In recent years, bullying and harassment at work and in school have been grabbing headlines, creating greater awareness.
But there’s a dehumanizing experience that is just as common, perhaps even more damaging to targets, and far less well-understood.
We’re talking about ostracism, a form of social rejection that goes by many names and comes in many flavors.
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It can mean anything from physical exile to subtle forms of psychological isolation.
Whatever you call it, ostracism is a ghastly form of hurt.
You might think bullying is worse than ostracism, but recent research suggests that being frozen out is actually more painful.
From social exclusion on the playground to being ignored in the workplace, ostracism is among the most devastating experiences we can endure, deeply connected to our most fundamental human need to be recognized and accepted.
Ostracism can reshape the human brain, and in extreme cases, even make a person want to go on a killing spree. The Ancient Roots of Ostracism The modern word “ostracism” comes from an ancient Athenian political practice in which a person could be removed for 10 years if enough citizens expressed this desire through a vote cast on a pottery shard (ostrakon).
Interestingly, ostracism was often used preemptively as a way neutralizing someone who might be a threat to the state. You simply had to pack your bags and get out of town.
Political theorists have suggested that ostracism served to solidify group identity — clarifying what “we” are and what “we” are not.
In the Athenian democracy, the rejection was often centered on a person, frequently powerful, with a tendency toward tyranny.
Throughout human history, ostracism has served this identity purpose and many others in communities and institutions, including the enforcement of conformity, punishment and control.
In religious systems, those who are rejected are often excommunicated, an exclusion so profound it is sometimes considered eternal.
Imprisonment, of course, is a form of ostracism, with solitary confinement being the most extreme example.