Don’t even think about it – cultural origins and importance of taboos
In this era of tabboo-smashing, writer Michael Ventura–known for his searing essays on everything from our culture of money to the vagaries of romantic love–tells us why America is still, deep down, a country of taboos, where we live our lives by what we cannot say, do, or admit.
Taboos come in all sizes. Big taboos: when I was a kid in the Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn, to insult someone’s mother meant a brutal fight–the kind of fight no one interferes with until one of the combatants goes down and stays down. Little taboos: until the sixties, it was an insult to use someone’s first name without asking or being offered permission. Personal taboos: Cyrano de Bergerac would not tolerate the mention of his enormous nose. Taboos peculiar to one city: in Brooklyn (again), when the Dodgers were still at Ebbets Field, if you rooted for the Yankees you kept it to yourself unless you wanted a brawl. Taboos, big or small, are always about having to respect somebody’s (often irrational) boundary–or else.
There are taboos shared within one family: my father did not feel free to speak to us of his grandmother’s suicide until his father died. Taboos within intellectual elites: try putting a serious metaphysical or spiritual slant on a “think-piece” (as we call them in the trade) written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, or most big name magazines–it won’t be printed. Taboos in the corporate and legal worlds: if you’re male, you had best wear suits of somber colors, or you’re not likely to be taken seriously; if you’re female, you have to strike a very uneasy balance between the attractive and the prim, and even then you might not be taken seriously. Cultural taboos: in the Jim Crow days in the South, a black man who spoke with familiarity to a white woman might be beaten, driven out of town, or (as was not uncommon) lynched.
Unclassifiable taboos: in Afghanistan, as I write this, it is a sin–punishable by beatings and imprisonment–to fly a kite. Sexual taboos: there are few communities on this planet where two men can walk down a street holding hands without being harassed or even arrested; in Afghanistan (a great place for taboos these days) the Taliban would stone them to death. Gender taboos: how many American corporations (or institutions of any kind) promote women to power? National taboos: until the seventies, a divorced person could not run for major public office in America (it wasn’t until 1981 that our first and only divorced president, Ronald Reagan, took office); today, no professed atheist would dare try for the presidency. And most readers of this article probably approve, as I do, of this comparatively recent taboo: even the most rabid bigot must avoid saying “rigger,” “spic,” or “kike” during, say, a job interview–and the most macho sexist must avoid word like “broad.”
Notice that nearly all of our taboos, big and small, public and intimate, involve silence–keeping one’s silence, or paying a price for not keeping it. Yet keeping silent has its own price: for then silence begins to fill the heart, until silence becomes the heart–a heart swelling with restraint until it bursts in frustration, anger, even madness.
The taboos hardest on the soul are those which fester in our intimacies–taboos known only to the people involved, taboos that can make us feel alone even with those to whom we’re closest. One of the deep pains of marriage–one that also plagues brothers and sisters, parents and children, even close friends–is that as we grow more intimate, certain silences often become more necessary. We discover taboo areas, both in ourselves and in the other, that cannot be transgressed without paying an awful price. If we speak of them, we may endanger the relationship; but if we do not speak, if we do not violate the taboo, the relationship may become static and tense, until the silence takes on a life of its own. Such silences are corrosive. They eat at the innards of intimacy until, often, the silence itself causes the very rupture or break-up that’ we’ve tried to avoid by keeping silent.
THE CANNIBAL IN US ALL
You may measure how many taboos constrict you, how many taboos you’ve surrendered to–at home, at parties, at work, with your lover or your family–by how much of yourself you must suppress. You may measure your life, in these realms, by what you can not say, do, admit–cannot and must not, and for no better reason than that your actions or words would disrupt your established order. By this measure, most of us are living within as complex and structured a system of taboos as the aborigines who gave us the word in the first place. You can see how fitting it is that the word “taboo” comes from a part of the world where cannibalism is said to be practiced to this day: the islands off eastern Australia-Polynesia, New Zealand, Melanesia. Until 1777, when Captain James Cook published an account of his first world voyage, Europe and colonial America had many taboos but no word that precisely meant taboo. Cook introduced this useful word to the West. Its instant popularity, quick assimilation into most European languages, and constant usage since, are testimony to how much of our lives the word describes. Before the word came to us, we’d ostracized, coerced, exiled, tormented, and murdered each other for myriad infractions (as we still do), but we never had a satisfying, precise word for our reasons.
