Dr. Paul Dunion – Trouble With Taboo

All through history there have been shamans, medicine men, priests, witch doctors and mental health professionals deciding what is normal and what is taboo. There are times when we ascribe the description of taboo to human behavior, a label appearing to support our emotional and physical sustainability, such as in the case of sexual incest. An old definition of the word taboo is to separate. There are discerning questions to ask when something is up for review as possibly being taboo: What is to be gained by separating people? Is anyone emotionally or physically harmed by the behavior? If some harm is generated, do the benefits out weigh the losses? Is it behavior we would or would not be willing to recommend to the general public? Is the fear generated by the behavior a genuine response to the likelihood of it generating unfavorable, concrete consequences?

Kim Wednesday, "Custodial Care"

The Alleged Benefits of Ascribing Taboo

There are a number of alleged benefits generated by ascribing the description of taboo to certain behaviors, people and groups. One alleged advantage is that it brings clarity to what is normal.


An old Latin definition of the word normal is a carpenter’s square. The word referred to the instrument a carpenter used to measure right angles in order to create furniture that would be level, sturdy and straight. Is there a price to pay for believing we can easily move from furniture to psyches? If so, what is the price of believing we can employ the carpenter’s square to the psyche? Did we decide we could employ psychological nomenclature to measure level and sturdy personalities? How might ascribing taboo to certain behavior support our attachment to define normalcy? Identifying some behavior as taboo reinforces our vision of what is normal. We separate what is deemed taboo by making it unacceptable with its opposite receiving a kind of buoyancy for its legitimacy. Now, we really know what’s in and what’s out, and what really matters, massaging our insecurity and anxiety.

Artificial Belonging

Once we are able to point toward aberrant behavior, we can decide that we are free of deviant conduct, and reaffirm therefore our sense of belonging. Using someone whom we designate as taboo can only produce a fraudulent feeling of belonging. Because it is not popular to take the status of our belonging seriously, we run the risk of pretending that if we do not exhibit taboo behavior, then we certainly belong. We then anchor our belonging in the status quo or what is considered normal.

Power To The Decision Makers

We can individually designate ourselves as holding the entitlement to decide what or who is taboo, or we can belong to a formalized group who makes such decisions. Those deciding what is taboo procure a kind of immunity from their idiosyncrasies being labeled taboo. It is always advantageous to ask who might be benefiting from labels of taboo being distributed. I recall hearing a presenter at the New England Educational Institute make the following statement: “As a member of the committee developing DSM IV, it became acutely obvious that our efforts would not serve patients but rather benefit practitioners, giving us a sense of order and meaning.” The statement stunned a packed audience of one hundred mental health providers. Could it be that our diagnostic tools are simply a beginning place to orient us as practitioners. The real goal may be to find the courage to step away from our orientation, remaining curious about the uniqueness of the psyche before us and holding the faith that because of the developing rapport, more will be revealed.

“I’m Glad I’m Not Like You”

We get to sanitize our psychology by attributing the stigma of taboo to others. The more we make a case that somebody’s behavior or lifestyle is taboo, the more likely it is that the accusers are struggling within themselves  with similar inclinations. They could be aware of their propensity to act in a similar way or to denying it and relegate it to the unconscious, where it becomes shadow material. If it is floating around in the unconscious, then there is a significant likelihood it will bet projected to others. Once projected or attributed to others, it is easy see those possessing the unwanted trait as outsiders.

The Hazards of Taboo

As we have seen, it is not that the use of taboo should never be employed, but rather used judiciously. There are a number of unfavorable results when assigning the label of taboo without significant discretion:

– The stigmatized group suffers emotionally from being marginalized.

– The stigmatized group may act-out  as a way to reclaim rights and privilege.

– The preferred group loses opportunity to engage in diverse expressions of the human condition.

– The preferred group experiences a level of self-righteousness that likely prevents them from seeing and accepting their own idiosyncrasies.

– Both groups experience the tension created by the taboo.

– The suffering may be generational as in the case of Post Slavery Syndrome.

Letting Go Of Separation

Letting go of ascribing taboo through fear and denial means letting go of an attachment to separation and replacing it with a devotion to unity. There are numerous expressions of suspending taboo and fostering inclusion that have yielded profound results. There are two I want to cite here. The first is the town of Geel (Pronounced Hyale) in Belgium. The second is the Nordic Penal System.

For 700 years the townsfolk of Geel have taken the mentally ill into their homes as boarders. Language amongst the citizenry suggests taboo or separation such as patient and psychiatric are not used. Ironically, language suggesting separation is considered taboo. Rather than being marginalized, boarders are encouraged to become family members Emphasis is placed upon bonding with children. There are currently 200 boarders living with families who have resisted seeing what they do as therapeutic. They prefer the description of family care. In 1902, the International Congress of Psychiatry decided that the care offered in the town of Geel was an example of the best practice to be modeled wherever possible. In the past hundred years, countless Mental Health Providers have visited Geel, confirming the exceptional state of wellness of the boarders.

