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Adam Seering
1/5/2003
Essay on taboos

To Whom It May Concern:



  I am writing this notice for future generations, with the wish that it should encourage continuing critical thought in areas that this generation has simply taken for granted.  It is my belief that there are many aspects of our culture and society that are either withheld from the public consciousness as 'taboo', or are simply ignored because no one remembers them.  I believe, personally, that there should be nothing that is withheld from conversation solely because it is socially unacceptable, so I am writing this piece in the hopes that someone will pick it up and start thinking about it.


  As I said before, there are many 'taboos', unspoken ideas that exist in today's culture.  This means that there are equally many places to start.  So, to pick a starting point, I'll discuss political correctness.  It seems like a good starting point because it covers so many other points: specifically, it is the modern-day excuse for not discussing all that is taboo in society.  Take, for example, race.  Racism is clearly a taboo; anyone who raises it as an issue immediately risks being labeled 'racist', a label that is to be avoided at all costs.  The concept of race is not so much taboo, but its inherent proximity to racism causes many who raise it to fall prey to the racist taboo.  Racism is taboo; discussing race is, often, politically incorrect.


  Political correctness is, then, a shield to supplement taboo, blocking out not only the subject of a taboo itself but anything that could lead to it.  It is our way of protecting ourselves from ourselves, of preventing painful concepts from being raised in conversation.  Racism is a painful topic for our civilization.  Many millions of people have suffered or even died at the hands of its followers, and many continue to suffer today.  Not only is racism itself the cause of great pain; accusations of it, accusations of having a hand in this suffering, are quite painful as well.  So racism has become taboo, to keep us from rubbing salt in our own wounds, and political correctness acts as a shield, providing one more level of protection around the painful topic.  But is this true for all taboos?  Let's try this theory out on another taboo, the taboo against resisting power.


  I find this to be a less obvious taboo than that against racism.  It is not less obvious because it is obscure, or less common; in fact, the opposite is true; it is so embedded in our civilization, from centuries upon centuries of monarchies and aristocracies, that not even a democratic revolution has rid us of it.  I speak of the taboo against standing up to one's "betters", those with more power, more wealth, more seniority than oneself.  This taboo manifests itself at all levels of society, from a child's relationship with his parents to a people's view of their President (or Prime Minister, or King).  But it doesn't stop there; the taboo runs even deeper.  People even surrender to the superiority of inanimate objects, to the static, imperfect creations of other anonymous people.  Many times I have seen, for example, a person assuming that they must be wrong, just because a textbook said so; many times I have seen people eschew a better way of doing something because the "better way" disagreed with their written instructions.


  It seems, sometimes, that there is a mantle of authority given to all those who we see as higher than ourselves.  This mantle symbolizes the extra power, the extra knowledge that these people have.  Recently, I have had several occasions through which to experience being a leader, to temporarily don the mantle of power and rise up above my surroundings.  And when I got up there, I realized that I really didn't have much more knowledge or power; in fact, the only real change was that, had I erred somehow, I would have had a much longer way to fall.  I found myself often replying to questions and complaints by saying, "If you have a better way, tell me and we'll probably do it."  This often just had the effect of keeping the complainer quiet for a while, but every now and then I did get a good idea in response.  Going back to the very first of the ideas stated in this monologue, I encourage all people to spend just a little bit of time questioning their assumptions about authority; I believe that doing so can only improve the world as it exists today.


  But back to the original question:  Is this taboo in place to somehow avoid pain?  At one point, long ago, it clearly was; even today, people suffer and are killed at the hands of dictators who will not stand for any questioning of their absolute power.  But this isn't exactly true of a democracy, or a family…, or is it?  For a democracy, public ostracization and humiliation are the punishments for questioning power, for being "un-patriotic".  For many families, confronting a parent will get you grounded, or get your TV privileges revoked, or some similar thing.  So this taboo is caused and supported by the threat and memory of pain.


