Monday, August 04, 2008

Backs Out!

One of the numerous silly songs that have been popular at some of the Boy Scout camps I have attended is called Ahtudata. I’m not sure there is a proper spelling for this word. I’ve seen it spelled variously. The song consists of little more than rhythmically repeating this word and adding increasingly silly actions at the leader’s direction.

The leader gets the crowd to chant:
Ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta-tu
Ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta-tu

Then the leader calls out, “Thumbs up!” The crowd responds, “Thumbs up!” They then put up both thumbs and repeat the chant. The next time, the leader calls out, “Thumbs up! Elbows in!” The next time, “Thumbs up! Elbows in! Knees together!”

Next comes the controversial part of the song. The leader adds, “Buns out!”

A number of years ago, one BSA professional that was overseeing one of our council’s camps disapproved of this phrase as being less than morally acceptable. In his view, it failed to rise to the high standards of the Boy Scout program. He insisted that the staff substitute the phrase, “Backs out.” This sounded like they needed to visit a chiropractor.

Being obedient Scouts, the staff begrudgingly complied, although; they covertly did the song with the normal “Buns out” phrase when the professional wasn’t around. Over time, they came to celebrate the phrase by increasing its volume. This continued until that particular professional was no longer involved.

While the professional was obviously simply trying to do what he thought was right, most saw it as an attempt to intrusively force others to implement his personal brand of prudishness. Most saw the silly phrase as quite harmless. The result of this man’s actions has been that thousands of young Boy Scouts over the years have been exposed to the supposedly offensive phrase at a strident volume when it might have just been another funny phrase in a silly song.

The culture left behind by this episode was reinforced recently when I attended a reunion of Camp Loll staffers. With a few hundred people in attendance, including former staffers and their families, we gathered at the flag pole for the traditional singing of a few songs along with a flag ceremony.

One of the staff members came forward and led the group in the song Ahtudata. It was really quite humorous to see all of these middle-aged former staffers acting completely silly. You could tell that some of their kids were really getting a kick out of it. When the song leader called, “Buns out,” the crowd responded, “Buns out!” with a deafening roar. I laughed, but I was impressed by how deeply this had become ingrained in people that had become responsible adults.

A moral edict works in a group when the group senses the value of the rule. Broad disrespect of a decree means that the group has not bought into it. Broad rebellious defiance of a command (especially if sustained over time) means that the group has not only failed to buy into it, but that they believe that the rule violates their sensibilities.

There have been many such rules throughout time, and there will be many more. Sometimes we even try to implement them as national policy. Prohibition and the mandatory 55-mph speed limit come to mind. While some bought into these rules, most did not. Some studies show that more than 80% of drivers regularly disobeyed the 55 mph speed limit, making it of little use as a moral tool.

I am not saying that people that have strong moral beliefs should give up on those beliefs simply because some (or even most) disagree with them. But we should be careful about implementing such beliefs as public policy, especially if most find such restrictions ridiculous. The backlash will probably make things worse than we think they are at present. We could easily end up with the public equivalent of “Buns out!”


Jeremy said...

I think this principle is also a great explanation of why our immigration policies don't work.

Great post.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Good point.

Frank Staheli said...

I remember hearing in years gone by that the series "Married With Children" was almost on the chopping block...and then a nationwide protest gave it new life, and it went on to become very popular.