Wednesday, October 25, 2017


The word Taboo comes from Tongan originally, where it referred to a prohibition associated with sacredness. However, it has much broader applicability at this point, and so this discussion decided to dive into a lot of the possible implications of the concept across our own world. As Kat said, we don't want to erase our own practices. Some taboos are religious, and some are not. Something like "don't speak ill of the dead" is a non-religious taboo in our society. We also prefer not to talk about how much money people make. In some cultures, you don't talk about what someone does for a living.

When someone breaks a taboo, generally speaking you will have a visceral reaction, a very deep-seated sense of wrongness.

One taboo is the separation of toileting and eating, and the fact that we don't talk about what we do in the bathroom. Some people will not talk about intimate parts of their body. In fact, the taboo on talking about butts can lead to literal medical care problems.

Brian mentioned that there are major taboos surrounding sexual practices like incest and bestiality. But there are also minor ones like talking to other men in the restroom. Men also aren't supposed to talk to other men about emotion.

Do we talk to strangers? Would a person in your fictional world talk to strangers? Why or why not?

Women tend to go to the bathroom in pairs to make sure it's safe. Women can talk to other women, and are expected to tell them if they aren't fully put together.

Kat said that the "men don't talk about emotion" taboo was probably a larger prohibition on receiving emotional labor from other men.

Discussing sex is taboo. It may be the taboo lying at the root of people's unwillingness to talk about sexual orientation, because people assume that discussing whether someone is gay or straight forces them to talk about sex.

We also have food taboos. There are old ones, like the Kosher taboos, but there are also things like not putting ketchup on your ice cream.

What are the consequences associated with breaking a taboo? Is it just that you don't get invited to dinner parties? But if you don't get invited to dinner parties, that excludes you from networking opportunities that could make the difference between success and lack of it.

Conflict avoidance is not the same as taboo avoidance. This is a very interesting topic when we start talking about social justice, because it is taboo to confront someone about having done something unjust. The injustice itself is ostensibly taboo, but in fact, calling out is seen as worse.

As you design a society, ask yourself: whose behavior gets regulated, and when, and how?

There can be certain behaviors that cause you to lose your status in society. Literally, some behaviors are considered so dirty or low that they can drag you down from your caste. Low people are not allowed to perform religious rites.

Taboo behaviors can also be an act of bonding. "In the frat we tell sexist jokes" is an example of this. Racist jokes always start with looking around and checking who is in the room.

Brian asked, "Is taboo a reflection of a society's history?" It is - and influences that history - so it's worth thinking about in your world design.

"I don't see color" is one way that we express the taboo of talking about racism. But until people are equal, we do need to see it. The idea that talking about race is the same as racism is a form of taboo. It makes the unwarranted assumption that "everyone is like me and I am normal." We can't assume anything from our own experience about the experience of a person from another race. The experience members of a particular race share is not genetic, but is societally imposed, based on the society's perception of their racial group membership.

It's quite common for people who do not share a racialized experience to fail to see what that racialized experience means, or to deny that it is different. However, something like the different life experience of short versus tall people is never questioned. If you are short, you can't reach things on shelves designed for taller people (which are common in the US). This puts you to quite a bit of hassle, but if you remark on it, people will pretty easily acknowledge that you experience this difficulty.

Racialized experiences are not the same as preferences or allergies, because they are externally imposed.

Talking about social class is also taboo in the US. It does matter what class you display, based on your accent, your posture, or even your teeth (orthodonture and dentistry are expensive), but you are not supposed to talk about it. Dental insurance is not included for poor people, and it can also be a marker of immigrants.

In the US, there is pressure to have your teeth look a certain way. There are also many taboos across the world associated with body presentation. Body odor taboos vary greatly from culture to culture. The smell of one's breath and one's flatulence are both taboos.

Ads help to create a social culture. Victorian soap ads established the habit of washing daily.

Humor often skirts the edge of taboo because it relies on a slight bit of discomfort.

Any mixing of cultures can potentially lead to taboo conflicts. It's easy to imagine that aliens might reverse what we conceive of as sacred, possibly having revolting funeral practices or other practices that would cause humans to balk. Here on Earth there are cultures that keep the dead relative's body around for a period of time after death. We talked about the fiction of Mary Anne Mohanraj and Haralambi Markov, which tackle taboo topics in fascinating ways.

Thank you to everyone who attended and participated.

Today's hangout will discuss Performances, and we'll meet at 10am Pacific. I hope to see you there!