April 14, 2012
I once hated the šibačka. It is, after all, the ceremonial whipping of women by men. Need I say more? Once I challenged myself, by bring myself out of my comfort zone to better understand the šibačka, I learned to see the šibačka from a different perspective. There are aspects of it I dislike, but unlike many non-Slovaks, and some Slovaks, I can make sense of the tradition and have found many reasons to like it. Below are some of the reasons I have heard people dislike the šibačka.
On its surface, and only on its surface, the whipping ceremony is an abuse of women. If you can’t get beyond the possibility that it isn’t an abuse of women, then you aren’t going to be able to interact with the tradition enough to understand what is happening.
2. Unwillingness to Challenge Themselves
The Hinlicky Rule is often cited by me. It encourages one to challenge opinions they intend to argue in favor of, especially when they hold a belief that they understand to be an unimpeachable and obvious conclusion. Again, I was once uncomfortable with the šibačka. It sounded barbaric. When I challenged myself, I started to see a different side.
3. Bad Experiences
Bad experiences with a situation lead to bad reactions to a situation. Does hot coffee burn you or does spilling hot coffee burn you? Do guns kill people or do people using the guns kill people? Does this tradition harm a person or does misuse of the tradition harm a person? Some young ladies that I taught six years back hated the šibačka because they have had such bad experiences with it. Some mother daughter pairs spend Easter Monday locked up safely in a room or apartment, or they make sure that they are away from town. This is terrorizing, no doubt about it, which brings me to a related point.
4. Real Jerks Misuse this Tradition
There are jerks in Slovakia who misuse the tradition. Any tradition, any situation can be misused by a jerk. That’s the kind of person who can’t “feel” the unspoken agreements in a situation. When McDonald’s offers free ketchup, you don’t take home free ketchup to use for the next three months. Only a jerk would do that. Yeah, the ketchup is free, but you just don’t do that. There will always be a jerk who can abuse a situation. Wouldn’t that make the jerk to blame, not the tradition? When I see a jerk, I call that jerk out. I would like more people to join me in calling jerks out. Maybe the tradition is to blame, but I think it works for so many that it does not seem to be the case. Those who don’t want to participate in the tradition generally don’t.
5. Unfamiliarity with Šibačka
I used to love gun control. I thought people really shouldn’t own guns. I lived in Chicago where it was illegal for anyone to own a gun in their home and I thought that was A-OK, since I had no interest in owning a gun in my home. One day, a friend of mine from Chicago took me out to his farm and taught me to shoot. Over the course of some 6 months, I gradually started to understand a perspective that I would not have had access to any other way. I believe I thoroughly understand the pro-gun control side and the 100% no regulation of guns side and many sides in between. Because of this understanding of the situation and the multiple perspectives, whether or not I personally want to own a gun, I can’t justify gun control the way I used to. This level of understanding would have been impossible had I not experienced that other perspective. Until you are in the middle of the šibačka, I think it is impossible to experience this other side. Many who read this will be in favor of illegalizing gun ownership and for all I know might also be in favor of illegalizing the šibačka. If we want to be honest with ourselves, it’s important to understand that there can be some good reasons why a person disagrees with us on an issue and that we are usually benefitted by learning as much as we can about that other person’s perspective before we open our mouths on that issue. And yes, that might even mean joining your intellectual opponent as he goes whipping and watering and joining your intellectual opponent as he goes and shoots guns at paper targets posted in front of his berm on his farm in the middle of nowhere.
6. Talking to Meat-Heads
Slovakia is mired in this sometimes very uncomfortable set of morals that boils down to “might makes right.”
If I spent a year interviewing 1,000 meat-headed idiots from Petržalka about šibačka, I would probably get 800 of them chuckling at me and saying some idiotic thing like “Yes, but it is good because man is more powerful” or “We bring many friends so they cannot stop us.” Or “Their father’s even help us.”
You see, in all of these situations, the reason for why šibačka is good boils down to “because we can.” Talking to an idiot about šibačka may leave you understanding that šibačka is the equivalent of rape, since their logic of “if nothing can stop us, then it is good to do” could be used to justify rape, šibačka, and a slew of other heinous behaviors.
Just because I agree with some meat-heads about the continuation of the tradition, does not mean I agree with their logic on the tradition. At the same time, I don’t really blame them for not spending years researching the issue and being able to craft a more eloquent defense of it. Lots of people just have better things to do with their time. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of article that I am grateful to be able to write. It speaks to looking beyond what is comfortable.
If I had not had a strong resolve, I would have been turned off by the numerous meat-heads who advocate in favor of whipping women on Easter Monday. I mean, just looking at some of these thick-skulled fellows is enough to have a distaste for them before they’ve even spoken a word. I understand how some people might confuse a distaste for meat-heads with a distaste for things that meat-heads like.
Generally, those 800 meatheads from Petržalka are not the ones who go out and even participate in šibačka. First of all, it’s not that popular of a tradition, and secondly, in an increasingly urbanizing Slovakia, it increasingly takes a considerable amount of planning to organize such an Easter Monday whipping ceremony. When I find that a person (such as one of these meat-heads) has never participated in šibačka, I generally disregard anything they have said on the topic, whether they agree or disagree with me. If one hasn’t participated in something he’s lecturing me on, then it’s not likely that he’ll have anything to say that I couldn’t just read in a book.
7. Confusing Diversity With Comfort
It’s cool now to be gay. It’s cool to be black. It’s cool to be a woman. It’s not cool to be a Slovak guy in a village whipping women who are willing participants in the process. Diversity is only acceptable to some if it is comfortable. Only cool groups of people get to be diverse. If diversity and tolerance are among a person’s personal goals, then tolerance for the Slovak tradition of šibačka should be included as part of that.
