Of taboo, power, and great moral causes

by John MacBeath Watkins

"The concept of culture I espouse ... is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of laws, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." -- Clifford Geertz

This gets at something I've been trying to capture through the lens of linguistics, in post like this one and this one. I found the quote, oddly enough, in a wonderful paper about why Jews love Chinese food. I did understand the "Safe Treyf" aspect of eating food that, unlike, say, Italian food, did not combine meat and milk products, and the fact that the Chinese places were open on Christmas and Easter, but there is a web of other cultural factors that the paper elucidates.

For example, as the authors note:

"The British historian Raymond Williams pointed out that a culture spawns the terms of its own rejection. Rebels can disavow the strictures of a food-oriented culture by eating forbidden food. But a food-oriented rebellion cannot be accomplished with just any forbidden substance. It cannot be food that looks so like prohibited fare that it automatically triggers revulsion, nor can it be food that requires some expertise to eat (such as a whole lobster)."
I've actually dated a Jewish woman who loves ham and cheese sandwiches, which could only be made less kosher if they included shellfish. I've no doubt that she was a rebel, although the flavor had to have something to do with her choice.

Now, let's step sideways. The modern food culture with a strong moral element is the vegetarian, and even more so, the vegan diet. Now, psychologists know that a thing and its opposite reside close to one another in the psyche. That's why you get politicians like former Sen. Larry Craig, he of the "wide stance," opposing gay rights while soliciting gay sex in restrooms. And there's a point to the joke behind one of the great titles of all times, Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality: Readings from the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. The point is that the people who think the most about something may embrace it or reject it, which is the reason for the perverse tendency Williams noted. Craig no doubt thought a great deal about his own sexuality, and secretly embraced it while publicly rejecting it.

The vegan project is a great moral cause, which means it could be the seed to a church. And as Eric Hoffman noted, a church begins as a great moral cause, becomes a business, and eventually turns into a racket (I'd say at that point, the church must reform of die.) I doubt we'd see the sort of rejection Williams talks about in the first phase, but it's possible in the second and likely in the third.

The great moral cause of the vegans bears some similarity to kosher food laws, because one of the goals of those laws is to make sure people aren't inhumane in the way they slaughter animals. Killing is one of the most unnatural things human beings do. There are rules against it in every human culture, in part because it repels us, and in part because it happens.

How unnatural is it? Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book On Killing, notes that when firing at targets, Prussian soldiers could hit a target representing a rank of opposing soldiers 60 percent of the time when firing at a range of 75 yards with smooth bore muskets, so the first volley by a 200-man unit should take out 120 soldiers in an equal unit, and the men could fire 4-5 times a minute. American Civil War soldiers, equally equipped and trained, engaged the enemy at an average range of 30 yards, so you can imagine how quickly such engagements were expected to end.

Only they didn't.

Regiments killed the enemy at a rate of only a few a minute in most engagements, and engagements could last hours. Many soldiers chose to load and pass weapons to soldiers willing to fire, and in some cases individual soldiers fired hundreds of rounds, although black-powder weapons would generally foul by the time a soldier had fired the 40 rounds each was equipped with. The extra rounds and the extra rifles came from men unwilling to shoot at the enemy themselves.

Others shot over the heads of the enemy. Some postured, pretending to fire. Grossman notes that of the 27,574 muskets recovered from having been left on the field at Gettysburg, 90 percent were loaded. In drills, the rifle was loaded only about 5 percent of the time -- firing and loading took the rest of the time. About 12,000 were found to be loaded more than once, 6,000 having three to ten rounds in them. Men were pretending to shoot, sometimes going through the motions of loading and firing while engaged in a desertion in place, not firing under the cover of the black powder smoke from their compatriot's guns.

Armies try to overcome this, of course. Part of the psychological brutality of boot camp is designed to remake the psyche of soldiers so that they will automatically follow an order rather than think about what they are doing. Yet Civil War soldiers, and soldiers in WW I, reported paralysis of the trigger finger. More Civil War soldiers died of "nostalgia," thought then to be an extreme form of homesickness, than died of dysentery..

There is power in such a terrible taboo, and power in breaking it. I covered the police beat for a daily paper at one point in my life, and was struck by the fact that while some criminals had clear and powerful motives, most did not. And if you think about it, most motives for murder don't stack up to the enormity of the crime. And some of the motives we accept as likely don't seem to me to be all that powerful. Yes, people kill for money, but what's money compared to a human life? In that case, the goal and the means are both expressions of power. Sex often plays a role, but let's face it, an orgasm isn't that difficult to achieve. Power, again, is.

Surely we should value a culture that has a means to express rebellion and personal power through eating Chinese food, or even the more extreme expression of eating a ham sandwich.

By the way, I explored the link between taboo and power in this bit of fiction: