On the 21st June 2016, Fritt Ord, Free Word and Index on Censorship held a debate on the role of taboos in society.
Do taboos play an essential role in culture and society or must we simply get rid of them? On the 21st June, speakers from diverse fields in Russia, Norway and the UK came together to find out.
Pål Johan Karlsen of Psykologisk.no started the debate by speaking out in defence of the elephant in the room, asking: why are taboos useful and suggesting that we might need them in order to orientate ourselves successfully within our hypersocial and crowded worlds. Referencing research from Sweden, the UK and the US, Pål talked about the factors which create taboos, how we may best challenge them and their perception as natural necessities within the scientific community.
Next up was Index editor Rachael Jolley, who presented a global survey of taboos and their effects on societies and specific demographics within those societies, referencing menstrual taboos in India and abortion taboos in El Salvador as being representative of how taboos can harm societies and may require being broken down. In her talk, Rachael also looked at the history of taboos in certain countries and explored why some taboos lead to censorship.
“Who decided these are the rules and how do they change?” she asked. “Sometimes it takes a generational shift such as we’ve seen in Ireland with the vote to change the law on gay marriage”.
“There’s a tipping point theory where a body of resistance builds up to such a point that the dam breaks and the public suddenly demands another way is found and an older way is discarded” Jolley added.
The discussion’s third speaker, Colta.ru‘s Maria Stepanova, had a more regionally focused approach, which looked at taboos in Russia, paying special attention to emerging “government-inspired” taboos, which are shaped and encouraged by state outlets.
So, what are taboos, how do they come about and what role do they have to play in our societies? How long do they remain relevant, can taboos originally serve a purpose but become anachronistic as society progresses? And, why do they exist in the first place? Are they a form of behavioural guide intended to protect us from harm and to allow us to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than making them ourselves? Or, are they all too often implemented from above, allowing one societal group to censor and restrict others in order to consolidate its own position and beliefs?
Rachael Jolley is the editor of the Index on Censorship magazine.
This debate was organised by:
All three organisations campaign for freedom of expression, highlighting spoken and written work and constantly challenging infringements to free expression and censorship issues in Norway, the UK and much further afield.
At the beginning of the year, Index published an edition of its magazine which focused on taboos, which you can find out more about here, and carried out a debate looking at what is still classified as being taboo, which you can find more information on here.
And, in March 2016 as part of their Unravelling Europe project, Free Word looked at some taboos of its own with Harry Seymour’s Love in bloom essay, which you can find here and which investigates the history of homosexual relationships in Islam.
To find out more about each institution and their debates which have previously featured on Time to Talk, click on the corresponding links below:
- Behzti is no longer taboo by Emily Butselaar
- Beliefs, taboos and gender: the case of bambara groundnut in Malawi by Ben Bennett, Lora Forsythe and Ruth Leavett
- ‘Carol’ review: breaking a taboo by Joe Morgenstern
- Customs and taboos. The role of indigenous knowledge in the management of fish stocks and coral reefs in Tanzania by Masalu, D.C.P., Shalli, M.S. and Kitula, R.A.
- Egypt’s women: covered-up or locked-up by Michael Armanious
- Food taboos: their origins and purposes by Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow
- Incest not so taboo in nature by Dave Mosher
- Lesia Stavytska: one has to overcome one’s own taboos by Dmytro Desiateryk
- Taboos, agriculture and poverty by Marcel Fafchamps, Bart Minten and David Stifel
- Taboos and identity: considering the unthinkable by Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy & Moshe Hoffman
- Taboos, customs hold key to managing Tanzania’s reefs from Gefcoral.org
- The child’s worst interests. Socio-legal taboos on same-sex parenting and their impact on children’s well-being by Zvi Triger
- The money taboo: why it exists, who it benefits and how to navigate it by Laura Shin
- The pill and the marriage revolution by Brenda Frink
- The power of taboo in post-war Germany by Regula Venske
- The taboo of atheism in Egypt by Hakim Khatib
- The utility and ubiquity of taboo words by Timothy Jay
- Unspeakable Sept 11: taboos and clichés by Kathy Laster and Heinz Steinert
- What’s the taboo? An Index on Censorship debate on Time to Talk
- What is unDutchable?: Dutch humour, political correctness and discursive taboo by Anna-Sterre Nette
- Why period taboos affect everyone by Krista Watson
- Why is reaction taboo? by Ross Douthat
- Why is talking about money so taboo? by Deborah Nixon