8. Sensitivity to Domestic Abuse
Physical violence in the home (something that both men and women can be guilty of) can have disastrous consequences for all involved. I fault no one for being sensitive to domestic abuse. The šibačka looks a lot like domestic abuse and looks a lot like an attack on a particular woman in addition to feeling like an attack on women in general. I have repeatedly, many, many times seen and heard of the šibačka taking place in good spirit and in a way that does no harm. My experience has been that the ritual is not misogynistic and is not abusive. In fact, the whipping ceremony can have such a festive atmosphere around it for all involved that the one time I neglected to water a loved one was in the midst of a fight. Only in good spirits would I want to engage in this ritual. If a female friend is being mean to me, then I will not pay her a visit on Easter Monday, just as I would not play Scrabble with her, ask her out to a trivia night at our favorite café, or offer my shoulders in a chicken fight with friends at the local pool, because, like the Olympics friendly games are best enjoyed when a spirit of friendship prevails. When the šibačka becomes abusive (and it does), it is the exception to the rule rather than the rule.
9. The Non-Aggression Principle
The non-aggression principle is essentially – do not harm a person who has not harmed you. This principle is very important to me. Ultimately, I believe that what happens in the šibačka is a game and that participants follow the rules. There are steps to the ritual. It is not an example of one party harming another. If one is looking at times where one is abused by another in culturally acceptable fashion, contact sports are much more deserving of criticism than this šibačka. However, I think those too fall under that category of not being an attempt to harm, but being a game in which rules are followed.
10. I Feel Like I’m Supposed to Dislike It
The “shoulds” that occupy our mind can be hard to negotiate. Where do these shoulds come from? Are they whispered to us as we sleep? Do they simply soak into our unconscious mind through osmosis from the culture around us that is so filled with shoulds? Are they genuine words of concern from our conscience? Why do so many American males and females of my age simply feel like we should be opposed to šibačka? I know that I have many times been steered wrong by the feeling “I should not like that.” I too have been steered in the right direction by the shoulds. Even when the shoulds are right, it’s usually not enough to unquestioningly follow them. I want to understand them better. It wouldn’t be very decent of me to dismiss something that seems to work for people in another culture by saying “It just feels wrong. It just feels wrong what they’re doing, so they shouldn’t do it.”
11. Needing to Calm Down
Some people are tight strung, ready to make a mountain out of a molehill. These are exactly the kind of people who need to spend a few hours getting chased around by a spry son, nephew, neighbor, suitor, husband, or who need to spend a few hours chasing someone around. It enlivens the spirit. It gets the blood flowing. It lets a person release some steam. It relaxes a person. Folk traditions often have purposes to them that are entirely contrary to the stated goals – maybe going out with some friends a few times a year isn’t bad if you work hard, live in a village, and have few other ways to blow off steam. That’s what happens for some on šibačka. Maybe having visitors over to your house is fun. For mothers and fathers alike, maybe watching them chase your beautiful daughters around is fun. Maybe it’s nice to entertain. Some people do that. Maybe it’s nice to be silly once in a while to behave stupid and childish whether you are 84, 54, 24 or 4. Šibačka is a time of revelry. It’s arguably a lot more wholesome than the demonic celebration of Halloween, the sexually dehumanizing celebration of Mardi Gras, or the consumeristic commingling of Christian salvation and lots and lots of presents in late December. It’s much less violent than any contact sport. Yeah, I could point those things out as really lousy things to have exist in a culture, but then I too would be responsible for needing to calm down. Sometimes we just need to calm down and accept a little levity in life. These opportunities for levity make us smile, give us some release, and give us stories to tell with friends and family the next day or to our grandkids when we’re 80.
More Important Than Just A Slovak Holiday
Now, while I write in these pages this week about a mere whipping ceremony done by a minority of the people in some country that few people anywhere in the world care about, what I am writing here about is much more important, vitally important, maybe the most important thing I could be writing about at this moment. Because, if you can’t look at Slovakia and give this almost entirely innocent ceremony a chance, then you are not likely to be able to hold any two opposing thoughts in your head at one time. This is an important step to being honest in a debate – entertaining views that challenge your own views, even if that ultimately means you might lose face, might bring yourself out of your comfort zone, or might even end up finding truth in an opinion that you’ve long found to be disgusting. As our world becomes more educated, we become more set in our beliefs, certain that we are right. This is an established consequence that comes with education – people being more set in their beliefs and more interested in only finding information that agrees with their preconceived notions, known to some as “confirmation bias” or even the “Semmelweis reflex.” That trend further exemplifies the importance of taking a ritual like this into consideration though it may be outside of your comfort zone.
With that, we return to where much of this website often returns – to the Hinlicky Rule. Step out of your own culture and into another and you often enough are going to be confronted with some version of the Hinlicky Rule. The šibačka is a simple example of how much Slovaks have to offer other cultures about looking below the surface, or at least it had that to teach this American.
I recognize that there are important sentiments wrapped up in some of these attacks of the šibačka mentioned above. I recognize that these sentiments can block a person from looking further at the tradition. I would like to invite you to recognize if any of these are stopping you from appreciating this tradition and to try to get beyond that.
If you can’t get beyond that, I won’t fault you, because I understand that gut reactions are important. I might argue with you though for not being able to get beyond those gut reactions and for not being able to have a debate that goes beyond mere feelings, especially if you are vocally opposed to the šibačka instead of quietly observing. These are some common reasons that I’ve seen people speak against šibačka. If you have a moment, I’d like to hear from you about these and others you’ve seen.
Are there other reasons you know of people hating the šibačka? Are there other reasons that you don’t like the šibačka? Does anything written here help to soften your heart to this tradition?
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.
The lead photo is from Barbora at the no longer active blog “The Heart of the Matter” who justifiably feels conflicted about the šibačka.