Against Nature: Changing Views of What’s “Normal”

Featured String: Against Nature

This string deals with things that are or were at some point considered “taboo”. The word itself doesn’t come from English, but has travelled back to English-speakers with James Cook from a number of Polynesian languages, where similar-sounding words have the same meaning: something that’s forbidden to do.

Some taboos are almost universal: many cultures have a strong, almost-instinctive aversion to things like cannibalism, for example, or parent-child incest, ideas which are so strongly prohibited that they’re even off-limits for gods, who usually get away with things that mortals really couldn’t. Even in societies where cannibalism was practiced, it was done under very specific circumstances, for very specific reasons: “Historically, man has consumed the flesh of fellow humans in rituals, and out of insanity, hatred, or when facing starvation—never as a common part of one’s diet.” (New World Encyclopedia)

The most common near-universal taboos tend to be: sex between children and their parents even when adult (“filial incest”), cannibalism, murder (as opposed to sanctioned killing within the rules of that society), sex with animals (bestiality), and sex with pre-pubescent children.

Local taboos–ones specific to a culture or area–often include prohibitions against eating certain foods and drinking certain drinks, doing things to excess, breaking with religious or cultural traditions, familial disrespect or disobedience, adultery (as opposed to arranged non-fidelity), theft from the family (instead of from outsiders), and most often extensions of the primary incest taboo to take in full siblings, grandparents, or other close relatives.

All of these seem pretty common-sense! But the reason they seem so common-sense is that they’ve been taboos for a really long time, and we can still find examples of people breaking them.

How do we get taboos?

In most instances, taboos are there to help social cohesion and health. Taboos against incest help prevent both the concentration of wealth and the likelihood of birth defects in babies from incestuous marriage; taboos against promiscuity are designed to limit the spread of venereal disease; uncleanliness taboos are often hygiene-related too. Taboos on specific foodstuffs can be related to the location of society: for example, if a culture lives in a desert, in days before refrigerated lorries it was not sensible to eat creatures that are only found on the shoreline–all kinds of terrible bacteria could be decaying them! While past generations may not have known what bacteria were, they knew very well what their effects were.

Other taboos are more complicated and to do with how social power works, or how groups of people define themselves in opposition to others.

Les Trois Contents, Etienne Maurice Falconet

It’s not just old, well-known behaviours that have prohibitions against them. Sometimes societies get worked up about things they haven’t encountered before.

Fear of the New

Fear or dislike of new methods and new technology go back as far as people do. Plato’s Phaedrus, written sometime in either the 5th or 4th century BCE, contains criticisms of the new form of communicating philosophical speeches–writing. Newspapers scoffed and and worried about the London Underground when it was in the early stages of development, convinced it couldn’t possibly work; similar attitudes were in evidence for trains, motorcars, aeroplanes, bicycles… and vaccination, which was the source of especial suspicion and panic.

Every time something new comes along, it potentially threatens the existence of what people are used to, and imaginations run riot. Genetic engineering and transgenic animals were met with suspicion and paranoia in the late 1990s, and opposition to genetically-modified produce continues to this day.

Historically, popular resistance to new technologies (and often very pertinent criticisms not so much of the technologies but of how they’ve been deployed) have rarely stopped at tutting in the newspapers or waving placards. The former and late head of Greenpeace, Lord Peter Melchett, for example, was arrested along with 27 others in 1999 for uprooting and destroying genetically-modified crops. He was following in a long tradition which has brought at least one new word to the English language…

“Luddite”, originally meant a follower of the master weaver Ned Ludd, who in the early 19th century made an accurate assessment that the previously well-regarded profession of weaving was likely to lose status in the face of industrialising the process with steam-powered looms (indeed, industrialisation had already claimed many jobs and uprooted hundreds from their traditional communities, driving them towards cities in one of the largest mass internal migrations the British ever saw). Unfortunately, as the methods of direct action employed by these aggrieved craftsmen were ultimately not successful, the word has come to mean “people who are irrationally opposed to modern progress and refuse to adapt”.

