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Sunday, February 03, 2013

What Ostracism Really Means

It's a little embarrassing, but I only recently learned what ostracism is. Or used  to be.

Ostracism (Greek ὀστρακισμός, ostrakismos) was a formal political practice, in ancient Athens, by which citizens of the city-state would in essence hold a referendum on who was the biggest jerk in town. It was a democratic system for excluding someone from a social group by means of ballotized rejection.

The yearly ostacism would be kicked off in the Athenian assembly. The question was put in the sixth of the ten months used for state business under the democracy (January or February in the modern Gregorian Calendar).  If the assembly voted "yes", an ostracism
(involving participation by all interested citizens in Athens) would be held two months later, in roped-off sections of the agora. 

Voting tokens from ancient Athens.
The word ostracism is derived from ostraka (singular ostrakon , ὄστρακον), which refers to the pottery shards that were used as voting tokens. Broken pottery was, of course, abundant and could be used as a kind of scrap paper. (Papyrus from Egypt was far too rare and costly to be used in a disposable way.)

Athenians would scratch the name of any citizen they wished to expel on pottery shards and deposit them in urns. Officials would count the ostraka thus submitted and sort the names into separate piles. The person whose pile contained the most ostraka (the unfortunate "winner") would be banished from Athens for ten years, providing at least 6,000 votes were cast. There was no formal charge, and no defense could be mounted by the person expelled

There is evidence that ostracism was often imposed on unpopular politicians. In one anecdote about Aristides the Just (who was ostracised in 482), an illiterate citizen who did not recognize Aristides in person came up to ask him to write the name "Aristides" on his ostrakon. When Aristides asked why, the man replied it was because he was sick of hearing him being called "the Just."

Perhaps the time has come to institute ostracism once again, starting in America's one and only true city-state, Washington D.C. It would be interesting to know who would get the boot. A Supreme Court judge? A Senator? A cabinet official? Somebody higher?

I say we run the experiment, using Washington as a pilot program, with the idea of rolling it out nationwide if it proves a popular success. Then it could be scaled horizontally to include more than one jerk per city. They could all be rounded up and sent to Afghanistan, where they belong.


  1. It has this interesting effect that it only targets celebrities since to win you must be well known across the voting region.

  2. Anonymous1:45 PM

    Any number of "businessmen" would be prime candidates.

    1. Anonymous1:54 PM

      O-o-o-o-oh, GREAT idea!

  3. Anonymous1:53 PM

    This is sort of voting in reverse. But the system itself is anything but fair! (much like American elections are increasingly becoming)Yes, everybody gets a vote, but what you would end up with is the ostracism of a person based on something as inane as "because voters are sick of the person being called "the just" or because of race, political views, or whatever irrelevant reason the voters choose as their basis for their vote. This was an interesting look back into ancient culture, but as a practical application in today's society...even Washington...thumbs down! ... Wait could this get rid of Yertle the Turtle? Say,there might be some merit to this after all! :)

    1. Anonymous6:51 AM

      No I don't agree. I would love to live in a society with one rule: don't be a dick. No laws, regulations, courts or lawyers.

      If you find yourself doing something and wondering 'am I being a dick?' then yes, you probably are.

      In the end, I love the arbitrariness of it. It may be that I didn't like the way you smell or something equally trivial but, in the end, you were just a dick so... bye bye.

  4. Anonymous2:13 PM

    Really nice, but what do you mean with: "They could all be rounded up and sent to Afghanistan, where they belong."?

    Jerks belong to Afghanistan?

  5. Ah yes, from the honored chapters of history of "Why don't we do that anymore?".

    While we're at it, how about execution by poison chalice for seducers of the youth by means of philosophy?

  6. The ancient Athenians had a lot of clever ideas - direct democracy among them. The methodologies they chose for the implementation of those ideas may have been questionable at times but then human societies have always been the product of trial and error (lots of error). A particularly quaint method applied by the Catholic Inquisition and Puritan Christians in early America, namely the burning alive of those who dared to step beyond social convention, leaps to mind.

    In a Greek newspaper years back I had read a slightly different account of the Aristeides tale which, to my mind at least, puts it in a clearer context: "Why is it you think he should be ostracized?" "What makes him think he is any more 'just' than the rest of us?" and so Aristeides scratched his own name onto the shard. The purpose of this practice was to ensure that POPULAR citizens would not be used by economic interests to influence the Pnyka (what today we call LOBBYING).

  7. A more extreme version of this concept would be Jim Bell's assasination politics:


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