If it had happened 2,000 years ago, the population might have rioted in the streets.
At the very least, Roman leaders would have put off all major undertakings until portents improved. Seers would have watched weather and bird life, listening for the whisperings of Olympian gods in the croak of the crow, the whistle of the eagle or the chirp of the sparrow.
They would have looked for signs that the gods had recovered from their most recent bouts of indigestion — side-effects of indulging in all that nectar and ambrosia — and were once again smiling favourably on Roman endeavours.
But we live in unsuperstitious times. So, when a major religious figure and a couple of kids in Rome released white doves in a gesture of peace last month, and those very birds were roughed up by their mean-streets feathered brethren, people merely pronounced it a bad omen for events in Ukraine, at Sochi, in Syria.
The event and its interpretation presented the pointy-headed crowd with opportunity to roll its eyes and say (I paraphrase): “Hey, those doves are white — the result of generations upon generations of inbreeding. Of course, wild birds would attack them.”
White, in nature, is a statement of nonconformity. And nature, for the most part, encourages conformity. Being white is nature’s equivalent of sticking a giant “Kick Me” sign on an animal.
Even the ancient Romans knew that. They considered white birds of any kind to be heralds of bad luck.
In some ways, it’s best to think of nature as one giant, unruly high school, where an individual’s place in the hierarchy often seems to depend on the brand of jeans she wears or the music he plays on his iPod. In high school, banding together remains an essential ingredient in personal branding, and asserting your individuality as a group serves to define your group and your place. It also provides some measure of personal safety.
In the grand scheme of nature and high school, individualism — that hallmark of North American culture — had better be carefully managed or backed up with reputation for being able to defend yourself or having a social group that is willing to defend you.
Even Pink Shirt Day, which occurs on Feb. 26 this year, is in a strange way about conformity. The now-annual event first started in 2007 when two Nova Scotia teenagers decided to take a stand against bullying. They had witnessed a new kid being harassed for wearing a pink shirt on his first day of school, being called a homosexual and threatened with violence.
They went out and bought a few dozen pink shirts. They called on their friends to join them. Word got out. The next day, hundreds of kids came to school wearing pink — demonstrating to both target and bullies their solidarity with anyone who dares to dress a bit differently, think independently, behave in a way that’s true to them; be individuals, in other words.
In this case, classmates banded together to conform to the outlier. In so doing, they signalled to him their acceptance of his choice to wear a pink shirt if he wanted.
They schooled around him, like fish, and made it difficult for him or any individual to be singled out from the pinkness.
It was a strong message, and an inspiring one.
Is it possible to eliminate bullying from schools, from online and elsewhere? I like to think so, and hope so. There’s no denying it’s a huge challenge — one that goes against some dark, deep aspects of human nature.
And, although I’m no ancient-Roman seer, a little bird has told me that, in the case of these anti-social behaviours, the cultural and social advances like that which occurred in a rural Nova Scotia high school seven years ago will be what changes the norms of social behaviour.
Perhaps, one day, standing out from the crowd will no longer carry the risk of becoming a bull’s eye in target practice.
Is it possible to entirely defang and declaw nature? That, I expect, is beyond us.