Mummers, Trust, and the Threat of Violence

If you’re like me, you have a (very) vague sense of “mummers.” Or “mummers plays,”  or of Philadelphia’s “mummers’ parade.
Turns out mummery (or mumming—hard to know what noun form to employ) takes on some curious forms. Particularly in parts of rural Newfoundland.

Check this out:

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Residents of small isolated fishing villages on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland have participated in the ritual of “mumming” for centuries. According to the tradition, small groups of villagers, or mummers, disguise their identities and go to other houses to threaten violence, whereupon the people of the houses try to guess the intruders’ identities.
A study by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia argues that this tradition is a manner of communicating trust and trustworthiness. The mummers who threaten violence must prove themselves trustworthy by not committing a real act of violence, and the hosts of the invaded home must demonstrate trust by not responding to threats with fear or violence, said Christina Nicole Pomianek, an MU doctoral student.
“In this ritual, participants are making themselves vulnerable at the hands of the other,” said Craig T. Palmer, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science. “It’s a way for community members to prove their trust and commitment to each other.”

If even remotely true, this is one of those quaint social innovations that is firmly rooted in and serves to elucidate human nature.

There is no such thing as trust without risk, I would argue.  Blind faith is not trust at all, because it rules out risk as irrelevant.  And if you are dealing in probabilities alone, you are similarly not dealing with trust, but with statistics.

Trust exists at that interesting boundary line, where you must take a step forward not being entirely sure that there will be solid ground to support your step.

You’re invaded by dressed-up mummers.  In all likelihood, they are just the boys up the road, doing the halloween-like ceremony.  But there’s always the chance—well regaled in lore—that one or more of them really are out to rape, pillage and burn your house down.  Do you keep one hand on the shotgun?  Or decide to trust?

You’re a dressed-up mummer, going down the lonely dark road in Newfoundland to drop in those strange old folks down the dark road you only see in town rarely. That’ll add some edge to your life.  You mean them no harm, you want to play the game and have a drink after—and make some friends.  But they may have a shotgun handy too.  Do you play the game to the hilt? Or rip off your mask to guarantee your life—but ruin the game?

The Columbia researchers speculate that the timing of the holiday—early winter—supports the need to develop trust during the long cold dark season to come.

How clever—a mutually created mutual threat, almost certain to be resolved—but not quite guaranteed. In order to create trust.

Makes sense to me.

Many thanks to Ed. (short for "editor") of Blawg Review  for tipping me to this; it comes courtesy of Andrew Sullivan’s online column The Daily Dish at Atlantic.com.

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