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April 07, 2003

Taboos, skews, and contradictions

Once again, I let loose with an unintended essay at The subject, I guess, was the moral degradation of society. It took place in a thread about the War on Drugs, when someone there said this:

A friend of mine was telling me that a 13 year old girl in his sons class was pregnant. 8th friggen grade. Not saying it never happened years ago but it seems all too common now. Something has changed. The ages of girls getting pregnant is younger and younger.

I replied:

I think that's partly because the change in society on the personal level has outpaced the changes in society on the structural level. We still have all sorts of taboos, both official and unofficial, which prevent open discussion and education, and even activity. We make big issues where there aren't any, and we have all sorts of contradictions, and we're still hanging on to shame and stigma and force as a way to shape the behavior of our peers, and it skews things.

That, and too much reliance on schools to raise kids (which is really just one part of the above).

and he replied:

I agree and partially disagree with this:

I think that's partly because the change in society on the personal level has outpaced the changes in society on the structural level. We still have all sorts of taboos, both official and unofficial, which prevent open discussion and education, and even activity.

Let me preface this by saying that I agree it all comes down to the parents and your assertions that some parents rely too much on the schools raising their kids is right on. But as far as taboos or stigmas and education I think it's the exact reverse. In education sex ed is taught at younger and younger ages. We teach it, we tell the kids, don't have sex, but here's some trojans for you. I think the taboos have been removed through that and media.

How so, please explain how those taboos and stigmas on sex are still here today ? What's left ?

There's more to his post, but that's the part I responded to. My reponse is pretty lengthy, and it's quite rough. I've fixed it a bit since I posted it there. I will probably polish it up more some day, but it will be a while if I do. So I'm posting it now, with the disclaimer that it's written very casually, and represents a rough draft at best. I think it might be worth reading as is though.

And the real disclaimer is that this message deals with taboos and "forbidden" topics. There are a number of harsh swears in it -- particularly in the section about swear words. ;-) That said, here you go:

But as far as taboos or stigmas and education I think it's the exact reverse. In education sex ed is taught at younger and younger ages. We teach it, we tell the kids, don't have sex, but here's some trojans for you. I think the taboos have been removed through that and media.

I was probably raised on the cusp of this de-taboozation to which you refer -- at least the modern version. When I was in first (and second, and third, and fourth) grade, I learned sex-ed through a program called (I kid you not) L.A.M.O. (pronounced "lammo", not "lame-o" they got that past us, I don't know). "Learning About Myself and Others". Right around that time, MTV came into being, and shortly thereafter, Madonna. That was the context of my life as a child and a pre-teen.

Sounds pretty racy and touchy-feely liberal and sexually open and overt, and on many levels it was. However, I can list a dozen related taboos and stigmas and contradictions that thrived during that time, either in my "society" (peers), or in the greater society. Most of them (the stigmas and taboos) are still out there, and thriving pretty well.

masturbation -- It's slowly losing its shame and stigma for adults, but unless school has turned into bizarro world since 1990, it's still rife with that baggage for kids, re: their peers, re: adults and parents, and re: themselves. It's probably one of the most enjoyable activities that most kids engage in, and still loaded with shame, stigma, and fear.

teen pregnancy -- One time a spiteful friend started a rumor that one of my sisters was pregnant, in high school. It was emotionally devastating -- just the rumor was. It was a giant scandal (and shame and stigma for her) until it was debunked. To say nothing of the shame and rejection facing girls who actually are pregnant.

