According to Wikipedia, the origin of the word “taboo” is found in either the Tongan or Fijian language. When James Cook visited Tonga in 1777, he wrote, “Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing… On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said, which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.”
Taboo has come to mean anything which is distasteful or unmentionable in society. Subjects considered taboo have varied drastically throughout history. In Victorian England, the legs of furniture and pianos were covered so that the sight of “naked” legs would not disturb the ladies. In India’s caste society, the lowest status a person can achieve is to belong to the ranks of Untouchables. These poor people are so taboo that they cannot even be touched by members of polite society. Are taboos an example of cultural fuddyduddyism? Or does the concept of taboo actually serve a purpose in society?
In America, subjects which have traditionally been taboo are increasingly celebrated. The use of mind-altering drugs is viewed as a viable medical treatment or a recreational alternative to boring old sobriety. President Obama has recently stated that he believes anal sex is a “fundamental freedom and universal human right”. Pornography is no longer a taboo subject but seen as a glamorous lifestyle and a valid career choice for enterprising young women. Pedophilia is no longer execrable sexual deviancy, but an illness in which the patient has no control over their sordid appetites and deserves our sympathy. They are no longer called pedophiles or pederasts, but MAPs (Minor-Attracted Persons) to diminish the stigma of those “born that way”. Americans who feel the urge to dress like the opposite sex or have their bodies cut to mimic the other gender receive special privileges, including the use of whichever bathroom they choose and “gender reassignment” surgeries which are now covered by many company-sponsored insurance plans. These subjects, once taboo in America, are now gracing covers of magazines and leading parades down Main Street.
Is anything in America considered taboo anymore? Surprisingly, yes. Speaking about your religious beliefs (read: Christian beliefs) in public is very much taboo. Expressing doubt about “settled” scientific theories such as androgenic global warming and macro-evolution are taboo. Monogamy and abstinence are viewed as unrealistic and unachievable. The concept of a nuclear family is denigrated as sexist and oppressive. Also deplorable is the desire to protect yourself and your family via firearm ownership and support for a strong military to protect our country from harm. These traditional beliefs are the object of scorn despite being held by mainstream America not long ago. Nearly everything which contributed to the formation of America is now taboo, while the debauched skeletons from the closet bask in the approval of the masses.
Anthropologically-speaking, a lot can be learned about a culture by studying what they considered taboo. Biblical skeptics are quick to scoff at the Mosaic Law contained in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and reiterated in the book of Deuteronomy. They bray at the statutes which forbid the use of clothing with mixed fibers and the prohibition of trimming the sides of one’s beard. They look at the surface of the statues, disregarding the meaning and purpose underneath the law and the greater significance for the Israelite nation. As our scientific understanding of this world increases, we are finding that many of these laws had practical purposes behind them. For instance, the strict laws surrounding what meat was acceptable and unacceptable for a Jew to consume was revolutionary. Today it is understood that pork frequently carries a parasitic roundworm which can infect the consumer unless it is carefully prepared, but during the time of Moses this knowledge belonged to God alone.
Beyond the practical purposes behind these laws, the primary reason the Mosaic Law defined certain things as acceptable and certain things as taboo was to distinguish the Israelite culture from the surrounding nations. God wanted His people to demonstrate their faithfulness to His will by adhering to His law. Many of the Israelites would have agreed with the scoffers of today who think that the Law seems arbitrary and silly. They flouted God’s commandments, reveling in the forbidden practices of the nations around them, and consequently forsook God’s blessing and protection.
Taboo does serve a purpose in a civilized society. It can punish socially-detrimental behavior. Until recently, the sexualization of children was rightly considered among the most taboo of all topics. The emotional and spiritual damage, to say nothing of the physical damage, done to children who are sexually abused has a detrimental effect on society because victims of abuse are more likely to perpetuate the pattern of abuse on other victims later in life. On the flipside, taboo also serves to encourage socially beneficial behavior. In cultures where adultery is verboten, marriage is taken more seriously and the family is stronger as a result.
Lastly, when the boundary between acceptable and unmentionable is clearly-defined, society rests on a more stable foundation. When society is stable, tyranny is a much harder sell. But when everyone draws the line in a different place—or erases all lines they see—society is fractured. This leads to disenfranchisement and resentment, which opens the door for those who prey on such things. There is a clear case to be made for adherence to taboo in a society. Far from being a puritanical purge on fun and recreation, it clearly defines what should be tolerated and what should be abhorred. When that definition is twisted or removed, we become unmoored and vulnerable to those dark influences which seek chinks in the armor of a healthy society.