“At the great religious metropolis of Hierapolis on the Euphrates pigs were neither sacrificed nor eaten, and if a man touched a pig he was unclean for the rest of the day. Some people said this was because the pigs were unclean; others said it was because the pigs were sacred. This difference of opinion points to a hazy state of religious thought in which the ideas of sanctity and uncleanness are not yet sharply distinguished, both being blent in a sort of vaporous solution to which we give the name of taboo.”
– Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
Frazer posits that the source of pig being forbidden in the Middle East in ancient times was due to its sanctity, via the worship of Attis and Adonis, rather than its uncleanliness. Throughout The Golden Bough Frazer brings numerous examples of how an animal, or object, or place went from being sacred to being profane due to its taboo status.
Whether you accept the thesis of the pig, this idea is found elsewhere. From one generation to the next, once something became forbidden, the reason for its being forbidden got lost.
I grew up with a story about a woman who wanted to get the recipe for her mother-in-law’s pot roast. One thing that puzzled her about the instructions was where that she was told that she needed to cut off the ends of the pot roast, or else it wouldn’t be kosher. When she found the source of this custom, she discovered that the pan, in which the originator of the recipe used to roast her pot-roast, was too small. But because her mother-in-law hadn’t asked why, she thought it was a necessity.
I was taught this story as an example of the importance of questioning things that don’t make sense to you. When people avoid something, and it becomes taboo, the reason they avoid it gets lost, because they don’t transfer that knowledge.
I’m concerned about how it’s no longer acceptable to discuss things that make people uncomfortable. I’m afraid that if we cannot talk about these things, we are giving up our power to work through them and find real solutions. Whether it’s religion, race, or body image, it’s toxic to make discussion itself taboo. If we cannot talk about something, it means that we will lose the very reason why the issue is important.
Case in point, how many people who were so adamantly supporting the confederate flag knew that its popularity rose in the 50s and 60s in direct reaction to integration?
When we don’t talk about things, their knowledge gets lost.