Incubator used by Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe in the creation of the world’s first ‘test-tube babies’, 1977

Many of yesterday’s controversies (electricity, for example) become today’s taken-for-granteds. In-vitro fertilisation produced its first successful baby in 1978, the now-nearly-41-year-old Louise Brown, paving the way for surrogate pregnancies and Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (when the sperm is injected directly into an egg, assisting those with sperm unable to fertilise without help). It’s so thoroughly ingrained in our culture that IVF and possibly surrogacy or ICSI are available to couples struggling to conceive that the service is advertised in train carriages and offered by the NHS, while in China IVF became a plank of pregnancy planning and control in keeping with the now-removed “one-child” policy.

And yet when the procedure was being developed, it was derided as inhumane, as meddling, and Dr James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA structure now unfortunately mostly linked with eugenics) even complained that “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.

Other things which start out as miracle science become lightning rods for opposition, such as nuclear power (and its association both with disasters like Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima, and with the threat of nuclear warheads).

色絵薄墨墨はじき時計草文鉢, (made with uranium paint), Imaizumi Imaemon XIV (十四代今泉今右衛門) (2009)

The anti-nuclear weapons movement experienced its genesis in the US in 1961, four years after the initial protests against the creation of nuclear power plants. While opposition to nuclear weapons–inflamed both by images of destruction caused by less deadly variants at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and by the devastation and long-lasting environmental and social damage caused by the Bikini Atoll Atomic Weapons tests–eventually produced results in the form of a multilateral commitment to nuclear armaments reductions, campaigns to limit uranium mining (highly destructive to the environment and a huge drain on water supplies) have been less successful.

A quick tour around the Science Museum’s Communications gallery will introduce you to the projected image of Tim Berners-Lee, one of a variety of people credited with “creating the internet”. As with a lot of scientific and technological developments, no one person was really responsible for “creating the internet”; methods of linking computers to each other and using telephone lines to send messages between them already existed.

Not everyone in the 90s was convinced the internet was going to be as big as it became. While many of us live our whole lives online now, banking, socialising, buying, selling, learning, and even having sex via internet connections, it was initially scoffed at by many who’ve come to adopt it. One thing was uniformly accepted, however: it was going to become a repository for taboo materials.

Avenue Q, “The Internet is For Porn” [Explicit lyrics]

Current taboos & future taboos

Taboos seem to become more harshly-enacted the more anxieties a society is facing–Louis Crompton, for example, has catalogued the ways in which Venice and the Netherlands, and also the UK became significantly more violent in their cultural homophobia when they were in the apex of their trading powers, convinced that allowing any kind of “sin” in their realm would cause god to send catastrophes on them and wreck their fragile prosperity.

Times of plague, too, led to frantic driving-out of designated “scapegoats”, a term which originally derives from Leviticus, where a goat was used to symbolically carry the sins of the displaced Jews out into the wilderness. There’s perhaps some irony here, considering how frequently, consistently, and indeed continuously the Jewish people have been among the designated scapegoats of Western societies.

As what we understand of our world and what we do and don’t value changes over time, so our taboos and areas of acceptance change–and rarely with the full consensus of the population.

While things like child pornography and sexual activities with children are broadly condemned (and were not always previously), other areas of sexuality previously heavily-condemned have in many countries become far less taboo, although there is still a lot of friction; similarly, restrictions on gender roles and gendered clothing have been in a constant state of flux for several centuries: women were imprisoned for wearing trousers (and in some parts of the world still can be), and people perceived to be “men in women’s clothing” for reasons other than clearly-delineated performance may often face violence and abuse–while public breast-feeding, once extremely normal the world over, now provokes manufactured controversy in some countries, and bans in others.

In countries with a strong commitment to environmental protection, such as Japan, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, littering carries a strong social taboo.

The popularisation of the internet has brought many people into contact with ideas and people they might previously have never encountered, and has forced confrontation with concepts that challenge social and religiously-held beliefs (the acceptance of transgender people; the idea that disabled adults may be sexually active; interracial relationships), as well as creating new versions of old taboos (such as the ubiquitous ‘dick pic’ and exhortation to ‘send nudes’).

As technology continues to develop, concepts which once seemed the realm of science fiction are rapidly becoming areas of real life; raising new questions about our ideas of the body, privacy, and what it means to be human, as new fears for new generations of “luddites” arise and new anxieties overtake us–what does it now mean for something to be “against nature”? What new taboos can we expect to find ourselves developing?


If you liked this string you may also enjoy: Good medicine (and bad), Standing on the shoulders of…, Vice is Nice, War! What Is It Good For?


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