Unspoken Is Unsolved
Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable. — Paul Graham
As a thought experiment, imagine that you could go back to the foundations of human society as the first chieftain who wished to unite his band of independent, egalitarian foragers through regulating the processing of the large game they harvested from their great hunts. Within your band of hunter-gatherers, some enjoyed the taste of raw meat, fresh from a kill. These occasional feasts were enjoyed only by the successful hunters, of course, whose prestige was reinforced with every animal they brought back to feed the women and children of their band. Back at camp, harvested animals were cooked or smoked and salted for safe consumption; but the allure of a hunter’s feast in the field grew as it was associated with the heroes who brought the animals home. And so eating raw meat became fashionable in the band, which was fine for many, but for the few with weaker immune systems, vulnerable age, or simply bad luck, this fashion was occasionally deadly. As the chieftain, you considered leaving it up to every individual in the band whether they wished to eat raw meat or not, respecting their freedom of thought and choice. You also considered that raw meat was in no way better than the cooked variety (in fact, it was nutritionally inferior as it was harder to digest). As an egalitarian chieftain, you didn’t like the thought of imposing your will on the band, by forcing the warriors to end their special feasts, or forbidding others from emulating them with your own heavy hand. Yet you can see there is no good in raw meat, and many will be harmed by their experimentation. You have a moment of clarity: what if you could create the world’s first taboo? Imagine if your choice was between a world with taboos, or without them, till the end of history. To use the power of a taboo would let the genie forever out of the bottle.
Would you unleash the mighty social power of this tool? If you are uncomfortable with force and coercion, are you comfortable with social coercion if it can save lives or enhance the good? Or if not, are you more comfortable with a world of freethinkers, with no authority other than individual conscience? Would a world without taboos be better for human flourishing?
Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice, he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it. — Edmund Burke
When we join civil society and submit to its conditions (whether social or legal) we are in a sense trading one kind of freedom for another. Though we might recoil against taboos (or other limits on autonomy) in this egalitarian and individualist age, and celebrate the innovators who think differently or disrupt conventional ways of doing…it remains the case that the average freethinker represents a risk of harm and common failure. Most startups fail to improve upon the status quo. Many “freethinkers” are obstacles to innovation, in that they give innovation a bad name. We prefer not to have a society full of individuals who disregard the experts and determine the value of vaccines and speed limits or walking-on-the-left-side-of-the-public-transit-escalators based upon their personal experience. Taboos function as a remarkable tool of social coordination, somewhat shy of coercion. Taboos are building blocks of culture and community which surround us and provide their own kind of freedom via mutual support. They are the foundations from which individuals spring. They are a base requirement of a society or culture — if “society” and “culture” have coherence, their members must possess shared conceptions of the good, what thou shalt, and what thou shalt not.
Taboos are also a double-edged sword. First, the taboo can become incoherent over time. Perhaps the taboo’s justification is submerged in history (when memories of food-poisoned hunter-gatherers fade) or the deployment of the taboo becomes vindictive (status-seekers use the raw meat taboo to shame their opponents or undermine the hunter class). In a sense, the safety of the taboo is simultaneously its greatest danger. Unthinking obedience to the taboo — obedience that saves many from harm — can eventually undermine the safety mechanism itself. And yet beyond the safety mechanism itself, there is the problem of obscuration: when you lock something behind the taboo’s gate, you hide adjacent phenomena from view. For example, if raw meat were to be considered unclean/evil/dangerous in society (even for good reason!), we might inadvertently create hostile attitudes towards raw milk due to some superficial similarities. Political movements are very aware of this, and carefully craft their coalitions accordingly. If Americans are afraid of socialism then it would behoove you to be progressive. If Americans are afraid of religion, it would behoove you to be spiritual.
All of this is to say that taboos are powerful and useful, but also dangerous mainly for what they weaken: our critical impulse, and our ability to think clearly about taboo-adjacent subjects. Why is this important?
Consider the rate of murders of young black men in America. They are 6 percent of the American population, yet 40 percent of those murdered. A plurality of those who kill and are killed are not women or children, or infants and elderly folks — they are young black men, many unemployed and criminally involved. This scourge of high homicide rates has persisted since before Jim Crow and it is mostly responsible for why the United States’ rates of violent crime exceed other similarly developed countries.
