Incest and Racist:

This is a fable:

Many years ago I and a couple of friends decided to explore an unknown island.  We arranged for supplies and a boat and in due course were deposited on the shore on the east side of the island.  The witch doctor approached.  He and a vertical crease just inside his right eyebrow indicating that that was the side he got his migraine headaches on.  He said, “What do you want?” 

We announced our purpose.  He pointed south and said, “That’s Crocodile Beach.  If you go that way half your men could be eaten by crocodiles.”  He pointed southwest and said, “That’s Tabolamma Mountian.  It’s taboo.  If you go there I can do nothing to help you: no charms, amulets, nothing.”  He pointed northwest.  “That’s Tabomamma Mountian.  It’s taboo.  If you go there I can do nothing for you, no dances, no songs, nothing.”  He pointed north and said, “That’s Tiger Grove.  If you go that way half of you men could be eaten by tigers.”

It all sounded all right to us, so we gathered some men and divided them into three groups.  My first friend said they were going south.  They all cheered, and pretty soon they were packing and laughing, polishing their amulets and getting new ones from the witch doctor. 

My second friend said they would go north.  There was a great cheer and soon they were packing and singing and dancing and learning new steps from the witch doctor. 

I told my team, “We go west.”  They all left.  I looked at the witch doctor and asked what happened.

He reached for the right side of his forehead and said, “You’re going right between them.” 

You see: for a lot of things there is something to do.  With taboos, the only thing is to stay away.  Or if you get too close run.  If you are caught between two, you can’t run. 

Do we have taboos in modern society?  Of course we do.  Any time purity is an issue, unless you are preparing chemical reagents, you are probably in the presence of a taboo.  Our attitudes are ambiguous.  They attract and repel at the same time.  And they come loaded with emotion.

As a child I dearly loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  All right,  I still do.  But I dare not eat them much.  I can’t burn off that kind of energy any longer.  But if a speck of peanut butter got in the grape jelly jar or a peck of grape jelly got in the peanut butter I would get queasy.  That didn’t make any sense at all, since they were going together into the same sandwich.  I told my father that this baffled me.  He said cheerfully, “Let’s make a mish mash.”  I looked inquiring.  He put a dollop of each on my place and using the back of a fork merrily squished them until they turned into a grayish, purplish goo.  Sure enough.  That was all right.  They were pure again.  I had been bushwhacked by a taboo. 

Of the countless taboos we deal with, one is incest.  We cringe.  We recoil.  I understand Freud referred to, “The grisly horror of incest.”  That’s not to say it’s a good idea.  But surely it is not infinitely bad.  It’s badness could be compared with something else and be found wanting, I feel sure.  But taboos do not invite rational comparisons.  The mountain is scarier than the tiger. 

Of course incest is not the subject of this web site.  The forbidden circle of relatives that defines incest in a particular community would have to be expanded literally to pathological size in order for it to interfere with marrying a cousin who would be a good bet for having lots of healthy children.  I am not advocating incest.  Not in the slightest.

Another taboo is racism.  Declare yourself a racist and you will be branded for life.  There is a channel on my cable service that purportedly is the military channel, but from what I can see the major interest on that channel is Nazi concentration camps.  I have taken little interest in those camps, but from what I have heard, you would be much more likely to survive in one of them (mostly they murdered people on the spot rather than sending to camps) than in an American Civil War prisoner of war camp.  In Andersonville, Georgia conditions were so bad that soldiers would simply walk past the guard lines and get themselves shot to death rather than endure the starvation, thirst, sunburn, glare blindness and so forth.  But that was simply lack of competence and resources.  In the North the Confederate soldiers were deliberately starved to death.  In Germany they were death camps, sure enough.  I have spoken with survivors.  There is a fascination a lot of people have that they do not find in our own history.  And the reason is clear enough.  While the motivation in the South was stupidity and the motivation in the North was revenge, the motivation in Germany was racism.  We hate it, but we watch – at least enough people watch so they keep running the shows.   That’s pretty typical taboo behavior. 

Of course the linkage of kinship and fertility has nothing to do with race at all.  Races are huge any way you define them.  A viable population is probably less than a thousand.  There is no ambiguity.  This has nothing to do with race.

But it doesn’t have to.  The problem is that the issue lies between the taboo of incest and the taboo of racism.  Racist and incest sort of rhyme if you think about it.  And it is easy to image that the incest taboo has simply enlarged so as to merge with the racist taboo.  That’s silly once you say it in so many words.  But prejudice doesn’t have to make sense.

So the problem with getting people to understand what is going on and to start to invent rational schemes by which we might survive is that they must step between two taboos.  And that makes them very uncomfortable.  You can’t run away.

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