Taboos can seem arbitrary and pointless until we examine the way a culture uses them. Then, they only seem arbitrary.
I was looking around this fine website the other day when I came across a post in which someone argued that taboos are “unnatural.” I assume that, by “unnatural,” the blogger meant “stupid,” because every culture has taboos. This puts them alongside sex and language on the popularity pedestal, above ritual sacrifice and game shows. Simply put, cultures have taboos because they are part of our value systems, and every culture has values. A culture without taboos is an ocean without water.
But the blogger had a legitimate point: we feel that taboos, because they come from values and not necessarily from facts, can be very arbitrary. The Japanese are prudish about sex, but love playing a social gag called Kancho, in which they shove two index fingers in an unsuspecting person’s anal region while yelling “Kan-CHO.” Go figure. Who decided it was cool to play annoying games of grab-ass all the time but not okay to show sexual intimacy between adults? What’s the defining difference in degree? In intention? In outcome? Why does sex get the scarlet letter and Kancho get the seal of approval?
We don’t really have an explanation other than to point to our values. This arbitrariness can sting. Westerners belong to a tradition of giving rational reasons for our customs. When we don’t have rational reasons, we feel embarrassed and exposed. We feel like someone who’s been given the Kancho in front of someone very important or beautiful.
Perhaps we deserve to feel puzzled about why it’s acceptable to force-feed a goose until its liver explodes, but why it’s unacceptable to marry a goose because we happen to love it. We offer immunity to certain customs while singling out others for indictment. That’s just the way things go. It happens almost by osmosis.
Looking at other cultures’ taboos, however, may help us question the sanctity of our own. The Dong people in southern China have many beliefs that Westerners might consider “quaint.” To name just a few:
- No metal objects inside coffins, especially copper, because the dead fear them;
- Women should not give birth in their mother’s home;
- Pregnant women should avoid watching new homes being built.
Many of us instinctively feel uncomfortable accepting these cultural values. They’re weird, we say. But isn’t it likely the Dong people feel just as uncomfortable accepting our values? They’re strange, they say. If we look at both our culture’s taboos and the Dong’s in a disinterested way, it would be difficult to call one set completely rational and the other completely arbitrary. That’s because there’s rarely anything fact-based about the world that tells us that our customs are “right” and the Dong’s are “wrong,” or vice versa. We look for values when defining taboos, not evidence. The point here is that we can trick ourselves into believing that some values come from a logically defensible place, when in fact they come from a very capricious place.
Recently, the media has covered several lurid incidents involving cannibalism. Stop me if you’ve heard this. One assailant in Florida has been shot and killed, and another in Louisiana has been arrested for attempting to devour human flesh. In both cases, victims had parts of their faces chewed off. Police suspect that both assailants were high on bath salts during the attacks, placing these crimes in the linguistically-trippy category of bath salt-assaults.
Cannibals have long captivated the public’s imagination. Of course, there was Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Monster, who experimented with eating the remains of more than 15 men. There was Armin Meiwes, the Metzgermeister, who is famous for attempting to eat his victim’s penis, among other body parts. (Meiwes even convinced the victim to sample his own hose, but it was too tough to chew on, and probably not as much fun as Meiwes made it look.) Then there was Issei Sagawa.
Sagawa believed himself a god, and so it’s fitting that his punishment is mythical, not corporal. His fate is entwined with that of Cronus, the Titan who ate his children.
Issei Sagawa shot a fellow student in France and ate her remains. A warning goes out to the squeamish—the details are grisly, so I’ll let you sample them as you please. His case is curious because, after being arrested, Sagawa was declared unfit to face trail and ended up at a mental institution in France. The French balked at holding him indefinitely in their country, and instead extradited him to Japan. In a bizarre turn of events, the French government then refused to release court documents to its Japanese counterparts, giving the Japanese no evidence with which to prosecute Sagawa. He was deemed evil but sane in his Japanese psychiatric evaluation. Since the mental institution had no power to keep Sagawa there against his will, on August 12, 1986, he checked himself out of the madhouse like a renegade biker.
Not exactly. Sagawa was set free, but for over 20 years, he’s been shunned. He lives in Tokyo but cannot find a job. Suicidal and effectively confined to his home, Sagawa believes that his fate is worse than incarceration or death. Says Sagawa:
It’s so tough living out in the open. That’s reason enough for never committing the same crime ever again! You can’t imagine how difficult it is to live under surveillance from society. In that respect, I really believe that the death penalty just puts people out of their misery, and it totally defeats the purpose of punishment.
Sagawa isn’t saying anything radical. We know instinctively what he’s talking about without ever needing to be told: the threat of exclusion from the group is a powerful social tool used to reward cooperation and punish deviance.
This, it can be said, is the function of taboos. Taboos have a way of institutionalizing acceptable social behavior. While they may not always be rational, taboos give us social instructions for how to act when the tribe stands to gain or suffer from the decisions of individuals.
When considering the arbitrariness of certain taboos, also consider the case of Sagawa. The justice system failed miraculously, and yet somehow, Sagawa isn’t prancing down the streets of Tokyo drawing unicorns with pastel chalk and getting chummy with grandmas. Sagawa believed himself a god, and so it’s fitting that his punishment is mythical, not corporal. His fate is entwined with that of Cronus, the Titan who ate his children. Arguably, Sagawa’s sentence is all the more cruel because he endures it alone, as a total pariah.
Some taboos die a quick death after technology or circumstance makes a social problem obsolete. Some taboos are kept alive by repetition after their usefulness wanes. Some taboos never die—and for good reason.