How Ostracism Worked: The Ancient Greeks

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Operation Disclosure | By Dapper Enigma, Contributing Writer

Submitted on May 3, 2021

Ostracised from society, the ostracised were not allowed to marry, have children or own property, and were forbidden from holding public office. But the word ostracism has a deeper meaning than just being excluded from society. Ostracism was a way in which people demonstrated their citizens’ support for the status quo. It was a warning for people who wanted to challenge the established order. It was a way to ensure that new ideas and new entrants were only introduced gradually and incrementally into society at a time. It was a way to ensure that the status quo wouldn’t change too quickly.

The first recorded ostracism was in Ancient Greece. King Electryon of Thebes ostracised fellow King Boreas for the crime of adultery. King Electryon, to show his support for the dynasty, gave the newly-wed Queen Gypsyallis a precious golden brooch as a token of her allegiance to the monarchy. According to legend, Boreas saw the gift and assumed that it was an attempt by Electryon to regain his estranged wife Gypsyallis. He demanded that she be stripped of her rank and expelled from Thebes. In response to Boreas’ protestation, King Electryon ostracised the king. He said that the King should expect “no share in the worship of the gods”. The second recorded modern ostracism occurred in 16th century Scotland when Robert Stewart the Earl of Orkney became a member of the King’s Council.

The use of ostracism as a way of disciplining dissidents started in the late sixth century BC. Athenian politicians were becoming increasingly suspicious of the wealthy families that were keen to dominate the political, economic and cultural life of Athens. These families were sending their sons to learn from the best teachers at the Athenian Lyceum, and while the Athenian youths would return to Athens as learned and well-educated men, the parents of these students were often men who had been banished from Athens for being unpopular. The result was an elite class of individuals who were keen to retain their privileged status, to the extent that they were willing to defend it in the face of all challenges.

“Ostracism” is a word associated with racism. The members of the United States Congress, called SOBs in the 2014 reboot of The Simpsons, were people who received “an overwhelming level of public disapproval, and are just no longer taken seriously.” In more modern times, mainstream media now uses the term “outright intimidation” to describe media bans or media blackouts. Donald Trump had resorted to censorship in the US, while his British counterpart claimed the right to ban social media posts that he doesn’t like, without properly explaining why. In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May decided to take repressive measures against social media posts that mock her. She has blocked five Twitter accounts that she described as “fake accounts” spreading disinformation and hate speech.

Ostracism was a primary reason why the ancient Greeks stuck to their social contract. If it wasn’t for the prospect of ostracism, it is unlikely that such a powerful anti-reform movement would have ever been launched, and then been successfully implemented, within a democracy. This observation is exactly the same with our political system. We should all be quite proud that when a majority of a country voted for a government, they did so in the knowledge that a significant minority (perhaps one in ten, or one in twenty) were prepared to do what it took to stop the government reforming the country, and possibly even overthrow it.
This sobering thought may also provide us with some food for thought in the future, if a similar situation occurred in a country in the Asian Pacific Region.

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