In the United States, there are many things that have been taboo throughout our country’s history. Today, saying that something is retarded is taboo, a positive development to reduce the stigma around cognitive disabilities by preventing people from using the word as an insult. However, in our not too distant past interracial marriages were taboo. Black men could be jailed and worse for entering into a consenting relationship with a white woman. Maintaining social order with taboos can push us in positive directions, but it can also push us in very negative directions. Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature,
“The mentality of taboo, like the mentality of morality of which it is part, also can pull in either direction. It can turn religious or sexual nonconformity into an outrage that calls for ghastly punishment, but it can also prevent the mind from sliding into dangerous territory such as wars of conquest, the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, dehumanizing racial stereotypes, casual allusions to rape, and the taking of identifiable human lives.”
It is hard, even in a world where our digital footprint leaves a trail of everything we do, to police everyone all the time. It is hard to create rules that everyone can follow and obey to help society reach desired outcomes. Taboos are not set in stone and can’t be controlled the way laws can, but they generally do a better job of shaping behavior and desired outcomes than our laws. They don’t require constant policing, but instead rely on feedback that individuals receive when they step close to a taboo or cross the line.
The problem is that taboos can arise and disappear without us fully understanding where they came from and why they disappeared. A law is clearly visible and its destruction or elimination marks a clear turning point. Taboos are harder to control and shape. This is an important thing for us to think about and consider as we engage in society. Do we want to accept politicians who make fun of people with disabilities, even if they are our preferred candidate, or do we want to “cancel” them because they have violated a taboo? Do we want to allow violence in some cases but not others, or do we want to enforce an all-out taboo against violence? These are real questions we face today. Framing them in terms of absolute taboos may or may not be appropriate, but it does change the parameters of the debates and decisions. Taboos have great potential, but also great danger.