Why we need to avoid taboos


“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 became 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 was that she was instructed to cut off the ends of the pot roast, or else it would not be kosher. The woman then asked her mother-in-law’s mother and discovered that the pan that she used to roast in was too small. But because her mother-in-law hadn’t asked why, she had thought that it was law.

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 so adamantly support the confederate flag, know that the flag as we know it today only came to popularity the 50s and 60s in direct reaction to integration?

When we don’t talk about things, their knowledge gets lost.