Archive for the ‘Defining Taboo’ Category

Definition: “A ban or inhibition resulting from social custom or emotional aversion; an object, a word, or an act protected by such a prohibition.”1

Breakdown: What is intriguing about this definition of taboo is its use of the term “emotional aversion.” Aversion, in its simplest form, implies disgust. Emotions are universal on a general level, and yet completely subjective on an individual level. What one may find disgusting is not what another may find disgusting. Thus, emotional aversion places taboo into a subjective, individual, specific sort of ban. More than society placing chains around certain actions—a person places their own chains about actions that they dislike. Here, taboo becomes individualized and arbitrary, and for that taboo may not be bad so much as it is hated. But what is hated is not always bad. The second definition views taboo more as a means of protection, similar to it being too dangerous for society. But once again we run into this problem: one vs. all. What happens when society doesn’t want protection?

1 The Free Dictionary, “taboo,” accessed May 01, 2013,

Origin: Polynesian cultures in the South Pacific. The word taboo comes from the Tongan tabu. It was introduced into the English language later than 1771 by Captain James Cook.

Definition: According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, taboo can be defined as “the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred and consecrated or too dangerous and accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake.”1

Breakdown: From this definition come numerous ideas. Here, it is clear that taboo has its roots in avoidance. However, by basing this avoidance in “belief” we lose the chance for universality. No person or culture believes the same things. For this very reason we find the fluidity in what is and isn’t taboo. What is “too sacred or consecrated” only coincides with religion, whereas what is “too dangerous” may apply to the secular or scared world. But what is an ordinary individual? Perhaps those whom are not mortals—gods? Or rather those thought of as having higher values than ordinary individuals: royalty, priests, celebrities? What Nietzsche called the Superman or Overman? This definition of taboo allows for the possibility of taboos not existing for a select group of people.

1 Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “taboo,” accessed May 01, 2013, EBchecked/topic/579821/taboo.

“I rebel, therefore I am,” says the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and philosopher Albert Camus. According to this idea, rebellion is essential to realizing our existence. Here existence is closely aligned not only with choice, but also with resistance.

As taboo concerns itself with the restriction of certain practices, rebellion, on the other hand, concerns itself with the dissection of these practices. But more than just the dissection of any restriction we find perhaps the examination of such restrictions. Rebellion at its center is the examination of limitations. In more than one way, the act of opposing separates us from the actor, the actor being one who behaves in a manner of disingenuousness. To act is to be dishonest, duplicitous. And the actor is constricted in their role, unable to rebel. The actor does exist and yet the character being acted out does not really exist in our limited definition of existence.

Yet it is from the rebel’s need for rebellion that we find humankind’s state of living— what will and will not be tolerated. Although an actor may not necessarily be a rebel, the action of acting re-emphasizes our ability to rebel. In life we should not be actors so much as rebels.

Every age becomes famous for what it leaves behind. In most cases what is remembered by history is change, whether that change is good or bad. Those who bring these changes are those called taboo-artists. Such artists are not just artists, nor are they just makers or breakers of taboos—rather they are 100% artist and also 100% taboo (maker or breaker). Although many people from a variety of fields can fall under this category, perhaps none is as important to the current state of Western Civilization as Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the ultimate taboo-artist: not just a breaker of taboos but also a master of creating new ones. How many laws did he break or rewrite? How many boundaries did he push? What was Christianity in Roman times if not taboo? Whether one believes in the message of Christ is not important here, because regardless of the validity of religious beliefs, we know that Jesus transformed the future into what we now see as the present.

Thomas H. Troeger echoes these ideas in his book Sermon Sparks: 122 Ideas to Ignite Your Preaching:

[…] A Syrophoenician woman helps Jesus himself overcome the powerful taboos that separate Jews and Gentiles, men and women, in order to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30). If Jesus had not broken the taboo, he would not have been able to respond to the woman and restore her child. There are taboos that need to be broken and taboos that need to be kept. A world without taboos would be a world without any moral values. Jesus challenges taboos that oppress and exclude people, but he also establishes other taboos. […] Jesus has a taboo against the world’s usual hierarchies of power […].[1]

Just as Jesus has a taboo against universal issues, other taboo-artists will attack the issues at a more particular level, for instance in music, art, fashion, etc.

