Taboos

A taboo is a social standard a group has deemed an egregious breach of social contract.

Some things are always marked as “bad”, almost to the point that it’s a human universal:

  • Incest, especially with one’s mother.
  • Public indecency and certain sexual acts.
  • Murder.
  • Rape, assault, and almost anything else that’s forced and non-consensual.

On the other hand, many things have very gray areas to them that various groups have historically disagreed over:

  • Many behaviors with consensual minors.
  • Homosexual/LGBT+ behaviors.
  • Public punishments like flogging or hanging.
  • Private punishments like spanking a child or beating a spouse.
  • Certain foods.
  • Certain kinds of humor in certain contexts.
  • Certain things someone can say including swear words, offensive language, and name-calling.
  • Expressing certain ideas, sharing specific media, or publishing specific books.
  • Certain technologies, or specific application of them.
  • Unpopular trends or uncommon ideas.
  • Burning specific flags, especially if they symbolize a nation.

Taboos aren’t necessarily moral or matters of justice. They’re cultural things that might be moral, but are often breaking a rule everyone in that group is honoring and usually wants to honor. They also don’t have to necessarily cause harm, either.

Group leaders tend to enforce punishment against taboos more than other rules. They usually call it by various names, depending on the group (e.g., treason, heresy, noncompliance, defiance).

Some immoral things aren’t taboo:

  • A legal loophole or technicality that honors the letter of the law while violating someone’s rights.
  • Many types of verbal or psychological abuse.
  • Harsh and unloving behavior.

Across the lens of history, many things have been declared taboo. Often, taboos have directed fear and anger toward someone specific who identifies with aspects of that taboo. Usually, taboos have religious overtones, but can sometimes be political as well.

The power of taboos comes from individuals’ natural trust in the social structure. Often, stories surround that taboo which imply it’s too dangerous to even consider a decision that may include it.

Not all taboos are bad. Many times, they’re extreme applications of justice to keep everyone staying safe without the risks of members questioning why they comply with it. But, many times leaders only use taboos for power.

Shame

By their design, taboos direct shame onto people.

Guilt is the feeling of having done something wrong, but shame is the feeling that something was so wrong that exoneration requires far more than merely eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Shame often comes through conflicts about a taboo, but anyone can distort someone else’s image to imply they should be ashamed.

If someone is shamed hard enough, they can become the taboo themselves. Often, most leaders use this to destroy others’ power or exile them from the group. Many of them create rules around this, to tremendous personal gain. In a free society with elections, the leaders do it to the opposition party.

The implication of any taboo is that the shameful tasks are relatively easy to violate but can disproportionately harm others. However, its risk to others is purely a practical and cultural basis:

  • Wearing pants before going out in public is an easy habit to establish, but that’s presuming someone didn’t come from a tropical society where pants don’t exist.
  • Smoking cigarettes in public is unpopular in societies that have adopted the stance that refined tobacco has many carcinogenic substances, but it presumes everyone believes cigarettes are bad to even be near because of it.
  • Most people expect behavior that isn’t awkward because they expect it’s easy to do, but it’s not easy for many STEM workers.

At the same time, a failing that isn’t easy in the first place is never subject to shame, mostly because it’s more interpreted as “needing to be done”:

  • Building a tower of cow feces may be disgusting, but is often regarded as modern art as much as offensive.
  • Emptying a hoarder’s home of their possessions may be a violation of privacy, but not severely regarded as shameful because it took lots of work.
  • Getting 30th place in a 26-mile marathon is never something to be ashamed about, unless that person clearly could have done better.

The “nerds/geeks” of society don’t really think about shame. This makes them typically both the innovators and laggards of many trends.

Risks

Taboos have frequent risks.

Firstly, taboos will make people identify against their own thoughts. They may believe something, but they have to keep it secret from everyone else. The shame will usually shut down any further discussion and will feed their shadow self, which often leads to hypocrisy.

Also, the very essence of believing a taboo without understanding why is the exact opposite of open-minded. It shuts down or stifles most creative endeavors, including social risks that could have tremendously benefited others.

Many times, the rules that maintain social order can backfire and create pockets of awkward scenarios in society:

  • People are awkwardly forced to tip servers (the IRS even presumes it), but tipping is tied to the performance of the preparer and usually only the appearance of the server. Nobody wants to be seen as rude, though, so the practice continues.
  • Many panhandlers make a living looking miserable, but most people don’t want the inevitable conflicts from forcing them to work, giving them a pep talk, or forcibly evicting them. This makes passersby more calloused and harsh to legitimately needy people.
  • National citizenship processes are complicated, but the foreigners affected by it can’t vote to make it easier, and most citizens don’t often empathize with the foreigners. The same applies to individuals who have been incarcerated.
  • Some ethnic cultures promote laziness through their leadership’s endorsement of the lifestyle. Influential people inside that community will use that ethnic difference to declare outsiders who address their issues, irrespective of intent or race, as racist.

The reason these awkward arrangements stay around for so long is from two fronts:

  • The only people that can do anything about it are leaders, but individuals must deal directly with the consequences. While leaders are supposed to confront those conflicts from their position of strength, the members’ need to survive means they must avoid receiving shame for the conflict.
  • Often, the leaders are forced to do nothing from the blow to their reputation from making changes. Many social issues could be resolved with a simple decision by a leader who didn’t care about their reputation, but most of them are afraid of the consequences from public opinion. Cycling the leaders often doesn’t fix it either, since someone will have to look bad somewhere, and nobody wants to be the hated one.
  • The result is usually constricting laws that create a social hedge around the taboo but never fix anything about it.

Breaking

Exploring taboos has many benefits:

Some people try to break taboos merely because they’re there. Most of them are doing it to provoke socially adverse reactions (Oppositional Defiance Disorder, or ODD). This is in direct opposition to pursuing the good life. Many leaders will try to make an example of these people and imply all the taboo-breakers have the same motivation, but the motivations of everyone else in that position is more varied.

Hacking

Skillful creators and leaders are keenly aware of taboos, but use them to their advantage. Many of them become entrepreneurs and inventors.

Typically, they will add more room for failure by becoming more sophisticated. By habitually using appropriate language, expert image managers can rearrange their story to imply better motivations than the culture’s prejudice of a taboo-breaker. This isn’t 100% reliable, but the public can often give more grace than otherwise.

Generally, the most interesting people aren’t afraid to explore taboos. Most of them are closely in touch with their soul. This doesn’t always mean they’re good people, but they’re always the best people to learn from.


Application

Since group members can feel very strong reactions to taboos, some leaders can skillfully exploit it by implying that someone they want to remove from the group is violating that taboo.

Breaking taboos is risky, but can be rewarding if you know what you’re doing with how you appear. Just brace yourself for public shame if the public image of what you’re doing gets out of control.

To live in society, everyone needs at least a little sophistication. It’s necessary for others to trust that we’re doing things for better reasons than their prejudices may imply. But, we only need it to the degree we get near any social thresholds of “acceptable behavior”.