow – indeed perpetuate – the conflict to justify righteous protest and violence should it come. I suppose in their world they think its good politics and good for ratings.
The ultimate result, though, is a furthering of the destabilization of society, particularly in our urban centers.
There are parts of America where the civic social symbols are still strong. And given the dystopian trend in much of the progressive world of politicians and media, perhaps people are beginning to realize that we are under siege.
And, perhaps, seeing now the strife that CNN, MSNBC, and progressive politicians encourage and validate, there is now an antithetical trend toward learning about and defending our civic social symbols. Our courts will be rendered social eunuchs if that does not happen.
Are there miscarriages of justice in our courts? Yes, of course there are. But this case is not one of them. This case is a classic of proper jurisprudence. When done properly, jurisprudence maintains social stability and equality before the law. That is, if – and this is a big “if” – the media and politicians don’t go out of their way to undermine the whole process.
So, the simple lesson for us all this Thanksgiving is to understand our civic social symbols, study them, advocate for them, and when justified defend them. Society, and America, will be the better for it.
Otherwise, I fear we are heading toward what Robert Bork laid out, paraphrasing Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: what rough beast, its time come round at last, slouches toward Gemorrah to be born.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
Featured photo is a screengrab from YouTube, Podcasts in the Classroom.