Taboos are not relics of ancient societies. America has its share of views that are cemented in cultural mores. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 1996 Supreme Court dissent, “Closed-minded we were — as every age is, including our own, with regard to matters it cannot guess, because it simply does not consider them debatable.”
By foreclosing debate, modern taboos surrounding topics such as excrement, sex, drugs and death lead to harmful attitudes and policies. The ensuing misery ranges from “slut shaming” to the tragedy of the drug war that has resulted in over 50,000 violent Mexican deaths since 2006.
Taboos negatively affect the latent assumptions on which Americans carry out their lives, and have transformed the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness into the pursuit of health, safety and the avoidance of death.
Below are 10 harmful misconceptions caused by modern taboos.
1. Taboo: Drugs
Misconception: Jesus was against drug use.
The morality underlying the drug war’s zero-tolerance policy is erroneous. The Bible discourages excessive intoxication, but does not advocate abstinence. Jesus Christ drank wine and Moses instructed the Jews to revel with wine and strong drink. The reason there are no references to recreational drugs in the Bible is because drugs were mixed in with wine. Like other early peoples, the Greeks’ and Romans’ favored method of drug administration was to combine it with wine. The ancient term “mixed wine” has been interpreted by modern moralists to mean wine diluted with water. Dr. David Hillman, a classicist with a background in bacteriology, has explained that taken in the context it is often used, wine mixed with powerful psychoactive substances makes more sense. Consider this following biblical passage from Proverbs: “Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath babbling? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.”
2. Taboo: Sex
Misconception: Few women choose to be sex workers.
Substantial media coverage is directed at the heinous crime of sex trafficking. In contrast, little attention is given to the fact that in the United States, the government imprisons exponentially more prostitutes than sex-traffickers do. From 2000–2007, the federal government identified 1,362 victims of human trafficking in the United States. (This number included those trafficked for non-sexual labor as well.) In that same time period, there were more than half a million prostitution arrests. This means that in America for every identified sex-trafficking victim there are hundreds, if not thousands, of willing sex workers arrested by law enforcement and branded with criminal records. Despite this, politicians argue that prostitution must be criminalized to protect women.
3. Taboo: Drugs
Misconception: Drugs do not aid creativity.
One of the benefits of drug use is aiding the creative process. LSD’s imprint is all over the art and music of the 1960s. Ralph Abraham, the inventor of chaos theory, said, “In the 1960s a lot of people on the frontiers of math experimented with psychedelic substances. There was a brief and extremely creative kiss between the community of hippies and top mathematicians.” It is also not coincidental that Silicon Valley sprouted next to the psychedelic center of the universe. Early visionaries like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor (Lotus founder), and Douglas Englebart (inventor of the computer mouse) all used acid. LSD is not alone in inspiring ideas. Steve Jobs, Norman Mailer, Carl Sagan and Brian Wilson have all credited marijuana with providing creativity. These assertions are no longer lacking scientific support. A controlled experiment published in Psychiatry Research in 2010 found that the use of marijuana assisted people in finding novel connections between concepts.
4. Taboo: Excrement
Misconception: We go to the bathroom properly.
Evolution has designed humans to squat when relieving themselves. Sitting is unnatural and does not promote full expulsion. It is conjectured that the sitting posture contributes to a range of bowel problems like hemorrhoids and diverticulosis. In addition, a lifetime of sitting atrophies the muscles intended to aid in evacuation. As the health expert, Frederick Hornibrook, wrote in 1924, “The adoption of the squatting attitude would…help in no small measure to remedy the greatest physical vice of the white race, the constipation that has become a contentment.”
5. Taboo: Drugs
Misconception: Illicit drugs are exceptionally deadly.
The primary reason illicit drugs are so deadly is because they are illicit. An example of this is heroin. First, by making heroin more expensive than gold, criminalization has driven people to the dangerous practice of injecting the drug. Because of the high price the equally powerful rush of smoking is cost-prohibitive. Too much of it literally goes up in smoke. Second, because criminals sell heroin on the black market its purity varies. Users are not certain of how much they are using. Third, overdosing on heroin is usually a slow process that can take over an hour, and there is an antidote to opiate overdose that works within minutes — naloxone. But naloxone is only available by prescription. Naloxone access is so tightly controlled that limits on its use by paramedics have cost lives — even when paramedics are present. This year Gil Kerlikowske became the first drug czar to call for wider distribution of naloxone.
6. Taboo: Sex
Misconception: Jesus was against non-marital sex.
Neither Jesus Christ nor the Bible condemned non-marital sex. Adultery was forbidden, but adultery was defined differently in that era. As described in Leviticus, adultery was when a man slept with a married woman. A husband sleeping with an unmarried woman was not adultery. Women were considered property and marriage transferred ownership from fathers to husbands. Taking the virginity of a woman before marriage was a crime against her father. Women with whom men could have sexual relations without transgressing another man’s property rights included servants, slaves and prostitutes. The concept of virginity was inapplicable to men. There was not even a Hebrew word for a male virgin. Fundamentalist Christian abhorrence of non-marital sex drives abstinence-only sex education. The federal government funds abstinence-only sex education at the rate of $50 million per year and federal law requires that it teach that, “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”
7. Taboo: Nasal Mucus
Misconception: Nose-picking is bizarre.
Manual nose cleaning did not become unfashionable until the “young snobs” of the Italian Renaissance began using handkerchiefs. Despite the current stigma, the vast majority of people pick their nose privately. In addition, it is estimated that the number of Americans that eat the dried mucus, or boogers, is larger than the number of Americans that play golf. The eating of nasal mucus is so shameful that it is typically not revealed until the third year of psychoanalysis.
8. Taboo: Sex
Misconception: Homosexuality is a choice.
A 2010 study found that a small percentage of self-identified gay men and lesbians believe their sexual orientation is chosen. However, for numerous homosexuals, particularly men, their sexual preferences are rooted in their genetics and their development in the womb. The biological causes of homosexuality were validated by a Swedish study of thousands of twins that was published in 2010. Fundamentalist Christian attempts to “change” homosexuals are particularly cruel when it is understood that for many, sexuality is not a choice.
9. Taboo: Drugs
Misconception: Drug dealers cause drug use.
One of the myths upon which draconian drug sentences are built is that drug dealers “push” drugs on the young and virtuous. A 2000 study by the drug-treatment organization Phoenix House found that less than one percent of its patients had been introduced to drugs by a professional dealer. In contrast, 19 percent were introduced to drug use by family members. As Chris Rock once said, “Ain’t nobody ever sold me drugs. Ain’t nobody ever sold nobody in this room some drugs. Was you ever in your life not thinking about getting high and somebody sold you some fucking drugs. Hell, no!”
10. Taboo: Death
Misconception: Modern medicine can save us.
Death used to be omnipresent. People raised and killed their own animals for food. People died in their own homes and family members prepared bodies for burial. Now animal deaths are sequestered to factories and human deaths to hospitals and nursing homes. For many, death is no longer an inherent part of life but something that happens to us. As Daniel Callahan wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, vast medical advances have encouraged people to think that healthy lifestyles and scientific progress will eventually conquer death. Underlying this attitude is the assumption that death is "the principal evil of human life.” The denial of death drives wasteful end-of-life medical treatment that costs taxpayers billions and has no meaningful impact. As Dr. Ira Byock said on a 2010 "60 Minutes" piece about end-of-life medical spending, “Denial of death at some point becomes a delusion, and we start acting in ways that make no sense whatsoever. And I think that’s collectively what we’re doing.”
December 19, 2012
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