Opinion | Why We Need Taboos

They’re dangerous, but so is life without them.
By | Mar 14, 2019
2019 March-April, Opinion

Is breaking a taboo a good thing? The rapturous blurbs for a thousand late-night comics and convention-smashing modernist novels would lead you to believe so. Crashing through taboos is truth-telling. It’s authentic. It gets at the heart of things.

But building up taboos—setting certain kinds of talk off-limits—is also one of the most difficult, constructive things human beings do. It’s a key step in building a civil society. The decision to put some topics out of bounds, not to hash them out endlessly but simply to go nowhere near them, can be oppressive; it can also be enlightened and essential. That makes breaking established taboos dangerous, and never more so than now, in a time when anything once forbidden is being said somewhere online, and new rules about what’s speakable and unspeakable are made and broken every day.

Exhibit A in the school of taboo-breaking and of desperate taboo-shoring-up these days is anti-Semitism—not so much the use of outright slurs as the careless discussion of, say, Jewish “control” of the world, the media or money. Hence the panic and fury of the reaction when Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar tweets a comment about Jews and “Benjamins,” or, more preposterously, when DC councilmember Trayon White posts on Facebook that a freak snow flurry is evidence of “the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities.” The trouble is not that these things can’t be refuted; they can. But the need to refute them is so new and strange that it’s perceived as a shocking loss of ground. And besides, every time someone mentions the toxic or ridiculous statement, whether to refute it or simply to express horror that it was said, the taboo against saying it erodes just a bit more.

“Silence speaks volumes,” says Elizabeth Kleinrock, a Los Angeles teacher who gives a powerful TED talk on “how to teach kids to talk about taboo topics.” In her talk, she describes managing the uproar when her fourth-graders make “forbidden” statements that break rules about racial or sexual topics. The shame associated with those topics, she argues, is a powerful barrier to thinking about them clearly; if you want to get to common ground, it’s better to talk through them, carefully.

She’s right, of course. But her example shows how taboos not only forbid discussion; they also freeze consensus. On racism, we want certain taboos to function; we instill them in kids not just by explaining why racist talk is wrong, but by producing actual shame when it is used. That’s great, except when silence is protecting a consensus that, if talked about, might be vulnerable to renegotiation or logical challenge. Consider the centuries when no one discussed homosexuality or out-of-wedlock pregnancy: The pretense in polite society that these things didn’t exist was a way of making sure people’s views on them couldn’t be softened by new information. “You can’t talk about what you can’t name,” Kleinrock says. Once the taboo broke, it became possible for social views to evolve.

You can see newly empowered groups attempting to create taboos in real time for this very purpose, trying to freeze argument on still-contested topics such as transgender rights. Twitter recently blocked a poster who had tweeted, “How are trans women not men?” saying the tweet violated a policy against “misgendering.” (The blocked activist protested that she was simply trying to argue a point.)

Overusing taboo is dangerous. When arguments are silenced—as opposed to merely met with counter-arguments—views don’t evolve organically, but build up to a powerful backlash. Many of those defending Omar’s tweets accuse Jews of just such overuse; they say that people crying anti-Semitism are actually seeking to protect a far broader taboo, one against articulating the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestinian argument. And indeed, Omar’s language aside, many supporters of Israel in Congress would probably rather rely on the long-standing consensus that Israel is a steadfast ally and a bulwark of democracy than be forced to argue it over and over from scratch. The arrival of Muslim-American voices in Congress seems to have stoked fears that this consensus is fragile, that it will evaporate if discussion of it is not considered out of bounds.

But is this really so? When New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander took up the Palestinian rights question in a January op-ed, the headline read, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” as if a taboo were operating. But the piece itself noted that there’s really no such “silence”—that, indeed, “There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.” As Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi wrote in a derisive response—in Al Jazeera, of all places—the notion that there is “silence” on the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestinian argument works only within the confines of an American intellectual parochialism “that never ceases to amaze.” Arguments breaking this supposed taboo, Dabashi observes, can be read any day even in Haaretz; far from a silence, there is a “global uproar” on the topic. Dabashi is hardly a friend of Israel; he’s actually attacking Alexander for not going far enough. But he nicely pinpoints the danger of claiming taboos you don’t need, since it opens supporters of Israel to the quite untrue charge that they can’t defend themselves with arguments and facts.

It took the Holocaust to make casual anti-Jewish talk so toxic that polite society wouldn’t stand for it. Alas, eroding that sense of toxicity is much easier; internet memes can do it, or movies like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat that repeat “forbidden” tropes for the laugh. And most unfortunately, it’s also possible to invite backlash against strong, important taboos by clinging to weaker ones that are broader than necessary. We ignore the distinction at our peril.

Amy E. Schwartz is Moment‘s opinion editor. 

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