Vox populi; there was a time not too long ago when many ordinary Americans would have seen and know the term vox populi or voice of the people. The expression was associated with elected democratic rule expressing the voice of the people in terms of who will govern and the programs those governing will further. Vox populi is not a foolproof concept because the voice or will of the people may at times be a mob reaction where a majority exerts bully power in retribution. But the popular will can also be an expression dealing with things a society has turned against or now rejects for good and just cause. Vox populi could be seen as much in a lynch mob exercising supposed justice as it could be viewed when beginning the Civil War states took positions on either side of the question of the justice of owning other human beings as property. I doubt the voice of the people would or could ever be 100% clear and unanimous. In part this explains (at least to me) some of why the American Republic has so many checks and balances, devices I think were built in with the thought of slowing the mob side of vox populi and allowing voices of dissent or contrary belief the right of expression. One of the specific challenges in forming an American Democracy was in coming up with ways to slow the mob aspect of the demos with the impartial hand of blind justice. We call this the rule of law, though not all law is just and some law is quite and completely contrary to civil or secular society. In my view the people’s voice is many, all of which deserve expression. The voices I am most leery and unsympathetic of are those seeking to silence or encumber others with sectarian prohibitions. I think it only fair and just that if others want to lumber and insult me with their trivial concerns I should be free to call their spade as I see it and mock it as fully as it deserves.

In American culture there are surprisingly few true areas of common ground. You can hardly find a public event or holiday that doesn’t get some form of negative response from one zealous view or another. Columbus Day draws protest as does that for Martin Luther King and for Memorial Day. Various individuals and groups sincerely object to celebrating these days as worthy of honor when protesters hold them worthy of contempt and condemnation. If we were to take a path eliminating as much that might be objected to as possible we’d end up by being constantly bedeviled in pettiness. A bland and neutral culture is no culture at all, but it is a comforting fantasy for people with a need to fill blank areas between the ears. I could go further down that path, and fun it would be to needle people too numbed by mentalism to know they’re being needled. But if I concede the point as already lost then what’s the benefit of adding more on a plate already more than boring enough for most readers?

We might not agree on the worthiness of celebrating Christmas as a public event or on the suitability of football because of its violence. (I’m OK with football mayhem and madness whether on the field or in the parking lot, but the obscene salaries are another matter.) But so far, which makes me reluctant to mention it, one tradition that is seemingly accepted unquestioned by near everyone is graduation. Most every culture we know has a rite of passage of some sort. The transition from child to adult is marked in some fashion or other whether it’s in a hut in a far off forest or on the floor of the closest gymnasium. Unlike our custom, a good many cultures separated the young males from the young females to deliver crash courses in expected behavior. After being sequestered and having the wits scared out of her a girl could return to the group wearing the traditional garb of a woman. At was the same for boys. They’d be instructed in their roles with the additional memory feature of ritual scaring, tattooing, or circumcision. Pain and loss of blood helps a boy cement his memory, and hopefully he won’t die of infection and will be able to make use of what he’s been taught.

Think of the terms encountered at graduation time. First there is commencement and matriculation. Don’t forget salutatorian, and valedictorian who along with an honored guest deliver addresses to the assembled, most of whom understand such an address not to be the recitation of a street number. Graduation is a formal cultural event that has been purged of references to God except by the audience silently praying to a Deity that the program end soon because the seating is by tradition awful, uncomfortable, and butt-killing hard. Graduation has survived largely without protest because the tradition of sending off the young and their start of adult life has relatively universal value and appreciation. A great many people who otherwise oppose all but everything in the societies in which they live will tolerate graduation as a day recognizing the young. Of course, in many cases those doing the sending off are hoping with all their might and weight to influence the direction the young might take and in some cases (ones I call highly suspect) limit or control choices to conform to an ideal of the sort vulnerable to the whims of the next absolutist to come along piping a sterner tune of zealotry.

For now the voice of the people is content with graduating traditions, but the time can come when enough homogenization of the past has occurred to erase the thread of vox populi and its long developmental role in Western culture and society. The strength of those traditions and the strength of the popular voice depend on knowing who we are rather than on how others want to define us.