The important thing is not to stop questioning.
- Albert Einstein
Given I’m discussing taboos in this post I should give a health warning – some of the following points may make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s the point – breaking through this discomfort is what I’m trying to convince you to do.
A subject should not be avoided just because society deems it taboo. A question should not be out-of-bounds because some people find it uncomfortable. In fact, areas that are taboo, by their nature, tend to be important things that need to be discussed.
For example the British National Party are renowned for the racist views of their members. Does this mean we shouldn’t let them discuss their ideas in the public sphere? Absolutely not. To ban the discussion of ideas that one thinks morally questionable is to push them underground. To push such ideas underground means that the arguments and counter arguments are not heard. If a person sympathetic to such arguments hears them, perhaps in a local pub where the BNP are quietly recruiting, they are more likely to sign up because they are not aware of the arguments that would enable them to disagree. So having their leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s current affairs program Question Time was a good thing.
Tim Harford bravely asks some taboo questions about racism in his excellent book The Logic Of Life. He discusses “rational racism“, i.e. when it can be advantageous to be racist. When we ask such taboo questions and understand such motivations then we can work to avoid them.
Setting up the rule that “we don’t talk about that kind of thing” is counter productive. If some ideas or histories are not allowed to be questioned, not only does it hold back society, but it causes the very problems those that want to stop the questioning are afraid of. If a positive principle is never questioned for many years, when it is questioned in the future, for some people it will fall down like a deck of cards as the counter arguments are not well known.
Glenn Greenwald makes this case strongly, concluding: “Criminalizing ideas doesn’t make them go away any more than sticking your head in the sand makes unpleasant things disappear. If anything, refusing to confront them makes them stronger“.
And so to one of the greatest taboos: the holocaust. This is an area where historians absolutely should be able to question facts about the events that are claimed by others. When historian David Irving questioned some aspects of what happened in Auschwitz he was prosecuted under the crime of holocaust denial. While he has a history of supporting Hitler, and supporting some of his approaches, that’s no reason to make this particular question an issue for the courts, and trying to limit his right to free speech and enquiry. It’s exactly the kind of thing Orwell wrote about in 1984. So if we hear counter arguments to what we consider an important truth, it will ensure that our body of arguments and evidence is kept strong and well for future generations.
Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it“. So along these lines, some have suggested that siding with Hitler rather than Stalin may have been a more morally acceptable approach based on the fact that many more people got killed because of Stalin. Is it wrong to have such a discussion? How so? It is only by asking such difficult questions that we can understand better how to be more moral individuals.
People look at acts of cruelty such as the 2011 massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik and say he’s a monster, he’s evil. I’ve written about this before – people use these arguments to close down debate so they don’t have to put themselves in the position of considering how a person might rationally conclude that such actions could be considered morally defensible. Again, this taboo doesn’t help society become more moral – it hinders any such growth.
In many circles it is taboo to question whether or not homosexuality is innate. The assumption of many”antigay” types is that sexual orientation is a choice, whereas the gay friendly usually assume that it is an unchangeable part of someone’s nature. It seems to be an assumption based on what conclusion supports their agenda rather than something based on evidence. Personally I couldn’t give a damn. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s genetic or not; rights should be universal and discrimination illegal regardless of whether choice is involved. But if these questions can be discussed more openly, when some firmer evidence comes in one way or the other, we’ll be better prepared for it.
Religion is a big taboo on which I’ve often commented. Whether christianity or islam, they should be questioned to destruction. If an idea is good or worthy then it will stand up to criticism. If it is not, it will fail and we will move on to find a better idea. Tom Holland’s documentary questioning whether Mohammed existed, and putting an alternative interpretation on the origins of islam is absolutely valid, regardless of whether the interpretation is right or wrong. Yet many people suggested that this was too sensitive a topic. As Holland said: “The origins of Islam are a legitimate subject of historical inquiry“.
Noam Chomsky said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum“.
So question taboos. Question the orthodoxy. Ask questions that might “offend” people. Question things that one “shouldn’t” question.
Tony Benn said “I think the key to any progress is to ask the question ‘why’ all the time. And of course questions can get you into a lot of trouble … [but] without questions we won’t make any progress at all“.