What Is a Taboo?

For as long as human beings have lived in established societies, those societies — wherever, and whenever, they are — have determined what is considered to be acceptable or prohibited. In regards to the latter, those social prohibitions have become more widely known throughout history under the umbrella term of “taboos.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, […]

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For as long as human beings have lived in established societies, those societies — wherever, and whenever, they are — have determined what is considered to be acceptable or prohibited. In regards to the latter, those social prohibitions have become more widely known throughout history under the umbrella term of “taboos.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the term taboo can be defined as, “the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred and consecrated or too dangerous and accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake.”

The existence of taboos has remained a constant throughout human history well into the modern day. As society and the people in it continue to evolve, so too do taboos. What may have once been considered taboo a century ago — or even a few decades ago — may not be in today’s society, such as the US federal prohibition of alcohol in 1918 or an increasing number of women opting to join the workforce rather than remain stay-at-home mothers or housewives.

These examples, however, do not answer the question of why taboos are themselves inherently deemed as such or why they may not be to future generations across time and global geography.

Different types of taboos

In her short story anthology, Taboos and Transgressions: Stories of Wrongdoings, editor and author Luanne Smith showcases more than two dozen stories penned by contributing authors on the nature of taboos, their history, and the impact they have had on our societies. Covering topics such as lawbreaking, internal family prejudices, and even finding empowerment through taboos, the anthology’s stories each offer unique perspectives and insight into many established taboos as well as how they have changed over time.

“Breaking taboos is a very human thing to do,” Smith says, “and a very inviting concept to many of us,” however, as Smith continues to explain, there are almost always consequences in breaking established taboos, be they good or bad. According to Sociology Group, taboos can be grouped into one (or more) of three primary categories:

1. Religious taboos, such as the consumption of alcohol being considered “haraam” in Islam;

2. Cultural taboos, such as the connotation using the number 13 in many western countries, and;

3. Food and drink (i.e., substance) taboos, such as the eating of cows in India or pork in many Middle Eastern countries.

In societies where these activities are considered taboo, breaking them is commonly viewed as a perversion of social norms; a conscious willingness to go against ingrained social structures, processes, or systems. As such, when a person willingly breaks a taboo or taboos, this causes the society they are in to view them and their actions as pervasive in their breaking of preexisting norms.

Why taboos are considered “taboo”

Famed German philosopher and psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt, once described taboos as “the oldest unwritten code of humanity.” Indeed, little academic research has been conducted in the Western world insofar as what truly constitutes a taboo itself. Rather, a taboo is commonly a pre-established social construct that — over time — becomes an unconscious part of a society and its people.

For example, throughout much of history, tattoos have been widely considered taboo due to their historic use in marking slaves, criminals, or captured enemies. Throughout much of the 20th century, however, and well into the 21st century, tattoos have become a more frequent commodity amongst many demographics, from sailors to artists and common citizens. Whereas finding a person with visible tattoos and established credit to their name a century ago was a rare occurrence, it is now an everyday occurrence.

When asked why these shifts in perspective occur regarding established social taboos, Dr. Aimee Harris-Newon, founder and director of the Center for Integrative & Functional Health, said that much like any social construct with negative connotations, taboos only persist because a society allows them to.

“Just as a society can deem what is or is not considered taboo,” says Harris-Newon, “society can also evolve out of this trend on a collective level. The more we allow ourselves to talk openly about taboos, the less power they have over the individual as well as the collective human consciousness.”

In this regard, taboos — much like written constitution laws — exist because they are deemed necessary by a society and/or its people. Once society has deemed a certain taboo as no longer necessary, whether consciously or not, the collective attitude towards that taboo begins to wane until it is no longer considered such. Just as many historical taboos are no longer viewed as pervasive by society, many of what are considered taboos today may not be in the years, decades, or centuries to come.

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