We needed cannibals to give us a word to describe our behavior, so how “civilized” are we, really? We do things differently from those cannibals, on the surface, but is the nature of what we do all that different? We don’t cook each other for ceremonial dinners, at least not physically (though therapists can testify that our ceremonial seasons, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, draw lots of business–something’s cooking). But we stockpile weapons that can cook the entire world, and we organize our national priorities around their “necessity,” and it’s a national political taboo to seriously cut spending for those planetcookers. If that’s “progress,” it’s lost on me. In China it’s taboo to be a Christian, in Israel it’s taboo to be a Moslem, in Syria it’s taboo to be a Jew, in much of the United States it’s still taboo to be an atheist, while in American academia it’s taboo to be deeply religious. Our headlines are full of this stuff. So it’s hardly surprising that a cannibal’s word still describes much of our behavior.
I’m not denying the necessity of every society to set limits and invent taboos (some rational, some not) simply in order to get on with the day–and to try to contain the constant, crazy, never-to-be-escaped longings that blossom in our sleep and distract or compel us while awake. Such longings are why even a comparatively tiny desert tribe like the ancient Hebrews needed commandments and laws against coveting each other’s wives, stealing, killing, committing incest. That tribe hadn’t seen violent, sexy movies, hadn’t listened to rock `n’ roll, hadn’t been bombarded with ads featuring half-naked models, and hadn’t watched too much TV. They didn’t need to. Like us, they had their hearts, desires, and dreams to instruct them how to be very, very naughty. The taboo underlying all others is that we must not live by the dictates of our irrational hearts–as though we haven’t forgiven each other, or ourselves, for having hearts.
If there’s a taboo against something, it’s usually because a considerable number of people desire to do it. The very taboos that are employ to protect us from each other and ourselves, are a map of our secret natures. When you know a culture’s taboos (or an individual’s, or a family’s) you know its secrets–you know what it really wants.
It’s hard to keep a human belling from his or her desire, taboo or not. We’ve always been very clever, very resourceful, when it comes to sneaking around our taboos. The Aztecs killed virgins and I called it religion. The Europeans enslaved blacks and called it economics. Americans tease each other sexually and call it fashion.
If we can’t kill and screw and steal and betray to our heart’s desire, and, in general, violate every taboo in sight–well, we can at least watch other people do it. Or read about it. Or listen to it. As we have done, since ancient times, through every form of religion and entertainment. The appeal of taboos and our inability to escape our longing for transgression (whether or not we ourselves transgress) are why so many people who call themselves honest and law-abiding spend so much time with movies, operas, soaps, garish trials, novels, songs, Biblical tales, tribal myths, folk stories, and Shakespeare–virlually all of which, both the great and the trivial, are about those who dare to violate taboos. It’s a little unsettling when you think about it: the very stuff we say we most object to is the fundamental material of what we call culture.
That’s one reason that fundamentalists of all religions are so hostile to the arts. But fundamentalists partake of taboos in the sneakiest fashion of all. Senator Jesse Helms led the fight against the National Endowment for the Arts because he couldn’t get the (vastly overrated) homosexual art of Robert Mapplethorpe or the most extreme performance artists out of his mind–he didn’t and doesn’t want to. He, like all fundamentalists, will vigorously oppose such art and all it stands for until he dies, because his very opposition gives him permission to concentrate on taboo acts. The Taliban of Afghanistan will ride around in jeeps toting guns, searching out any woman who dares show an inch of facial skin or wear white socks (Taliban boys consider white socks provocative), and when they find such a woman they’ll jail and beat her–because their so-called righteousness gives them permission to obsess on their taboos. Pat Robertson and his ilk will fuss and rage about any moral “deviation,” any taboo violation they can find, because that’s the only way they can give themselves permission to entertain the taboos. They get to not have their taboo cake, yet eat it too.
We are all guilty of this to some extent. Why else have outlaws from Antigone to Robin Hood to Jesse James to John Gotti become folk heroes? Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother, and we’ve been performing that play for 2500 years because he is the ultimate violator of our deepest taboos. Aristotle said we watch such plays for “catharsis,” to purge our desires and fears in a moment of revelation. Baloney. Ideas like “catharsis” are an intellectual game, to glossy-up our sins. What’s closer to the truth is that we need Oedipus to stand in for us. We can’t have changed much in 2500 years, if we still keep him alive in our hearts to enact our darkest taboos for us. Clearly, the very survival of Oedipus as an instantly recognizable name tells us that we still want to kill our fathers and screw our mothers (or vice versa).