The Scandinavian prison system is another example of promoting health and wellness by diminishing taboo and separation. Their major goal is to integrate inmates meaningfully back into society. Their clothing is non-institutional, their cells are like college dorms with flat televisions, computer equipment and cell phones for regular connection to family and friends. Each prisoner has a contact officer who is responsible for both security and reintegration into the community. They travel daily to town for work and study, wearing ankle bracelets. The success of the Nordic Penal system is not simply due to the emphasis of inclusion reflected by attire, residence and mobility. It is deeply accentuated by the attitude of professionals and not politicians who establish prison guidelines. There is also less separation on behalf of the general population who has a voice regarding prison protocol.

In a September 24, 2013 article in The Atlantic, Doran Larson sites Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie: “Christie concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes…. The harshness of the punishment that fearful voters are convinced is the only thing that works on people who don’t think or act like them becomes a measure of the moral distance between these voters and people identified as criminals.”

Larson makes the point that the American penal system appears to incarcerate based largely upon race and class, as well as employs policies and procedures that further separate inmates fro from the general population. Does our prison system suffer from the subtle or not so subtle taboo we ascribe to people of color and socio-economic status? We can see the price we pay for the inevitable separation that accompanies assigning taboo. Our rate of recidivism is almost twice as high as the Nordic system and costs tax payers an enormous amount  of money.

Taboo Close To Home

Attitudes that attribute taboo are often insidious, calling for some personal experience that jolts us into the reality of our attitudes. My forty-year-old daughter Sarah was born with a rare neurological disorder called Polymicrogyria. Her condition left her with minimum gross and fine motor control. She possesses little and sometimes no control over random bodily movements. This made it challenging to bring her into restaurants and stores. Hence, I made it a practice not to take her grocery shopping with me.

However on one occasion, I decided to boldly head to the grocery store accompanied by Sarah at age 3, with her sitting at the back of the cart. I successfully navigated the shopping carriage in which Sarah sat through the aisles without causing an avalanche of produce, can goods and the ever ominous, snack aisle. I moved quickly toward the check-out beginning to feel the victory of having successfully piloted through the obstacle course. The only challenge left was to move to the front of the carriage in order to empty the it at light speed, as I left Sarah temporarily unattended at the other end of the carriage. I was convinced I could empty the carriage before a magazine rack came tumbling down. With my last item placed in front of the cashier, I looked up and to my chagrin, Sarah had a vice grip on the arm of a fragile looking elderly woman in line behind us.

I lunged forward, convinced it was my duty to save this woman from Sarah’s uninvited squeeze. The woman immediately prohibited my intervention, “Oh no, let her be! I haven’t been touched in over twenty years!” All around us came to a standstill as the viscosity of the hush seemed to freeze us in time, with any anticipation of what’s next being suspended. The impatience of other shoppers pealed off of their faces, replaced by a gaze suggesting a reverence for what was stalling the line. The check-out girl lowered her chin as if offering a subtle bow. The regard we all held was palpable in check-out lane number 6. Sarah began releasing the woman’s arm as if they had come to some mutual agreement. I pushed the carriage more gently out of the store, still stunned by what I witnessed.

Over the next few days, numerous questions flooded my mind: Had I decided that Sarah, because of her disability was somehow taboo? Did I believe that whatever she might do in the grocery would likely be perceived as taboo? Did I fear being perceived as taboo by association? Had my abilism separated me in some subtle but profound way? Was I avoiding what Sarah and I might have in common? I learned about the obvious as well as the insidious life of what we call taboo.

Sometimes its voice is loud, energized by moralizing, demonizing or pathologizing. However, sometimes it is but a whisper, a muted expression of separation hardly noticeable. The lessons of check-out aisle number 6 had reminded me that I took refuge in separation from my own daughter by emphasizing my ability to be articulate, agile and intellectually acute. Check-out aisle number 6 offered the opportunity to unite with Sarah accepting that we both at times feel vulnerable, both want to be accepted with a place to genuinely belong, and both want to be loved. Also both of us at times would feel helpless and in need of support.
We have explored an ancient definition of the word taboo as separation. We noted that separating a particular behavior, such as sexual incest, might be useful when its impact upon society is largely injurious. When that is not the case, there will likely be more unfavorable consequences when ascribing the label of taboo. We also saw the immense benefits to be accrued by eliminating a description of taboo whenever possible, as portrayed by the Belgium town of Geel and the Nordic Penal system. Lastly, it was suggested we might live from a subtle assignment of taboo to family members or friends, creating unnecessary separation.

Paul Dunion

Over 30 years as a Psychotherapist in private practice, Paul Dunion has written numerous articles related to Human Potential and four books. He is the founder of COMEGA (Connecticut’s Mens’ Gathering), Boys To Men (Mentoring Community for Teenage Boys), and The Croton Mystery School.

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