Jesus Christ was and is the ultimate taboo breaker and maker, and thus the ultimate taboo-artist.  However, more than destroying minor social taboos, Jesus stripped an entire religion (Christianity) of its taboo status and left other religions in its place. But how could Greeks and Romans predict Zeus/Jupiter’s fall into prohibition? In truth, only the artist can predict such desired outcomes, although the outcome might have no desire to act in the expected manner. Like any artist, the taboo-artist can be unsuccessful in his or her artistry.

Over the next couple of months I intend to look further into individuals we can classify as taboo-artists. These are more than the artists who make the solid foundations of taboo shake; they make them crumble.

[1] Thomas H. Troeger. Sermon Sparks: 122 Ideas to Ignite Your Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011).

Synonyms For Taboo

Posted: December 5, 2012 in Defining Taboo

The worst word in any language is taboo; and the best word in any language is taboo. The synonyms of taboo have filled eyes with tears, turned hands into weapons, made feet march, tongues curse, crowded hell and heaven. The past hugs taboo as if a circle of one. Yet the present scolds taboo. Time transforms taboo, makes it slough off its old tattered skin. Below is a list of so-called good and bad synonyms for taboo:

Good synonyms: revolution, evolution, changed, revised, new.

Bad synonyms: rebellion, restriction, sin, bizarre, ugly, wrong, illegal, rude, impolite, unacceptable, forbidden, banned, prohibition, different, changed, hated, broken, old, new.

History shows us that a synonym can become its antonym.

Those who blush will never break taboos. And neither will those whose heads lower at the thought of shame. But those who don’t go red in the face from wearing what nobody else would wear will knock taboos over as if they were made of crumbling substances. And rebels will break things, too, and criminals as well, even if they aren’t criminals at all but rather just the changers, the innovators, the first walkers on untrodden ground. Although the laughers will not break taboos, those who are laughed at might have already broken many of them.

Lovers similarly have a tendency to leap over restrictions, love even more so. Remember love doesn’t just choose us; it strangles right and wrong out of us instead of air, it cripples our minds, making us do what others say not to. Love whispers sweet defiance into our ears, tells us to be the next Romeo and Juliet, to be the next Adam and Eve. Love may even make you forget that some loves are forbidden.

But believers will pray for a host of unbroken things. Conformists will ask for conformity, unaware that the established practices today were once unestablished. Yet the future won’t believe in anything, won’t conform to anything other than change. Yes, the future will wear change for clothes; it will push                                                                                   boundaries
Somewhere they have never been pushed before so that even the past may be revised until it is a past nobody can forget.

Artists will help transform this. Many will erase structures and paint other structures in its place. And the new becomes old, waiting to copulate with another new, which will again become old after it births another new. And at some point, all taboo breakers will no longer be breakers but rather makers of what we consider common.

Taboo: Nature Or Nurture?

Posted: October 30, 2012 in Defining Taboo
Tags: , ,

For centuries the subject of nature vs. nurture has been debated amongst humankind. Are individuals created by society, so that they may become what their surroundings make them, or are individuals meant to be what they are through their genetic nature?

Although this isn’t the right setting to add to this debate, I do wonder about this idea in regards to taboo. It would seem that taboos are socially created, made only by the process of interacting with others and what a community has structured around their lives. If only one person existed would their still be taboos?

In many ways, taboos need a viewer to exist. Without a viewer as well as a doer the act of taboo lessens to almost he point of non-existence. Yes, a person could have certain taboos that could function as taboos even if they were by themselves; however, many taboos are controlled by shame. The shame of letting down the community, harming the community, doing other than the community wants, helps to perpetuate taboos.

For instance, if killing animals for food were taboo, then it seems likely that one would be more likely to kill an animal for food if they were alone and knew no others would find out. Whereas a community setting would lower the chance of a person breaking a taboo, any taboo will eventually be broken.

Although laws stop many from breaking laws, still laws are broken despite the consequences. Always, taboos (and laws) will collapse. If records are meant to be broken, then so are taboos, even though the very nature of taboo exists to not be broken.

Overall, we are nurtured into taboos. And yet the fact that all societies have taboos raises the question if taboos are somehow ingrained into our very nature.