Friday, November 03, 2023

3: It might well be argued that decency and modesty are religious taboos....

 It might well be argued that the idea that you shouldn’t show nude pictures to children is a religious taboo.

It might equally be argued that all ideas about ethics and behaviours are religious taboos. But most of us think, that “you shouldn’t kill anyone without a very good reason” and “you should remove your footwear before coming into a place of worship” are in rather different categories. The danger of puritanism is that every personal taboo is raised to the level of a universal moral imperative.

I avert my eyes from certain images; therefore, everyone should be obliged to wear blindfolds.

If we allow churches and mosques to enforce the head-covering taboo, it is only a matter of time before the Home Secretary makes a rule that all ladies have to wear a headscarf in public

The solution to this is to send purity patrols into Wee Free Churches and rip the hats off all the ladies. I understand this has literally been tried on French beaches.

The more we tolerate people’s religious taboos, the more taboos fringe religious groups will think up. If we say “That’s all right, you don’t have to come to morning prayers if you don’t want to” then pretty soon the guru will decide that members of his sect are also not allowed to participate in egg and spoon races, flower-pressing competitions or Sociology.

The more taboos a religion imposes, the harder it is for members of the sect to integrate with the wider culture. The less the religion integrates, the more likely it is to survive. This is one of the reasons successful religions have long lists of obscure prohibitions.

Do you remember that scene in Twelve Angry Men where the Bigoted White Juror fumes at the Nice Hispanic Juror?

“Why are you always so goddamn polite??”

“I think” replies the nice Puerto Rican man “For the same reason you are not: it is the way I was brought up.”

Young children tend to split the world into good and bad, wrong and right, naughty and nice. Tell a small child that he can go to the end of the path, but no further, and he may very well try going two steps beyond the gate, to see what happens, but he generally won’t run down the street and across the road.

Sophisticated parents don’t treat this as a bold act of defiance, but merely a way of understanding where the boundaries are. Sometime around puberty, we start to be able to make finer judgments: to be able to understand concepts like “this thing is forbidden, except when it’s allowed” and “I’ll make an exception just this one time, because it’s an unusual circumstance.” Ask a young child if a starving person can steal food, they will probably say “Stealing is naughty”. Ask a teenager, and they’ll admit that it’s a difficult question.

Political conservatives and religious fundamentalists often have, or pretend that they have, the moral perspective of an eight year old. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Something can’t be good on Monday and bad on Tuesday. God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Situational ethics and postmodernism will lead to the downfall of society.

Why does Andrew think that black face dolls, public nudity, and the word fuck are generally inappropriate? For the same reason that you do. It is the way we were brought up.

I don’t buy the theory that a naturist is harmed by the sight of pants in the same way and to the same degree that a puritan is harmed by the sight of genitals.

I don’t buy the theory that the same liberalism which says that a Muslim lady has the right to keep her face covered if she wants to also says that a humanist has the right to not see ladies wearing burkas if he doesn’t want to.

I don’t buy the theory that the same liberalism which says that a transexual person should be allowed to go to the lavatory if they need to also says that a prejudiced person shouldn’t have to use a cubical adjacent to one that might have a transexual person in it if they don’t want to.

Some people say “If Christians are allowed to take Good Friday off work it logically follows that Satanists should be allowed to carry out human sacrifices” but they don’t really believe it.

I think that under most circumstances, where it is reasonable, all other things being equal, we ought to respect people’s religious traditions. And we pretty much agree on when things are equal and when they are not. We are mostly cool with Jews abstaining from pork pies; but not with Jews saying that no-one else should eat pork pies and definitely not with them closing down Melton Mowbray in case someone inadvertently walks past a pork pie factory.

I think that most adults can see that an anatomically accurate representation of an adult nude figure in a book about human anatomy is semiotically different from an accurate representation of an adult nude figure in a life-drawing class; and an adult actor taking his clothes off in an erotic movie sold only to adults is not doing the same thing as he would be if he sent a stranger an unsolicited explicit e-mail. We grok that you can take your clothes off in a sports-centre changing room but not in a sport-centre bar.