COUNTRY OF BROKEN TABOOS
Taboos are a special paradox for Americans. However much we may long for tradition and order, our longings are subverted by the inescapable fact that our country was founded upon a break with tradition and a challenge to order–which is to say, the United States was founded upon the violation of taboos. Specifically, this country was founded upon the violation of Europe’s most suffocating taboo: its feudal suppression (still enforced in 1776, when America declared its independence) of the voices of the common people. We were the first nation on earth to write into law that any human being has the right to say anything, and that even the government is (theoretically) not allowed to silence you.
At the time, Europe was a continent of state-enforced religions, where royalty’s word was law and all other words could be crushed by law. (Again: taboo was a matter of enforced silence.) We were the first nation to postulate verbal freedom for everyone. All our other freedoms depend upon verbal freedom; no matter how badly and how often we’ve failed that ideal, it still remains our ideal.
Once we broke Europe’s verbal taboos, it was only a matter of time before other traditional taboos fell too. As the writer Albert Murray has put it, Americans could not afford piety in their new homeland: “You can’t be over respectful of established,forms; you’re trying to get through the wilderness of Kentucky.” Thus, from the moment the Pilgrims landed, our famous puritanism faced an inherent contradiction. How could we domesticate the wilderness of this continent; how could peasants and rejects and “commoners” form a strong and viable nation; how could we develop all the new social forms and technologies necessary to blend all the disparate peoples who came here–without violating those same Puritan taboos which are so ingrained, to this day, in our national character?
It can’t be over-emphasized that America’s fundamental stance against both the taboos of Europe and the taboos of our own Puritans, was our insistence upon freedom of speech. America led the attack against silence. And it is through that freedom, the freedom to break the silence, that we’ve destroyed so many other taboos. Especially during the last 40 years, we’ve broken the silence that surrounded ancient taboos of enormous significance. Incest, child abuse, wife-battering, homosexuality, and some (by no means all) forms of racial and gender oppression, are not merely spoken of, and spoken against, they’re shouted about from the rooftops. Many breathe easier because of this inevitable result of free speech. In certain sections of our large cities, for the first time in modern history, gay people can live openly and without fear. The feminist movement has made previously forbidden or hidden behaviors both speakable and doable. The National Organization of Women can rail against the Promise Keepers all they want (and they have some good reasons), but when you get a million working-class guys crying and hugging in public, the stoic mask of the American male has definitely cracked. And I’m old enough to remember when it was shocking for women to speak about wanting a career. Now virtually all affluent young women are expected to want a career.
Fifty years ago, not one important world or national leader was black. Now there are more people of color in positions of influence than ever. Bad marriages can be dissolved without social stigma. Children born out of wedlock are not damned as “bastards” for something that wasn’t their fault. And those of us who’ve experienced incest and abuse have finally found a voice, and through our voices we’ve achieved a certain amount of liberation from shame and pain.
These boons are rooted in our decidedly un-Puritan freedom of speech. But we left those Puritans behind a long time ago–for the breaking of silence is the fundamental political basis of our nation, and no taboo is safe when people have the right to speak.
KEEPER OF YOUR SILENCE
In the process, though, we’ve lost the sanctity of silence. We’ve lost the sense of dark but sacred power inherent in sex, in nature, even in crime. Perhaps that is the price of our new freedoms.
It’s also true that by breaking the silence we’ve thrown ourselves into a state of confusion. The old taboos formed part of society’s structure. Without them, that structure has undeniably weakened. We are faced with shoring up the weakened parts, inventing new ways of being together that have pattern and order–for we cannot live without some pattern and order–but aren’t so restrictive. Without sexual taboos, for instance, what are the social boundaries between men and women? When are they breached? What is offensive? Nobody’s sure. Everybody’s making mistakes. This is so excruciating that many are nostalgic for some of the old taboos. But once a taboo is broken, then for good or ill it’s very hard, perhaps impossible, to reinstate it.
But there is another, subtler confusion: yes, enormous taboos have fallen, but many taboos, equally important, remain. And, both as individuals and as a society, we’re strained enough, confused enough, by the results of doing away with so many taboos in so short a time that maybe we’re not terribly eager for our remaining taboos to fall. We may sincerely desire that, but maybe we’re tired, fed up, scared. Many people would rather our taboos remain intact for a couple of generations while we get our act together again, and perhaps they have a point. But the price of taboo remains what it’s always been: silence and constriction.