"slut" -- A scarlet letter of sorts for teen girls and women; inapplicable to men.

open discussion about sexual organs or "private parts" -- I learned when I was a little kid what my penis was, but even now over 20 years later, saying "my penis" even on this message board carries some shame and 'tee-hee' baggage. My arm, my leg, my lungs, my head -- all no problem. 90+% of my body parts are just fine to talk about. The others still carry long-standing baggage as being private - embarrassing, secret, even dirty. (What are "dirty pictures" pictures of?)

homosexuality -- When I was in school, "fag" was the most popular put-down by a long shot. It was seldom a real accusation, it was just as I said, a put-down. "Fag" = lame. "Fag" = weak. "Fag" = bad, jerk, asshole, uncool. And for the few folks who were actually suspected of being gay, it was whispers and jeers and shunning, and probably more aggressive stuff that I didn't see. Most kids who were gay in my school probably wisely kept their mouth shut and their feelings inside. On the adult side, gay people in the military have to keep their mouths shut and adapt their behavior by law -- not to mention sodomy laws, and all the legal barricades keeping gay partners from being recognized by the law. Our society is beginning to cope with homosexuality, but it's got a long way to go. And much (most?) of the change that has yet to come about in that arena is institutional as opposed to personal. The blockades are imposed more from on high than from individuals. Society will never be able to fully accept gays while the laws relegate them to second-class citizen status. In a very real way, society is forbidden from settling this issue on a person-to-person level. (The parallels to our treatment of blacks and women are very strong.) On the most basic analysis level -- gay people still have to walk around with a justifiable fear that they could get the shit beat out of them for being gay. Gay cop? Bam! Gay high school football player? Bam! Gay couple? Bam!

nudity -- The idea that a supposedly highly-developed society still has insecurities about the nude body at all is quizzical and amusing to me. Bouncing blurry dots on the TV is a great example of the whole thing I'm talking the institutional structure is having a skew effect on society. Laws and TV norms have decided that a 1 to 2-inch area of reddened or darkened skin on the top half of a woman is something that people (I suppose, "the children") should not see. We can see the nipples of every other living thing on earth...but not the nipples that we would all probably most want to see (compared to those of other things on earth). Do nipples offend men? Do they offend women? Should they offend children, and if so, why? Is it really healthier to have girls gone wild bouncing their boobies behind computer-generated stars and sales pitches? Another example: Topless men -- fine. Topless women? Taboo. Why? It's not due to logic, it's due to mad-old traditions -- the same type of traditions that have Arab women covering up all but their faces, and often their faces too. 'Cause they don't want men thinking those thoughts about them. And it's codified in law -- there, and here as well, just to a lesser degree. And thongs and bikinis and speedos and the word "boobies" and a zillion other things which tiptoe around the issue are OK, but unless it's babies or little kids in the bathtub, nudity is still taboo.

swear words -- It's one thing for society to develop standards (which are organic, and created through the back-and-forth of everyone's individual standards and preferences, and which are enforced by freedom of association and social pressure) about what is inappropriate to say, or rude, or offensive, or dirty or's quite another thing for the government and extra-governmental institutions to write up a list of "obscene" and/or "profane" words or subject matter, and enforce them through law. It produces the skew I mentioned originally, and creates a suspended reality in our culture. Beeping out the word "fuck" or "shit" on a TV show or movie doesn't fool anyone -- not kids, not anyone. It doesn't hide the word or prevent its use or produce any sort of notable palliative effect on our culture. The words "fuck" and "shit" are out of the bag...any 7-year-old who hasn't lived in a cave knows them, and probably "motherfucker", "cocksucker", "son of a bitch", "pussy", "dick" and a host of others. It only takes one parent in the village to let a word like those out of the bag, and kids are very good about passing around newfound "off-limits" knowledge -- at least in terms of coverage. Accuracy, context, and meaning don't usually don't get passed around with them, though, precisely because of the off-limits thing. One of the results of that mentality -- which is handed down to kids from's not of their making -- is that words like "motherfucker" (a truly perverse curse) and "cocksucker" (an overtly homo-based slam, like "fag") are still widely used. They can't be banished like "darkie" and "coon" were, because they've been hidden behind the curtain. Beeped, muddled, muted, ignored. The word "fuck" itself has some pretty wack origins -- variously, to beat, to screw (literally), to stab, etc. Almost all the etymological roots of the word "fuck" are violent in nature. But can we explain that to our kids? We could -- but the country's structure is such that for most people, language is taught in school, and most of that in public school. And in public school, an open discussion about the word "fuck" does not fly. (I can just imagine the wave of firings and resignations and lawsuits that would come from that.) Ditto for on TV, and in most of society's institutions. It's kept behind the beep half the time (the institutional level), while being largely accepted usage the other half of the time (the person-to-person level). And the whole time, it's never just dealt with like a normal fucking word. If it was, I bet it would get faded out of our culture voluntarily over time, as its origins and vulgarity were discussed more openly. Instead, under the off-limits/"beep" effect, the usage of it spreads widely. It sorta gets back to the mentality [another poster] expressed by saying that the drug laws are a way of saying drug use is wrong. Saying motherfucker and cocksucker is declared wrong -- it's been branded into society as that institutionally -- literally branded ("R", "MA", "L", "AS", etc.). So society takes a break on actually dealing with the words and their usage. Not entirely, but largely. And they (the words) hang around in a skewed limbo state -- institutionally labeled "wrong", but used on the individual level plenty. (The similarity to illegal drug use is not coincidental.)

