rev 11/06

On Taboos
October • November • December 1999

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My Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines taboo as "prohibited or forbiddenby tradition, convention, etc." Taboos involve what’s felt, thought, said and done in such areas as desire and feeling, death, sexuality, religion, morality, politics, money and our bodies.

When I was a kid, many people were superstitious: Friday-the-thirteenth, step on a crack, break a mirror = seven years of bad luck, walk under a ladder, black cats, and so on. What characterised these and many others was that they were explicit, they were acknowledged. ("Oh, that’s Friday-the-thirteenth—it’s not a good day to hold a wedding";."Don’t walk under that ladder—it’s bad luck!") Although few of us seem to hold these beliefs these days (which is not to say we’re any less superstitious—consider the popularity of astrologers and psychics), we still seem bound by many taboos. 

I think we tend to look at taboos as prohibitions practised in cultures lost somewhere in the stone age, perhaps the Polynesians in the South Seas or a tribe in Africa. After all, aren’t we far too modern and enlightened to engage in such practices? I suggest otherwise; that, in fact, the list of our taboos is virtually endless:
desire and feeling
  • Being envious
  • Being greedy
  • Being selfish
  • Feeling sorry for oneself
  • Men feeling hurt, sad, scared, crying, admitting weakness, asking for help, directions
    • Feeling or expressing pain (e.g., being hurt, scared, sad) ("don’t be a cry baby—big boys don’t cry")
  • Not loving/being critical of our parents 
  • Hating someone
  • Boasting; bragging; being pompous; not being modest; not being humble
  • Being honest with someone when doing so might disturb that person
  • Feeling euphoric, being exuberant in public,
  • using drugs, such as marijuana (even medical marijuana), that elicit pleasure
  • Being proud (pride goeth before a fall)
  • Being giddy, childish
  • Talking to a dying person about his dying ("Sam, I imagine it must be hard to accept that you may have only a few weeks left to live!)
  • Using the word "dead" when speaking about a person’s being dead (Instead, we use "cosmetic" terms, such as passed, passed away, passed on, gone, departed, gone on to a better place, in heaven now, etc.)
  • Saying cunt, love hole, fuck, etc. (I even feel some fear in writing these words for you to view.) According to Dr. Cherry Lee—The Hidden Effects of Sexual Guilt, there are more than 1000 words for the genitals and over 800 words for the sex act itself, yet only a handful of these words appear in standard dictionaries.
  • Being photographed sexually, viewing erotic material
  • Lusting, particularly a woman lusting (the term "nymphomania" refers only to females.)
  • Coveting/lusting after one’s neighbour’s wife
  • Womanising
  • Being a prostitute, whore or stripper
  • Touching one’s own or another’s genitals or engaging in intercourse in public
  • Ogling or leering at someone
  • Being sexual with a close family member 
  • Masturbating, engaging in sodomy
  • Being homosexual, transsexual, transgender
  • Men being, acknowledging being impotent 
  • Talking to children about sex
  • Discussing one’s sexual experiences with friends or intimates
  • Questioning or criticising religion, Christ, the church, the pope
  • Being an atheist, espousing atheism (one writer calls this, The Last Taboo)
  • Not treating a priest, rabbi or minister with deference 
  • Being politically incorrect
  • Asking someone’s political affiliation
  • Criticising one’s country, capitalism, democracy
  • Praising or defending others’ ideologies, e.g., communism
  • Being poor, unemployed, on welfare
  • Asking someone how much money he or she makes 
our bodies
  • Being bald
  • Bad breath, body odour 
  • Being overweight (particularly women)
  • Picking one’s nose in public (the theme of a Jerry Seinfeld episode) or private
  • Urinating in the shower (the theme of yet another Seinfeld episode) 
  • Appearing slovenly in public, e.g., unshaven or without makeup
  • Scratching one’s genitals, farting, belching, urinating in public
  • Begging (P-l-e-a-s-e!)
  • Failing, needing help, depending on others 
  • Swearing, saying shit, piss
  • Being critical of a taboo 
  • Being weak; not being tough, strong
  • Not succeeding
  • Being single past 25
  • Being mentally ill (e.g., suffering from schizophrenia or manic depression)
  • Being suicidal
  • Being a whistle-blower (don’t rock the boat)
  • Being a snitch, a tattle-tale
  • Rooting for the visiting sports team
  • Questioning, defying authority (police, parents, teachers, bosses) 
  • Admitting to being addicted to alcohol or drugs (which is why Alcoholics Anonymous is anonymous) 
  • Not liking or wanting children
  • A woman marrying a man younger than she is 
Taboos are universal, although what’s taboo varies from culture to culture. For example, in Japan it’s taboo to lick the ends of one’s chopsticks or to fill one’s mouth by stuffing in more food with them; in Israel it’s taboo to admit an Israeli-Arab party member into the government. Further, taboos change from time to time. For instance, before the sixties, sex before marriage was taboo.

