Why is this public declaration so important?
Speaking of the importance of initiation, Ray Raphael (1988) notes that “[w]ithout the aid of a formalized rite of passage [which includes the public ritual], it is harder for a youth to be sure that he has actually changed from one state to another. His transition into manhood becomes more difficult – and it generally takes a longer period of time. In the absence of assumed ritual, the delineation between boyhood and manhood becomes obscured” (p. 15). Without the public declaration, we see a male who is capable of manly work (he’s become mentally and physically mature) but who has not yet assumed the responsibilities that come with being a man. When we miss out on the recognition, the initiation, all of the lessons that have been learned, all of the drama surrounding the coming of age, is not fully complete. The new man’s status must be publicly affirmed.
In this public affirmation, assurance of the new manhood occurs. One of the dilemmas of the modern (and postmodern) world is that identity has become very individualized. With multiple definitions of masculinity, coming from the media, friends, and countless other sources, security in one’s masculine identity is tenuous. We very much have a “melting pot of masculinity” which can lead to a young man trying to live up to a variety of expectations for manhood, instead of having his identity affirmed by those individuals who care about him (and whom he cares about).
We see, then, that public re-integration is important for the psyche of the new man. There is something in him that needs to have his new identity publicly affirmed. But, beyond that, this public declaration and acknowledgement does something else: it embraces the power of community for support, encouragement, and accountability. We don’t see this as much in our modern world. Malidoma Somé notes that “[t]he first consequence of westernization has been to make initiation private. In the old days, initiation was a village matter that mobilized the energy of every person” (quoted in Stephenson, 2006, p. 57). When the entire “village” is involved (village standing for those in the young man’s immediate community: family, friends, teachers/mentors, etc.), the seriousness of the manhood he is entering becomes apparent. Declaring publicly in front of the community – “This boy is now a man…and here is what you can expect from him” – gives the community permission to expect more from the new man and gives the new man a standard to live up to, something to strive daily to uphold. Additionally, it serves as a way for all other men in the community to commit or recommit themselves to the expectations of manhood in that community.
What might it look like?
The actually public re-integration/declaration must be tailored to fit the new man and to fit the community. The ceremony can take on a variety of formats. It must contain a few things, though:
– Elders conferring and affirming the new man’s identity. In all of the discussion about education in liminal space, the focus was on the elders sharing with the young male. We find elders playing a major role in the initiation of young males in almost every primitive society. It is a sign of respect, a way to maintain the tribal traditions, and a meeting of male psychological needs (Robert Moore notes that “if you’re a young man and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.”). I can imagine a moment during this ceremony where elders share how the new man has proven himself, what he has attained, and what he will do.
– Acceptance of the new man’s role. After the elders are done conferring this new role, the new man must also accept it. To publicly say “This is who I am and this is how I will behave” puts a level of responsibility and accountability in place. It shows many of the lessons of liminality in action and serves to create a form of verbal contract with the community.
– Articulation of new rights and responsibilities. As a man, we should expect someone to behave differently from a boy. There is something powerful about declaring publicly the rights and responsibilities. Beyond the new man accepting his role, articulation of these rights and responsibilities reminds the community that “this” is how men behave and what you can and should expect from them. There are no excuses anymore; it’s out there.
– New treatment of new man. No longer can childish or childlike behaviors be accepted or excused. No longer can the adults in the community treat the new man like a juvenile. In court terms, he is to be tried like an adult. It will do our new men no good if we initiate them into the mature masculine, then continue to treat them as if they were children. That would take away all their work, all their learning, and cause identity confusion – “Am I a man? Or a boy?”. We must treat the newly initiated differently and, if we are to expect more from them, we must also provide more respect to them.
Imagine the celebration and the pomp and circumstance surrounding a wedding or a graduation focused on affirming a young male’s new manhood and welcoming him back into the community with new rights and responsibilities. This is what is needed to celebrate the new man, the emergence and declaration of the mature masculine. This welcoming will start his life as a true man with the encouragement, accountability, and celebration that it requires.
Raphael, R. (1988). The men from the boys: Rites of passage in male America. University of Nebraska Press.