Contexts may overlap. There may be misunderstandings. Sometimes we may have to say “Whoops, so sorry, I thought the door was locked.” If I thought I was watching a documentary about professional footballers and suddenly found myself looking at a group of nude men in the shower, I might well say “That embarrassed me.” I might even say “That made me feel violated and dirty” or “That made me ritually unclean and unable to take the sacrament” or “That brought on a post-traumatic shock reaction because I was assaulted by a person with a similar body part some years ago.”

Which is why we tend to put warnings on that kind of material. “Contains nudity”. “Includes images which you may consider indecent.”

Some people might think that a sign saying “WARNING: If you come through this door you might catch a glimpse of a naked man” placed outside an exhibition of Greek Sculpture—or, indeed, a men’s changing room—was silly and unnecessary. Others might find it quite helpful.

But it really wouldn’t be a threat to free speech, democracy, and the continuation of western civilisation.

Nor, come to that, would a couple of judicious fig-leaves.

There is a lovely chaotic old fashioned toy museum in Sidmouth—less an exhibition than a repository of Teddy Bears and models trains and Muffin the Mules and Star Wars Lego that people have donated over the decades.

I can’t directly recall if the have any gollywogs on display, but I would be surprised if it didn’t.

I assume that somewhere in the world there is an International Jam Jar Museum. If there is, I imagine it includes jars with the offending character on the label.

I felt some sympathy for the enthusiasts who had restored an old bus, complete with a very old fashioned advertisement for Robertsons Marmalade on the side, and were asked if they wouldn’t please mind removing it.

Anatomically correct images of naked men could be exhibited in such a way as to constitute pornography; but equally clearly they could be exhibited in such a way as to not constitute pornography.

And, as a matter of fact, pornography may be relatively innocent or very harmful indeed.

I once saw a movie which consisted of nothing but still photographs of gentlemen’s private parts. It was second feature to an extremely dull film about Italian nuns, I seem to remember. I think the point was that if you show a sufficient number of such images (dicks, I mean, not nuns) they cease to be dirty or prurient or embarrassing and just become, I don’t know, skin.

Yoko Ono made the same point about bottoms in a film called Bottoms.

As a matter of fact, my willy wouldn’t drop off if a lady caught a glimpse of it; and the lady wouldn’t go blind if she accidentally caught a glimpse of my willy.

People who have done the naturist thing says it stops mattering after about three minutes. I believe the showers at Glastonbury are co-ed.

If we could just get over ourselves a lot of the difficulties would go away. We’d instantly deprive flashers and streakers of their power and put a lot of pornographers out of business.

Sometime around 1986, comedian and Blackadder perpetrator Ben Elton did a comic stand up routine.

He asked what the world was coming to when a primary school teacher putting sun-cream on a six year old kid might be thought to be committing a sexual act; but the President of America ejaculating into the mouth of an intern might be thought not to be.

He was being disingenuous for comic effect. What Clinton claimed was that what he had done in the Oval Office did not strictly amount to sexual intercourse, a significant legal distinction if what you are being accused of is telling lies. Many of us think that, given what we now know about Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, quite a lot of clergymen and a fair number of PE teachers, a rule which says that teachers can’t touch kids, at all, for any reason, ever, is quite a sensible rule to have.

I was reminded of the joke when two news items invaded public discourse at the same time.

A pub in England was temporarily closed because it had a collection of several hundred black-face rag-dolls on display. I think the police actually confiscated the collection, but outraged citizens donated new dolls so the display could be restored. Everyone involved asserted that there was nothing racist about the display. That the pub was called The White Hart was probably an unfortunate coincidence.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned school teacher was sanctioned for showing an carved marble penis to his art class.

What, I found myself asking, is the world coming to when a renaissance sculpture might be considered pornographic and a display of gollywogs might not be considered racist?

This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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Mike Taylor said...

"Why does Andrew think that black face dolls […] are generally inappropriate? For the same reason that you do. It is the way we were brought up."

But it's NOT the way you were brought up, as you explained in the first chapter.


