Being Blackballed – Part 1

Being Blackballed – Part 1

It seems that every English speaker is familiar with the term of “blackballing.” While some people associate it to the eight ball in pool or billiards, it really harkens back to Ancient Greece, and became an established part of the English language in 1770. It means the same thing today that it meant in 1770, or in Ancient Greece – to be rejected by adverse votes.

The function of “black balling” actually comes from the societies of Ancient Athens, where citizens were sometimes ostracized. Each year, during the Athenian assembly, the populace was asked if they wanted to perform an ostracism. If a particular city-state felt that a particular candidate for public office was effectually bad in the populace’s eyes (or, in some cases, might be bad), they would cast a secret ballot by writing the names of the person to be ostracized on a piece of pottery (ostraka). It’s speculated that some of the pottery shards were light in color and others dark. Names would be scratched into the shards on the black pieces and cast into an urn. After the balloting was counted, that person with the highest votes (6000 or more were needed) was ostracized for ten years. They could return after ten years with no loss of status, no loss of property, and no stigma. It was seen as a way to neutralize what might be an impending threat without any detriment to any party involved. Of course, the penalty for returning early, if not invited back, was death. Indeed, many were asked back in times of emergency or immediate threat.

Black pottery shards eventually became small balls of stone or wood, colored black and white, and urns became boxes made of wood. Many Freemasons would immediately recognize an early American (U.S.) ballot box as it is strikingly familiar to the ballot boxes used in Masonic Lodges today. The type of secret ballot used by Freemasons today originated in the mid-seventeenth century by not only governmental parties but gentlemen’s clubs, fraternities, and of course societies like Freemasonry. For significant choices facing the groups, such as admittance or expulsion, secret ballots are taken and then counted, the outcome such as rejection on admittance or approval of expulsion were enacted based on a specific count of black balls.

Hence, to be black balled is generally not good.

Balloting, or the original word, ballota comes from medieval Venice, where small balls were used in balloting by citizens (1540). At some point in history, these two terms coincided, ostracism and balloting, and today we have black-balled. Where voting is the raising of hands and out in the open, balloting is secret, hidden, and anonymous. While voting appears to be “light,” balloting implies a heavy judgement. One wonders, then, why we approve of anonymity when balloting? Why not take responsibility for so heavy a decision?

Perhaps it leaves the space for someone to be able to make that decision with a free mind and not be weighted down by the herd response of approval or disapproval. We seem to shun those who speak their minds and stand up for what is just and right. That may be a subject for another blog.

It does seem that one should put some care and thought into how they cast a ballot. We ask ourselves, when would I ever cast a black ball? What reasons could I give for supporting rejection of an applicant or expulsion from a group, rejection of an initiative or stalling someone’s progress in an organization? Who am I to judge? That seems to be a cop out. We are perfectly equipped to judge, as were are either the recipients of or the adherents to a particular group, government or organization. We passed. We were approved, for one reason or another. We are rational, thinking human beings and part of society – we are fully equipped to judge.

But do we judge well? “Justice to the applicant – we are taught to render justice to every man, not merely to Masons – requires that no black cube be cast for little reasons, small reasons, mean reasons,” wrote an anonymous, Ancient Free and Accepted Mason. This thought process should be taken by all humans, not just Freemasons, and in all situations, not just Lodge ballots. I’d say it should also not be for reasons of ego, personal gain, or to inflict punishment. We should be able to justify our ballots by reason, by well-considered examination of the facts, and a stoic assessment of what is better for humanity, the immediate humanity or the larger collective.

Most who cast ballots do not, also, attend to their own part in the process. We seem to cast ballots in a vacuum. Let others figure out the best candidate for the office, let some organization tell me what initiative is best for the way I think, or let others direct who should be included in my organization and who should not be. I trust them. Let them do the work. How infrequently do we actually read through the pros and cons of an initiative on a ballot, consistently – every election? What about reading through the minutes of our elected official’s meetings, or do a background check on an applicant, or better yet, get to know them? How often do we take our own personal lives out of the equation and figure out what would be better for humanity, not just better for our own little personal human?

If we don’t know the reasons for casting a ballot as we do, or cast it out of ignorance, how can we be entrusted with the welfare of humanity? Being a citizen, a legal inhabitant of a country which affords you its protection, requires a payment in return; that payment is to follow its rules and join in a common effort to create a positive, thriving society that creates safety for everyone. Citizenship is a very Western idea, again rooted in Ancient Greece and Rome, the concept is akin to a Freemasons Lodge. Each person who is a Freemason has a responsibility to the Lodge as she does to her own country: to participate in the creation of a positive thriving society of free-thinkers, educators, and promoters of humanity. It seems that the methods of a Freemason’s Lodge are akin to what we would like to see in our societies, our countries. Participation is key – in all aspects of our lives. This is a very practical application of Freemasonry: to learn how to participate fully, judge well, and learn how to improve the world around us. It starts with a Lodge. It can become so much more.


