Piñata Ethics (Updated)

pinata-ninosSo I got myself in a bit of trouble yesterday. My wife, who is very not-Venezuelan read Emiliana’s story about the Semana Santa operativos with evident alarm.

But worse was to come when she got to the provocative exchange in the comments section about our pre-eminent childhood ritual between Island Canuck and Bill Bass

When I first came to Venezuela more than 25 years ago and attended the first children’s birthday party, I was utterly shocked by the piñata ritual. Children pushing and shoving to grab candy, not to mention the wildly swinging stick to break it. The mother who pushed her 12 year old daughter to grab more candy from the 6 and 7 year olds. The frenzy!

Well these children are now mid 30s and still have the same mentalidad.

To which Bill Bass, in typical sociological fashion responds:

Yours is a very acute observation. Piñatas are part of our Culture. They involve a frenzied moment of chaos where children battle to grab the most cheap freebies they can, where a bit of violence and chicanery is not only allowed but encouraged, where an spectacle is made of that chaos.

In this sense one might see the Piñata as a metaphor for what Chávez instituted as a form of governance, throwing his followers big Piñatas , where things can be had for free, in a maelstrom of frenzied chaos which encourages people to indulge in a bit of violence and chicanery in a spirit of fun and games.

At that point my wife looked up at me, put on her Most Solemn Voice, and declared: “It is decided. We will never allow our children to participate in this barbarous ritual!”

I just blanched. “But…but…” I stammered, but I could see it would do no good. Something about this ritual just cuts against some very deeply held values. Pretty soon, she was on full-on rant mode.

“What’s fun about this? You’re celebrating violence, ego-centrism, screwing over the people around you just because you can. You’re taking the whole point of a birthday – giving and sharing – and inverting it, turning it into a grotesque celebration of mindless greed, of disinterest in people around you, of just grabbing for the sake of grabbing. Those are the values you want to pass on to our kids?! Really?!

Something deep inside me rebelled at this point. 

It just felt really wrong to me. As a kid, piñatas were just so much fun. A childhood without them seems weirdly empty to me, impoverished. And yet as I tried to think rationally about it, I realized I had no argument at all to give her about why, yes, we should encourage our children to shove smaller, weaker children out of the way in pursuit of cheap swag.

Part of me thinks Bill Bass has it all wrong. As a child I never experienced piñatas as a template for social interaction, I experienced them as a break from the normal rules of society. That’s what made them fun and exciting and cool. All kinds of societies have festivals where the normal rules of social behaviour are momentarily suspended for a clearly limited period. The Romans had Saturnalia, when masters would serve their slaves dinner at the table. Sociologists have always seen such role reversals as means of reaffirming the normal bonds of society, not breaking them.

But maybe this pseudo “public interest” defense misses the whole point. Perhaps Vargas Llosa had it right when he wrote,

La razón, el orden, la virtud, aseguran el progreso del conglomerado humano pero rara vez bastan para hacer la felicidad de los individuos, en quienes los instintos reprimidos en nombre del bien social están siempre al acecho, esperando la oportunidad de manifestarse para exigir de la vida aquella intensidad y aquellos excesos que, en última instancia, conducen a, la destrucción y a la muerte.

Granted, he was writing about sex rather than piñatas, but still…

Deep down, I know I’m holding a losing hand.  I remember Cabrujas’s piece on the Caracazo, his description of the joyous faces, the spirit of fun people showed as they plundered the stores, like it was all one big open door piñata. I know that, from childhood, those people had learned that this way of behaving was “normal”.

If I’m honest, I know I’m defending the indefensible out of sheer childhood nostalgia, a reactionary stance that doesn’t stand up to a bit of scrutiny. I’d become like the old curmodgeon flailing to articulate this deep feeling that gay marriage is wrong because…because…well because it just is! I mean, you can’t just go around redefining marriage just like that…can you!?

And you can’t go around redefining childhood willy nilly like that…can you?!!

Update: My wife reads the comments and weighs in again:

To be honest, after reading all the comments, I am more persuaded to accept Piñatas as something occasional and fun for kids. Obviously, in and of itself, the piñata is not that bad.

I know that there are many violent traditional rituals in the world (Japan is no exception), and even if they are quite violent (in Japan we have some rituals where people die year after year), they can be meaningful and important to the society. It’s a part of the culture. It’s not healthy for a society to be fully castrated, cut off from these kinds of expressions. In sports, in bullfights, the limits between normal life and the ritual are very clearly in place. What bothers me is that those limits seem a lot more fuzzy in a piñata…

Let’s be serious: is a Piñata really an exceptional thing, a special occasion where rules are different from and opposed to the rules of every day life? Like CACR said, it seems more like a reflection of daily practice. If it’s former then, yes, Piñata is accepted. But if it’s the latter, then no. I don’t want my children immersed in a society where this kind of behavior is normal!

My real problem is that, reading the Emiliana’s post, Piñatas seem to me more a part of venezuelan daily practice than an exception from it.

If a Piñata is harmless fun, when and where do Venezuelans acquire the capacity to be so aggressive, mindless and greedy in pursuit of free stuff? If piñatas are part of a system where children are encouraged to share some of their game with smaller and weaker ones, why don’t adults at the beach kindly help one another to share the gobernación’s loot?

It’s all about context. Venezuela, as people who read this blog know only too well, has a big problem with people acting in anti-social, greedy, violent, rule-breaking ways as they try to get stuff in every sphere of life. In that context, it’s hard to see a piñata as something completely innocent.