Most American critics of the justice system focus on the system’s heavy-handedness and unfairness, police brutality, drug laws, misused eyewitnesses, and mass incarceration. These things are legitimate failures and abuses. They are also more comfortable to criticize because they are not taboo-adjacent.
I recently read a great book, Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, the product of years of incredible research by a reporter from The Los Angeles Times who follows a complex web of killers, victims, families, and detectives in south central Los Angeles. Leovy’s work echoes the conclusions of other important books on the recent history of American criminal justice, such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the late William Stuntz’ The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. Yet in one very important way it differs. Leovy argues that the comfortable issues—police brutality, drug laws, eyewitness unreliability — form one side of a coin that receives exclusive focus from activists and academics because it is politically correct to do so. This weakens our attempts to reform criminal justice.
The other, neglected side of the coin is the failure of the state to protect witnesses, investigate black-on-black murders, and bring killers to justice swiftly and reliably. The majority of murderers get away with it, especially in black communities, which is itself an incitement for vigilante justice and a reward for killers. Look at the “clearance rate” for homicides in Chicago; just 28% of last year’s murders were “cleared” which generally means only that an arrest was made. “Cleared” cases sometimes do not even result in arrest or conviction, and sometimes they convict the wrong person. Historically, in the Jim Crow South, black-on-black murderers killed with the same impunity as white lynch mobs. The history of American criminal justice for blacks is one of both tremendous cruelty and utter indifference — foolishly and unnecessarily punitive, and yet indifferent where ferocity is desperately needed to bring justice. Within the vacuum of a state that neglects black lives and fails to defend them, vigilante justice and Hobbesian interpersonal violence reigns.
Many dangerous neighborhoods are filled with patrol cars who profile random young black men for loitering or marijuana possession and plunder the poor for broken taillights and expired registrations. Meanwhile, no police or detectives are around that can be trusted to find and prosecute violent criminals and credibly protect witnesses. And so the killings continue and cast a dark cloud over so many families and take so many young men’s lives. The distrust of police continues, further reinforcing the noncooperation of witnesses that keeps murders unsolved. It is politically incorrect to discuss this (Leovy quotes a civil rights activist who says that talking about black-on-black crime is “like incest”), and this silence contributes to our policy failures. Politics will only catch up once the problem can be voiced and the shamed can come out of the shadows.
Black-on-black violence needs to be in the newspaper, but not simply as a grim statistic. The victims have names and families. Society must know that men and boys kill and are often killed in drunken or petty arguments over card games, women, and bruised egos, or the whims of street gangs which are a young man’s only source of protection. We must know how unsafe it is to be a witness and how under-resourced the detectives are that are responsible for bringing justice to the families of victims. The politically correct fear is that if we discuss this, we will reinvigorate a “black beast” racial stereotype or inflame racial hatred. Stereotypes can only survive in the murkiness of euphemism and social distance. Using clearer language, bringing individual stories to light, and erasing the stigma that surrounds discussions of crime and race relations will bring ugliness out where it can die in the sunlight.
Ultimately, an awareness of the necessity, value, and danger of taboos presents some enduring tasks for us. First, we must understand the nature of taboos to degrade over time or become pawns in status-conflicts. Regardless of their validity, we should seek to understand them and have an appreciation for their origin before we toss them into the trash heap of history. G.K. Chesteron illustrates this point in his book The Thing:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Second, once we understand what is taboo and sacred and why, we must make a great and conscious effort to probe the likely blind spots. In 2014, Ross Douthat profiled the mass rape of nearly 1,400 British girls by Pakistani gangs in Rotherham, England while the authorities looked the other way:
The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits. So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation. Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.
Third, pick your battles. When a problem is clouded by taboo, that is where our ideas will likely be most impoverished and the urgency for clear thinking the greatest. This is also where you will find the mob and the personal cost of vocal disagreement will be highest. How do we see where fashion, bias, and taboo has clouded our judgment? Paul Graham recommends looking for labels:
Labels like that are probably the biggest external clue. If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.
Taboos make it very hard to have productive conflict. Seek out sacred cows to gore, but remember that not all social problems and their solutions are clouded by taboos or moral fashions, and that some of those sacred cows have found verdant pastures in your own mind. Gnothi seauton.