Part 2 will focus on why would we cast a black ball, and what does it mean to be black-balled.

Freemasonry and the Individual Collective

Freemasonry and the Individual Collective

In a recent conversation with a long-time Freemason, she mentioned that people misunderstand the meaning of being a Freemason, and what Freemasonry is really doing in the world. Deeper into the conversation, what she was talking about was the current trend of all this “personal journey” hubbub. A lot of people join Freemasonry to find a way to enlightenment or expand their consciousness or become a better person. When people join Freemasonry, they want to find something – spiritual awakenings, meaning, purpose, secrets, a way to some secret treasure, power, sometimes even a business partner. Some people want to join to find a mate or get rich. Yes, there’s every type of something out there that people are seeking. Yet, that’s not why Freemasonry exists. The tenets, rituals, symbols of Freemasonry do not speak to these personal journeys.

Freemasonry doesn’t exist for the individual. It exists for the individual collective. Taken another way, Freemasonry doesn’t care about your personal journey. Your personal path and reason for joining Freemasonry doesn’t matter. Really. It doesn’t.

Freemasonry’s goal is not to perfect the human. One stone a temple does not make. Freemasonry’s goal is to “perfect humanity.” To perfect humanity, it needs a group of individuals that are willing to work and abide by its principles. Freemasonry’s principles are not those of a specific individual, religion, or philosophy. These principles are moral and ethical in nature; morality and ethical behavior are for the collective and affect the collective. Religion, politics, civil obedience – these are preferences which affect the individual. There is a reason that individual preferences are kept out of the Lodge room; the individual ego and desire doesn’t have a “special snowflake” place within Freemasonry.

I hear the rustling in the columns now: “No, just hold on. We’re asked for opinions and thoughts. We are supposed to express our individual thoughts and develop our own ideas and strength of mind.” True enough. However, we are asked in a context of opinion to be shared with the whole, and discussion and healthy debate, which in turn illumines the mind. A mind stuck in dogma or rigid behavior finds a difficult path in Freemasonry. Dogma and rigidity are the ego speaking through the personality. They are not the collective working through the individual but the individual trying to work through the collective.

Another Freemason that I know is fond of saying “Freemasonry is an individual path in a group setting.” In discussing this idea, he thought I was crying foul on this statement. Actually, I’m not. What I am saying is that the individual path does not effect or affect Freemasonry. It is a fixed set of landmarks and rituals with guiding principles that the individual may interpret and apply to their own life. The individual’s life and purpose for joining the group does not impose itself on Freemasonry.

This is not to say that Freemasons should be automatons and blindly follow leadership. Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite: they should feel comfortable enough in their individuality to share it with the whole, taking what works for them and discarding, but img_0176-1not dismissing, the rest. Yet, in the end, they work toward the good of the collective, which in turn, works towards the good of Humanity.

The individual Freemason struggles sometimes to see himself as a part of something greater. Perhaps it gets easier as one progresses in Freemasonry, when the message is provided again and again about humanity, not the individual. We cannot divorce ourselves from being individuals – that is physically, emotionally, and mentally impossible. However, we can see ourselves as part of the greater society, taking our mind and emotions outside of our own comfort zone and do what is necessary for the greater – good, Lodge, group, whatever.

I was struck by a recent commercial for a popular TV show. The show was about police officers, and their dedication to their city, country, and community, to the point of putting their lives on the line for any and all of those things. Not all of us can do police work, or be fire fighters, or doctors and nurses. There is a deep dedication in these people that goes beyond a nine-to-five job. We applaud those people because they actually save lives – regardless of danger, pain, or even their own death.

But, who is to say something like Freemasonry is any different? Bold statement, to be sure. Yet, what happens if Freemasons, through their Lodge or Order, strive to make the world a more educated, thinking, devoted, and aspiring place? If that striving for education produces one more doctor where perhaps there was none before, haven’t we made humanity better? What if the work of an Order creates a publishing company, and one of those books inspires a young reader to go on to a career in science, and they create a cure for a devastating disease? What if a Lodge has an outreach campaign to their older members and they are able to bring some bright light to their fading days? What if their family sees this and recognizes compassion, and in turn, creates a foundation to help others with the same disease?

Sure, the individual can do all these things. In fact, these examples are all accomplished by individuals working with a collective mind, a collective heart, and a collective intention. The Lodge is an entity of individuals but it too is “a single mind.” It is an individual collective, like a brain filled with firing neurons. It is not the Borg, there is no assimilation or lack of individuality; it is a melting pot. It is a collection of living stones, all in the process of perfection to create something greater than themselves. We are not stones that stand alone. There is no purpose in that. It’s in the group, the collective, that we can build that place that “shelters humanity” and provides a place of advancement for the entire human race.