I could go on about this for a long time. I was going to do a dozen, but I can't do the in-depth thing with that many due to time. Prostitution, stripping, drug use, porn, condoms, abortion, premarital sex, BDSM, sex toys -- each of those issues is tangled in layers of institutional netting and taboo, and in each case the result is a reduction in the ability of non-coercive society to effectively deal with the situations tied to those issues. There are literally a zillion different skewing influences applied on society from above.

Here's three specific examples of the institutional screwing with the personal in a bad way:

--Sex education: Parents and other citizens, many of whom disapprove of sex education, condom distribution and the like, and who believe abstinence is the birth control method of choice, are forced to pay, year after year, for thousands of kids to be given condoms (and taught how, why, and when to use them), etc. Forced to pay to promote and encourage something they find morally repugnant. The personal society is denied its ability to pursue its will in an organic fashion (through individual choice), by the institutional will of society, such as it is expressed through government.

--Parent-kid anti-drug ads: There are currently ads on TV that put pressure on parents to engage in a specific regimen of discipline and control with their kids -- insisting that they track their every move and bug the hell out of them, essentially. The ads use kids to tell the parents of America, "We will lie to you." Not "we might", but "we will". Taxpayers are paying to train parents to assume (or to "know") that their kids are lying to them about drugs. The modes of deceit, suspicion, and distrust are officially sanctioned as proper parenting. Kids who see the ad are reassured that all kids lie about drug use -- that "we will hide it, we will sneak around, we will try drugs". Cat-and-mouse is nationally publicized as the way our nation's parents should handle the drug problem vis a vis their kids. It's paid for by straight-edge working teens who've never lied or tried drugs, it's paid for by open and permissive parents who don't mind if their kids experiment a bit, it's paid for by millions of functioning alcoholics and millions of harmless pot smokers, and by tens of millions of people who tried drugs when they were young and did just fine with their lives.

--anti-pot ads: There are a series of ads on now, paid for by taxpayers, which all end with the line, "Marijuana -- it's more harmful than we all thought." That statement is false right on its face. All it takes is for there to be one person for whom marijuana is equal or less harmful than they thought. It's basically a statement that is by its very construction guaranteed to be false. You could put almost any noun in place of "marijuana" and that statement would be false too. And yet our government is telling us it, over and over again -- stating it as fact. And some people actually rely on what the government says for some sort of compass of truth or good behavior. The guidance behind those ads is, "Take however harmful you thought pot was, and ratchet it up an undisclosed amount. It is more harmful than you thought (no matter how harmful you thought it was)." Maybe that will calibrate a few people correctly, just by chance, but it's not logical, and it's not sound, and it's definitely not organic in the societal sense. What it is, is skewing from above.

Posted by Lance Brown at April 7, 2003 10:58 PM | TrackBack
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