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The Taboo Cliché

by Jonah Goldberg

Numerous books promise to pull back the veil on “the last taboo.” Some are surprisingly dull-sounding, given the sales pitch. I’m sure the authors of The Last Taboo: A Survival Guide to Mental Health Care in Canada have nothing but helpful observations, but I doubt many 14-year-old boys are furtively hiding copies under their beds. The same goes for The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis. And if your kid is hiding his copy of The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, well, good luck with that.

It’s not just book authors. Writers of all stripes want to claim a little bravery on the cheap by tackling taboos. A 2008 article in the New York Times tells us that “many over 35 consider the last taboo in American life” to be — wait for it — “discussing salary openly with friends and colleagues.” A 2010 issue of the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management — don’t tell me you let your subscription lapse — suggests that acknowledging “management mistakes” is “seen as the last taboo of society.” One website hosts a fascinating discussion on “Opioids and back pain: the last taboo.”

It’s hard to imagine John Cleese doing a Fawlty Towers bit where instead of “Don’t mention the war!” he says “Don’t mention the relationship between opioids and back pain!” More to the point, it seems fairly obvious that not all of these worthy subjects can be the last taboo. But “Number 17 on the List of Taboos” doesn’t have the same sizzle.

Of course, most discussions of taboo in America are about subjects with a better claim to the title: incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, euthanasia, bestiality, and other conversation topics sure to get Grandma to drop her turkey leg at Thanksgiving. But the idea that even these subjects are taboo would be laughable save for the fact that they aren’t necessarily funny.

Recently the Washington Post ran an essay by Betsy Karasik, a “writer and former lawyer,” making an impassioned case for a more open and tolerant attitude toward student-teacher sex. While many were outraged by the leniency of a 30-day jail sentence for Montana high-school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold, who pled guilty to raping a 14-year-old girl who later committed suicide, Karasik found herself “troubled for the opposite reasons.” She wondered if the hysteria over a 30-day sentence was a sign of a society not mature enough to deal with the fact that sex between students and teachers is not such a big deal. “When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the sexual boundaries between teachers and students were much fuzzier. Throughout high school, college and law school, I knew students who had sexual relations with teachers.” Good times, good times.

Richard Dawkins, a high priest of atheism, recently offered a modest defense of “mild pedophilia” in an interview with the Times of London. When he was in school, one of his schoolmasters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.” The same sort of thing happened to his mates. “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” Dawkins is a bit like that “George the Boor” character in Four Weddings and a Funeral reminiscing about his days in boarding school. “I was at school with his brother Bufty. Tremendous bloke. He was head of my house. Buggered me senseless. Still, it taught me about life.”

Robin Thicke recently explained what he was thinking with one of his music videos. “We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women.” Soak in the courage, people. Nearly every day there is another preening, posturing, brave essay in some left-wing publication or journal calling for a serious effort to abolish unjust taboos. The Guardian recently ran an essay titled “Paedophilia: Bringing Dark Desires to Light” that argued that the desire to abuse children sexually is just another “sexual orientation.” Over at Big Think, a website so misnamed it should invite a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit, putative big thinker Jacob Appel writes: “Prostitution, Polygamy, Incest and Bestiality. I would argue that all of them should be legal” (he never explains why they Should All Be Capitalized). Appel does allow for the fact that some forms of bestiality might amount to animal cruelty, warranting government regulation. But so long as a man takes his time romancing a sheep (“Ewe had me at hello”), what business is it of ours?

“People say they are concerned about the welfare of the individuals, but what they are really interested in doing is imposing their own social values, or their own religious values on other people. And that’s what really concerns me.”

The proper answer to this supposedly mind-blowing insight is, “Well, duh.”

“Imposing social values” is the clunky verb form of the noun “society.” It is what societies do. And that is what is so frustrating about all of this talk of “last taboos.” Ultimately a society is a taboo-generating institution. And while it’s absolutely true that some taboos are disappearing, we are also constantly generating new ones. What is political correctness if not the Taboo-Industrial Complex of the left?

The problem is that we don’t call the new forbidden topics “taboo” because we’ve convinced ourselves that the idea of a taboo is itself illegitimate (in much the same way, we never call the censorship we approve of “censorship”). In other words, we subscribe to an ironic fiction that taboos are taboo.

But the truth is that every society forbids or discourages consideration or discussion of some things. The only question is whether the new taboos are an improvement over the old ones. My hunch is that the sheep have the right answer.

– Mr. Goldberg is substituting for Mark Steyn.

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