In thinking about taboos recently, it occurred to me that while some of them are obvious (no peeing in public, for example), some of the cultural standards with the deepest impact are the ones which are hardest to see: those dealing with ideas. Here in the United States, we champion our freedom, and get into heated debates over the limits of freedom of speech. Usually, those arguments center around saying things which could be damaging in some way to another (libelous or slanderous), and occasionally we get caught up in whether or not it is wrong to be “disrespectful”. Rarely do we consider, however, that there are some ideas and beliefs which are completely socially unacceptable, to the extent that even sounding like you might be about to say them is cause for a full-blown attack from anyone in the vicinity.
Why are we so scared of ideas? Even if a statement made to us directly contradicts our experience to the extent that we find it preposterous, that is not justification for flying off the handle. Quite the opposite in fact; everyone benefits more if we stay calm and offer up our contradicting information. In contemplating what ideas might be so repressed as to be nearly impossible to utter in public, I came up with the following…but before I list them I would like to make clear that just because I can say them does not necessarily mean I believe them. If you try to argue the validity of them with me in my column, I will laugh at you:
- Suicide is not a bad thing. If more people killed themselves, it would be a good way to get rid of a lot of people who are taking up space and resources the rest of us could really use. Even non-direct means of suicide (such as smoking or living in Los Angeles) should be publicly supported.
- Not all child molesters are bad people. Some of them are immediately sorry for what they have done and should not be punished harshly.
- Of course I don’t support the troops…why would I support people going off and killing people they have never even met?
- Israel is not any better than the Palestinians.
- Parents should have the option of killing disabled infants at birth
- I really enjoy anal sex, or I don’t see anything wrong with necrophilia, or I once slept with my brother, but we used protection. Actually, pretty much anything about sex, aside from “yeah, I like it.”
- Some people are just born smarter than others, and they will always be smarter than others.
- Terrorists are just fighting for their freedom the only way they know how.
So, did you squirm at all? I squirmed writing some of them. Could you hear the rejoinders starting up in your head, before you even finished reading the sentence? And that’s the thing, that’s where our taboos against ideas get us in trouble, because it is possible (however unlikely you may believe it to be) that someone out there has a perfectly valid reason for believing any of these things. It is possible that they are right. Of course, if we start shouting them down before they ever lay out their reasoning, we will never know. What’s even more frightening is to wonder what ideas are so unthinkable that we can’t even conceive of them. We have blocked them out so completely, we can’t even imagine what they are.
The examples above are taken from my experience as a resident of the United States. I am wondering what else there is, both here and in the rest of the world, where standards are sometimes quite different. So, as a collective experiment, I invite you all to try to come up with and post ideas that you know are “unspeakable”. And I ask everyone reading this column to not attack anyone for any idea they may post; it is understood that the posters do not necessarily believe the statements they are posting. I would love to see how far we can come in listing the ideas that we are not supposed to consider. If nothing else, sometimes letting ourselves look at frightening or repulsive things allows us to open our minds up to that which is beautiful, but previously hidden.