A taboo is not simply something that’s not customarily done (e.g., working the graveyard shift), or something that’s not considered to be a good thing to do (e.g., leaving your car door unlocked when you’re in the store shopping), or even something that is illegal (e.g., Jay walking). 

Taboos may be explicit (e.g., the taboo against murder) or implicit (e.g., the taboo against asserting that God doesn’t exist or the taboo against a man telling a woman he’s just met that he’d like to make mad passionate love to her). In the "revolution" of the sixties, much that had been taboo until then (e.g., questioning the virtue of the war in Viet Nam) was made explicit and vigorously discussed and, as a result, many changes occurred. 

Taboos are absolute. Therefore, there is only one acceptable way to deal with abortionists, drug users, prostitutes or homosexuals. In a non-absolute world, this inevitably sets people against one another.

Taboos evoke aversion, evasion and disapproval in others. Their power lies in their threat of shame, of condemnation, and even of annihilation. 

They also derive power from their rightness being considered obvious: It’s taboo to question taboos. They are therefore taken-for-granted and go all-but unnoticed. We act on them reflexively, without thinking about their true significance, like we skirt the puddle of water lying in our path as we make our way to our destination—with barely any reflection. 

Many people see taboos as an inescapable part of a moral order through which we define the boundaries of conduct by specifying what we must do, can do and cannot do. They are convinced that we are narcissistic creatures who have had to devise taboos in order to be able to live together and protect the social order from our own egoism. Such people are also convinced that most taboos are good and that we should all obey them because they protect society.

Taboos might not pose a problem if it were not for the fact that our not doing something simply because it is forbidden diminishes our freedom and diminishes and disturbs our connection with others; it cheats us of our right to choose and interferes with our dialogues with them. It seems rather ironic—and telling—that in the United States, where there is such a strong taboo against killing ("Thou shalt not kill") we seem to have little compunction about killing murderers and have one of the highest murder rates in the world.)

Please note that I’m not recommending that we have license to do or say what we please whenever and wherever we please. It isn't appropriate to act in ways that damage or endanger either the actor or others. For example, it would be in no one’s best interest to murder someone or cry "fire" in a crowded theatre. (In fact, I suggest that posing or not posing a danger to someone—in a specific situation—is a far better criterion for whats desirable and what isnt than some absolute dictate.)

I am saying that it is not in our best interest to accept prohibitions without reflection, without questioning their validity, e.g., is there no downside to democracy or capitalism? Is there nothing of value in communism? What is the danger in questioning the existence of God? What’s wrong with asking others how much money they earn? I suggest that it’s not in our best interest to obey anyone’s dictates (except, perhaps, in an emergency) without questioning them; and that it’s particularly in our best interest to question—both individually and collectively—our prohibitions and dictates. It’s notable to me that we staunchly defend these prohibitions—even though they diminish us—while we tend to think nothing of watching a sitcom in which one character ridicules another or a drama in which the characters act out violently against each other—or even a commercial or infomercial on TV that is blatantly designed to manipulate us. It seems to me that our doing so is related to our being disempowered by our obedience to taboos.

Moreover, I’m suggesting that "tabooing" is violent. (In The Politics of Experience, R.D. Laing defines violence as attempting "to constrain the other’s freedom, to force him to act in the way we desire, but with ultimate lack of concern, with indifference to the other’s own existence or destiny.") This violence is perpetrated against both the person violating a taboo (or struggling not to) and those observers who empathise with the violator, but must act contrary to their genuine response. This violence is also perpetrated by those responding in the manner demanded by the taboo to someone who has violated it. Taboos are violent, as well, when they prohibit or demand what is "unwillable," what cannot be chosen (e.g., hating or being depressed).

In thus disconfirming both self and others, taboos involve abandoning both the self and the other: They eschew dialogue.

In spite of the sexual revolution of the sixties, for many American women there remain taboos against sexual feeling, admitting sexual arousal and sexual satisfaction. They feel guilty about these. This is true for men, as well. In the 60’s we opened the door and many taboos, such as divorce, women working, single women being sexually active, were discarded. The inference was that there was no limit to what we could do. The problem is that few reality-based guides have replaced the non-reality-based set of prohibitions.

Dialogue—real-talk—is the source, the partner in creating this reality-base. It’s real-talk that connects us and allows us to explore and to see more clearly; that enables us to shed light in dark places, to get past blind and fearful response to threatening demand and to act, instead, out of illuminated care for ourselves and others. 

© 1999 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

Taboos might not pose a problem if it were not for the fact that our not doing something simply because it is forbidden diminishes our freedom and our connection with others.

I am saying that it is not in our best interest to accept prohibitions without reflection, without questioning their validity.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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