There are some things that are definitely and objectively wrong. For example, rape is ‘wrong’ because there is logical consistency in its ‘wrongness’. If there are two people in a room, neither wish to be raped, so the only satisfactory outcome for both parties is that neither is raped by the other. The fact one may wish to rape the other is not relevant. Therefore rape is objectively wrong. In lieu of ‘rape’ we can substitute ‘murder’ and ‘theft’ and so on.
What makes them wrong is the fact that they are actions that cause actual harm to another. Human beings have inherent natural rights that are based on agreement. When something is agreeable to us, it is involuntary; it is not possible to disagree that rape is wrong. On the other hand a contract – meaning ‘shortening’ – is the result of negotiation where one or both parties concede something they would otherwise prefer to keep, so that some common ground and mutual benefit can be achieved.
Given the existence of natural rights, we can now explore the grey area of taboos. Because the former cannot exist without the latter. While it is certainly wrong to initiate physical aggression on one hand, most will agree that it is not inherently wrong to call someone a name, something innocuous like a ‘goat’. In some cases it might be provocative, but on the whole it is quite a harmless thing to say. Causing offense without physical harm is a more difficult area to navigate than natural rights.
If we consider racism as a prime example of a modern taboo, everyone will agree on 3 points:
1. Some things are definitely racist
2. Some things are definitely not racist
3. For some things it is uncertain; the exact line between 1 and 2 is not clear
Black humor is the art of hovering as close as possible to that uncertain line, flirting with it but without actually crossing it. For some reason it makes us laugh. The art of telling jokes is usually learned instinctively. One step too far however becomes vulgarity. The butt of the jokes has in recent times generally been women, gays, blacks, dwarfs and the Irish. Even saying that now bears an element of risk that one has already crossed the line.
Humor is essentially a daring, fumbling raid on these taboo subjects, motivated with an air of innocence. Like the ill-planned incursion into a neighbor’s garden to retrieve a lost ball, scampering around the cabbage patch on a prayer you will be gone long before an angry rap on the window from a stern looking Mrs Bennett. Humor gauges people’s responses to try and discover what is acceptable, and what is not. It brings attention to the fact that a) the line does exist somewhere, and b) social behavior rests precariously on a foundation of unthinkable taboos. Comedy uniquely has the magical quality that entices us to explore these taboos that would otherwise be just too grizzly to look at. So long as the vague white line isn’t crossed then everyone on both sides of the line gets along. Even though no one is quite sure where the line is.
We must not look at our nature with contempt and judgment but rather with neutral eyes.
~ Carl Jung
On a more somber note, it is true that vulgar, overt racism does occur. And it is necessary to raise awareness of this grave issue, because people are genuinely being hurt by it. This is a hugely important step in the evolution of the elusive white line, because it MOVES. And it only moves one way, and that is in the direction of less tolerance. It is a natural movement, unforced. And the line will never move back to where it was before.
Over time the line moves inevitably into the area of micro aggressions. It is as if the very process of attention, which compiles a list of actual racist transgressions, inadvertently then allows the taboo to gain a stronger foothold within the collective mind. While humor previously kept the taboo at arm’s length, now the taboo has bitten the arm off and encroached into new psychological territory. A society that culls humor is a society that has fallen under the shadow of the taboo.
A more extreme example of such encroachment of a taboo is pedophilia. Executed as physical assault, pedophilia is a violation of natural rights, but there are so many shades of pedophilia that it is even considered a thought crime. There was a time not so long ago when it was normal for children to be let outside on their own, when even taking lifts with strangers was not uncommon. Everyone knew that pedophilia existed, but by and large it remained distant. Only when it was decided to raise public awareness, when attention began to be fixated on it, the taboo began to encroach into reality and then pedophiles upped their game; children were no longer allowed to run wild on the streets and play in the woods. In many ways the taboo is like an egregore mindset, where the individual becomes a vehicle for a collective thought form. Identity politics is a common outcome.
We can of course lump bigotry, sexism, religious intolerance, etc into the mix. It is inevitable that they will end up as the self-policing by society of micro transgressions, with genuine comedy increasingly banished from the community. Is there a way to avoid this grim prophecy of social justice dominance? Interestingly the struggle to stop the invisible line from veering over to the ‘left’ now reinvents itself as an epic metaphorical battle against the taboo itself. Such battles are waged by magicians and story tellers.
This is where fairy tales succeeded, and where rationalism has failed. The taboos were depicted as mythical beasts and ogres. The story of Little Red Riding Hood instilled a firewall into every child’s psyche to be careful venturing too far into the woods alone. The attention was fixated on the fictional aspect, not on the reality. This kept the taboo where it belonged – in the realm of mythical fiction.
Our ancestors also had their taboos but they were entirely different. And – quite significantly – they were let out in the open on specific days of the year. Like when they would slaughter their spirit animals, in the days when sacrifice was considered more like a spiritual pruning, life emanating from death. The hides of these animals would serve as protection against the cold, and the bones became lucky charms. The taboo was recognized as an external entity that gave them power and protection, and it had to be negotiated with. To a lesser extent, the Latin American ‘feria’ and the Indian festival of ‘holi’ celebrate an occasion to revel in debauchery, to become satiated with deviance, before banishing these taboos having run amok, and their good selves returning to more upstanding behavior.