  But recently, and even not so recently, this taboo has started to lose its hold.  Ever since the end of the Dark Ages, it has been slowly, ever so slowly, losing its grip over us.  First, religion started losing its power, with the Enlightenment and Renaissance; people realized that not following the Church would not necessarily get them sent directly to Hell, and the Church lost power.  Centuries later Democracy and (notably less-successful) Communism were formed as people realized that governments were not divine, all-powerful forces but instead corruptible groups of weak individuals that could be overcome.  Then, mere decades passed before a cascading series of social revolutions commenced, eventually decreasing the power of the white male over the rest of the population.  The pattern is now definite; the spread of knowledge and thought about arbitrary power is bringing about the demise of this taboo.


So why do we create taboos?  Why do we need anything to cover up these painful cultural ideas?  The answer is simple: People recoil reflexively from pain.  With physical pain, the recoiling manifests itself as a physical movement, a pulling oneself, as rapidly and thoroughly as possible, away from the source of pain.  If you touch a hot stove, you're going to jerk your hand away to keep from getting hurt even more.  I would know; I've tried it.  Emotional trauma has the same effect; society distances itself utterly from topics that cause mental anguish or distress, and in doing so a taboo, a wall against a common source of pain, is formed.  Even if that common source of pain goes away, it will still take time for taboos to disappear; it took years after I burned myself on a hot stove for me to willingly approach a source of heat.  But I eventually did, and I now use stoves without qualm or hesitation.


  So now that I know that taboos exist as a reflexive protection from pain, can I use this to somehow help me understand a taboo; specifically, the taboo proposed by Alan Watts in his book The Book?  Watts's thesis is that the ultimate taboo is that we're "IT"; that each and every one of us is God.  How could believing this cause pain?  Well, if this idea were somehow enforced on society, we would be forced to reject virtually all religions, as many of them see God as a separate, guiding entity, as opposed to a creature playing hide-and-go-seek as us.  Many people would simply refuse this conversion; religious beliefs are as emphatic as they are arbitrary, and many people would hold onto their beliefs through any pain or torture that they should be forced through by way of persuasion.


  But no one is forcing Watts's thesis on any one else.  So why is it taboo regardless?  Remember the kings of old that I referred to earlier?  They believed themselves to be all-powerful, God-like beings, and many of them didn't quite understand that everyone else was not just like them.  As a result, they got incomprehensibly rich off of the backs of their suppressed peoples.  But at least there were some good kings, kings who had the people's good at least partially in mind.  If Watts's taboo were broken, all people would end up seeing themselves as God; it would be many times worse than when only a few people had such a luxury.


  This, of course, assumes that no one would be mature enough to see themself as God in the way intended by Watts.  I think that many people would not be.  But at the same time, many people would be, so this worse-case scenario would likely not come to pass.  In any case, any pain caused by this scenario is theoretical at best, because few have ever tried following this ideal.  So if there is no real pain, no real suffering to retreat from, how is Watt's taboo a taboo?  My answer is, It's not.  It is instead merely one out of a thousand; no, a million, if not more, ideals with which humanity has been presented over the centuries; it is seldom spoken of because it has been forgotten, or ignored.  No one can follow all of these millions of possible ideals, and this one just got left behind, alone and forgotten.


  Now that I have found and tested a theory on the purpose of taboo, it would appear that a revisiting of one of my earlier assertions is in order: "there should be nothing that is withheld from conversation simply because it is socially unacceptable."  But "socially unacceptable" is akin to, if not synonymous with, taboo.  In this light, it would seem that a reevaluation of my position is in order.  Do I believe in harming society?  Definitively, no.  Do I believe in investigating everything that I encounter to the fullest extent possible?  Yes, clearly; otherwise I would have never written this letter.  So where is the balance?  There inherently is none; all discovery requires a risk.  And there's another taboo: the taboo against taking risks.  The creation of a taboo seldom involves an honest account of the possible benefits; it is based instead on pain or loss.  When a risky activity fails, there is always some form of pain or loss, by definition if nothing else.  But it is my belief that any risk-involving activity should not automatically be rejected; one cannot improve without them.  I would therefore continue to investigate taboos, despite the angst they may cause.    I urge any future generations that read this letter to likewise continue to investigate these things known as taboos.  Maybe by the time they do so, the sources of today's taboos will have dried up, leaving the taboo as just an empty, almost-meaningless shell to explore; on the other hand, maybe not.  But regardless of what may have become taboo, or not taboo, the most important thing is to think, to learn about these things called taboos so that we as a society can use them to better understand ourselves.