Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Taboos and other subjects to piss people off: Introduction

As I have been promising for a few months now, here is the series:

Taboos and other subjects to piss people off

Taboo: "A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society. The term comes from the Tongan word tabu, meaning set apart or forbidden, and appears in many Polynesian cultures. [...] It is sometimes used by a parent to a child, when in the exercise of parental authority forbids the child to perform a particular action. [...] Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. On the other hand taboos result in embarrassment, shame, and rudeness." (cheers wiki) 

Taboos serve a function for people. There are some themes that cause people disgust or make them feel in danger, themes like cannibalism, death and incest. To avoid those negative feelings people avoid talking or even thinking about them. This becomes an unconscious mechanism, whereby people are only aware of those things that cause them disgust or feelings of danger when they face the themes. As this is unconscious, we are not always aware of why we feel so bad about the issues. They are simply an attack from outside onto our inner security.

The taboo subjects I've just mentioned are fairly universal and get passed down through generations. This means that not only are they issues which may cause us disgust or fear, we will also become aware that these are subjects that other people don't like; thus the taboo becomes stronger. As children we learn what areas we should avoid. Sometimes these areas are dealt with, but indirectly. Fairy stories sometimes deal with pretty difficult themes: The
story of the Little Red Riding Hood may for example be seen as an attempt to deal with issues like menstruation and the losing of virginity. René Girard has written well of how the taboo of violence (and ritualistic violence) is within many myths, including Christian stories. One needs trained eyes in order to see the real subjects behind the tabooed subjects.

The thing is, some of these taboo subjects can impinge upon our identity. Let's take the taboo of incest. If someone from the "we-group" (someone with whom we share one of our identities, such as me as family members, me as a member of a nation, me as my sex) has committed an act of incest in the past, the raising of that act may be seen as an attack on myself. Unconsciously, I may feel that part of myself is being labelled as someone who has done the act of incest. As Charlie Campbell has written, we have an inflated opinion of ourselves and therefore any attack on that overtly positive view of ourselves is perceived as an attack on ourselves. As our view of ourselves is influenced by the identities we have, the possibility of any one of those identities being flawed (we ourselves have not done the act of incest, but our identity is linked with that of other people) results in hostility.  At a societal level, unwritten rules will exist to stop people talking about such threats.

As I said, taboos exist in order for people to avoid feelings of disgust or danger. When any criticism about any crime comes up, we often find scapegoats, those to project the "badness" onto, those who are either those who attack our feeling of self-worth, or a convenient outsider groups.

One of the biggest taboo-breaking that we have seen was that in West Germany during the 1960's. Young people began to stand up against their parents' generation for the crimes of the Nazis. This was the time when West German people began to take responsibility for their past, and it largely happened through young people standing up, in part against their own families. While it has been shown that economic, demographical and cultural changes helped this process along, the breaking of the Nazi taboo (which means, after all, the realisation that it was not, to quote Marcuse, some remote bunch of eskimos who descended upon Germany in 1933 and left in 1945 who were did the crimes, rather it was a wide section of society, i.e. people from their families that participated with the Nazis, at the least within the German army), helped by things like the publishing of Anne Frank's diaries in 1959 and the Eichmann trial in 1961 did result from a generation of people who wished to challenge crimes, a generation which is still active in Germany as teachers and in various non-governmental institutions, and sometimes within the government.

This meant the raising of a taboo against people within the "we-group", and therefore an attack on ones own identity. Ones own nationality-group were challenged, and also ones own family-group. That's not an easy thing to do. We tend to love our own families. It creates a cognitive dissonance when we become aware that the people who did good things to us also did bad things to other people. Or, regarding incest and other forms of sexual abuse, that those who did good things to us also did bad things to us. Often people will seek a quiet life and try not to think about these things.

Breaking a taboo however can be creative.  The telling of the truth can be liberating for both the teller and even the listener.  It can involve dealing positively with the cognitive dissonances in our personalities and societies.

However, it's when people come along and say: "Your generation did the Shoah!", "My aunty sexually abused me!", "My teacher hit me!" when people get pissed off. The "we-group" and therefore the self is attacked, and therefore defense mechanisms take place like an attempt to silence the issue or by attacking those who bring up the issue.

It makes it easier, I believe, when one has already decided that one is happy to attack the "we-group". People can be angry with members of their family or other key people of their childhoods, and this openness to attacking the "we-group" can lead to things like focusing on national or religious issues, and certainly in attacking the "not-we group". Sometimes this can become black and white, where the group being attacked becomes the bad people, and we become the good. That one can be a victim for a period of time becomes the case that one is seen to always be a victim. The breaking of taboos can sometimes lead one to demonise either the "we-group" (all Germans are bad, says a German) or the "not-we group" ("all men are bastards", says a young woman).

That's when another taboo comes into place: The taboo that those who break the taboos are not perfect people and some of them can, having not underwent a proper process of healing, be capable of doing bad acts as well, including having hateful views and doing hateful acts.  An example would be men who have been mistreated by their wives may also be sexist, or women who were dominated by their fathers may be against men talking about violence by women against men.

Or we can have the case whereby people can make outright racist statements (such as Thilo Sarrazin) and consider it to be "taboo-breaking", or can talk about a taboo to talk about the perceived or exaggerated crimes of people with less power in our societies.

It's a complicated, pissing off business, eh?

The person who wishes to work towards more peace and happiness in the world (and I think that this means most people) will not achieve that peace and happiness without challenging those taboos, including ones own.  It's a search for truth.  It means pissing other people off, and occasionally, oneself.

Hence this series.  I shall be looking at the following themes:

Great Britain and how people from Britain deal with difficult areas of British history (the slave trade, mass murder in Ireland,  the bombing of Dresden)

Power and hierarchy in Poland and what this means for women, men and minorities
Anti-semitism within the left-wing and peace movements

Guy Fawkes' Day and state violence

Women who do bad things

Turkey and its Jewish history

Plus some other stuff that comes to mind (I have a semblance of an idea about sexism by certain men against young political women). 

Next year I shall start writing these articles, so keep in touch, either by writing your name into the RSS Feed on the top right corner, or by "liking" this page on Facebook.
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