Tim Ellis said...

No, I think it is the way he was (we were) bought up. It is polite/proper not to give offence to others when it can be avoided. So if we become aware, in adult life, that something we considered innocent and/or harmless as a child is, or can be seen as offensive, then we ought not to continue using/doing that.

Mike Taylor said...

That is true. But it's also true that we were (or at least I was) brought up not to consider golliwogs offensive, or even to contemplate the possibility that they could be. I think the fact that that has changed — that we do not now follow the way we were brought up, at least in this respect, is interesting.

Andrew Rilstone said...


Commentators theorise that Rilstone composed this monograph as a number of short essays, which deliberately took different and sometimes contrary positions, and that the overall meaning of the text only became clear when all the sections were seen together. And possibly not even then. This may have been one of the reasons why Rilstone equivocated about how, and indeed whether, to publish the work.

It appears that in the editing process, Rilstone made a number of changes to his first draft that were intended to make the connections between the sub-essays clearer. In the first draft (currently held under lock and key in the Institute of Rilstone Studies), Andrew wrote:

"Why does Andrew think that showing other people his willy is generally inappropriate? For the same reason that you do. It is the way we were brought up."

He seems to have rejected this version because it was vulgar, childish, and because he felt that he had already overplayed the "unexpected frankness in an academic essay" card. So he modified it to

"Why does Andrew think that public nudity is generally inappropriate?"

In order to make it clear how the line of reasoning connected to the earlier part of the argument, the final version reads.

"Why does Andrew think that black face dolls, public nudity, and the word fuck are generally inappropriate?"

But this arguably obfuscated the point that he was making: that cultural standards of decency are much more like religious taboos or (in a sense he develops later in the essay) magical thinking than they are like political or philosophical beliefs. He is trying to raise the question about whether "don't use swearwords" "don't display racially offensive figures" and "don't expose your body" are similar or different.

In doing so, he arguably confuses what might be called first and second order prohibitions. The nudity taboo doesn't appear to rest on any prior belief: you have to wear clothes because you have to wear clothes because clothes are what you have to wear. The Bible requires an etiological myth to explain why humans do not go naked -- and also, incidentally, that it is not a divine prohibition, but one that Adam and Eve think up for themselves.

There clearly isn't a first order belief that says "Don't display Robertson's jam figurines in pubs, particularly not pubs with the word 'White" in their name."

Rather there is a serious of intuitive logical steps "It's bad to be cruel" "Mockery is a form of cruelty" "Gollywogs mock black people." There are then I think some more sophisticated political judgements: that the black-face doll was one made by white adults for white children; dolls with other racial characteristics were never sold; and that a cultural blind spot meant that even quite liberal people didn't perceive the mockery. They were the symptom of a lot of very racist beliefs.

But once this has been recognised; the humble golly does, in fact, become the subject of a first order taboo -- much more analogous to "do not say fuck" and "do not expose your downstairs front bottom area". We don't disapprove of the gollywog because it is insulting towards black people; we disapprove of it because it is a gollywog and gollywogs are things you disapprove of. The fact of its being displayed becomes intrinsically shocking, regardless of context: any such display can be assumed to be taboo-breaking for the sake of taboo-breaking. It is bad because it is bad because it is the sort of thing which is bad.

Mike Taylor said...

"We don't disapprove of the gollywog because it is insulting towards black people; we disapprove of it because it is a gollywog and gollywogs are things you disapprove of."

Now, that is interesting — and I think correct.

A big shift has happened here. I am pretty sure that when I was a child it didn't even occur to me that gollywogs were black because they were caricatures of black people: I though they were black for the same reason smurfs are blue and the Hulk is green — because that's just the fictional world that we're talking about. In retrospect of course I was completely wrong: the minstrel clothes give it away once you know a bit more cultural context.

At this point, it's tempting to leap to "... and so, you see, golliwogs were innocent for the children of the seventies, and it follows that they still are". But it doesn't work that way. You can't un-eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Once you know what a thing is, your attitude towards it necessarily changes.