What do we see, when we pass each other on the street, but many faces molded by the price paid for keeping the silences of the taboos that remain–spirits confined within their own, and their society’s, silences? Even this brief essay on our public and intimate strictures is enough to demonstrate that we are still a primitive race, bounded by fear and prejudice, with taboos looming in every direction–no matter how much we like to brag and/or bitch that modern life is liberating us from all the old boundaries. The word taboo still says much more about us than most prefer to admit.
What is the keeper of your silence? The answer to that question is your own guide to your personal taboos. How must you confine yourself in order to get through your day at the job, or to be acceptable in your social circle? The answer to that is your map of your society’s taboos. What makes you most afraid to speak? What desire, what word, what possibility, freezes and fevers you at the same time, making any sincere communication out of the question? What makes you vanish into your secret? That’s your taboo, baby. You’re still in the room, maybe even still smiling, still talking, but not really–what’s really happened is that you’ve vanished down some hole in yourself, and you’ll stay there until you’re sure the threat to your taboo is gone and it’s safe to come out again. If, that is, you’ve ever come out in the first place. Some never have.
What utterance, what hint, what insinuation, can quiet a room of family or friends? What makes people change the subject? What makes those at,a dinner party dismiss a remark as though it wasn’t said, or dismiss a person as though he or she wasn’t really there? We’ve all seen conversations suddenly go dead, and just as suddenly divert around a particular person or subject, leaving them behind in the dead space, because something has been said or implied that skirts a silently shared taboo. If that happens to you often, don’t kid yourself that you’re living in a “free” society. Because you’re only as free as your freedom from taboos–not on some grand abstract level, but in your day-to-day life.
It is probably inherent in the human condition that there are no “last” taboos. Or perhaps it just feels that way because we have such a long way to go. But–at least we can know where to look: right in front of our eyes, in the recesses of our speechlessness, in the depths of our silences. And there is nothing for it but to confront the keepers of our silence. Either that, or to submit to being lost, as most of us silently are, without admitting it to each other or to ourselves–lost in a maze of taboos.
RELATED ARTICLE: IN SEARCH OF THE LAST TABOO
There is no “last taboo,” according to Michael Ventura. But there certainly are a lot of contenders, scattered like clues in a treasure hunt for the heart of our culture. Here, an assortment of last taboos “discovered” by the media in the past few years.
“What a great story: Incest. The last taboo!” –Esquire. on Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss.
“`The very word is a room emptier,’ Tina Brown wrote in her editor’s note when, in 1991, Gail Sheehy broke the silence with a story in Vanity Fair….Menopause may be the last taboo.”–Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
“The last taboo for women is not, as Gail Sheehy would have it, menopause, but facial hair.”–New York Times
“At a time when this is the last taboo, Moreton depicts erections.” –Sunday Telegraph, describing sculptor Nicholas Moreton’s work.
“Virtually no representations of faith are seen on television, it s the last taboo.” –Columbus Dispatch
“Anything with sex with underage kids is the last taboo.”–Toronto Star
“The last taboo: an openly homosexual actor playing a heterosexual lead.” –Boston Globe
“With sexual mores gone the way Madonna, picking up the tab has become the last taboo for women.”–Philadelphia Inquirer
“Most Americans, if they think about class at all (it may be our last taboo subject), would surely describe themselves as middle class regardless of a petty detail like income.”–Los Angeles Times Syndicate
“The Last Taboo Is Age: Why Are We Afraid of It?”–headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer
“Smash the last taboo! [Timothy] Leary says he’s planning the first…interactive suicide.'”–Washington Post
“Money is the last taboo.”–Calgary Herald
“Menstruation may be the last taboo.”–Manchester Guardian Weekly
“The real last taboo is that of privacy and dignity.”–Montreal Gazette
“And then there’s bisexuality, the last taboo among lesbians.”–Los Angeles Times
“I think personal smells are one of the last taboos.”–The Observer
“Television’s last taboo, long after f-words and pumping bottoms became commonplace, was the full-frontal vomit. Now, even that last shred of inhibition has gone, and every drama…[has] a character heaving his guts all over the camera.”–The (London) Mail
“Tanning. The last taboo. If you’re tan, then your IQ must be lower than the SPF of the sunscreen you’d be using if you had any brains.”–Los Angeles Times
Michael Ventura’s latest novel is The Death of Frank Sinatra.
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