I interviewed Robert Arthur, author of a thought-provoking book about taboos, called You Will Die. (If his name sounds familiar, it could be because we've run a number of Rob's cartoons on Boing Boing, and they've proven to be popular.)
A book that vigorously defends heroin users and sex workers? In You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos Robert Arthur does that and more to demonstrate that taboos are not relics of primitive societies. America has its own ridiculous phobias and beliefs that cause tedium, suffering, and death. The government and the media use these taboos to lie and mislead. It is not a conspiracy, but by pushing panic for votes and viewers they thwart our pursuit of happiness.
You Will Die exposes the fallacies and the history behind our taboos on excrement, sex, drugs, and death. Arthur uses racy readability and rigorous documentation to raze sacred shrines of political correctness on the left and of conventional wisdom on the right. From the proper way to defecate to how to reach nirvana, anticipate the unexpected. It is not simply a novel exploration of sex and drugs, but also of individuality, liberty, and the meaning of life. You Will Die gives readers a new way of seeing their world and allows them to make a more informed choice about living an authentic life.
What made you write You Will Die?
Disillusionment. I grew up with the angst of believing I was a disgusting perverted heathen and after graduating from NYU Law in 2001 I began to research whether I was broken or if conventional wisdom was. The truth was out there but it was buried in boring academic texts, suppressed from the mainstream by puritanical censors on the right and politically-correct censors on the left. I wanted to make the truth easily accessible to the younger versions of me. I wanted them to realize that in these areas they aren't messed up. Our society is.
What do you think is the basis behind taboos? Is there an evolutionary behavior reason for taboos?
Ignorance is the basis behind taboos. Taboos are associated with an ignorance so ingrained that people are disgusted or morally offended to have their beliefs merely questioned.
I think there is an evolutionary need to accept common convention or else there would be chaos, but I also think there is an evolutionary need to have some people question our deepest cultural assumptions, our taboos. Mutations in thought are as rare as physical mutations but they are necessary for society to evolve.
Do you think some taboos are genetically hardwired, rather than culturally acquired? Are there any universal taboos that you've come across?
I think incest and fecal avoidance have become hardwired because they are evolutionary advantageous. Not surprisingly, these functional taboos are the closest to being universal. More often taboos work in the opposite direction. Instead of genetics influencing cultures via taboos, cultures will frequently try to influence instinctual desires via taboos. Comparing the amount of propaganda and police force directed against drug usage and sex work versus coprophagy (the eating of feces) and incest, provides a clue as to which taboos are natural.
Have you received any letters or email from readers who are upset that you are examining taboos?
Yes. Frequently they are from drug-war supporters who have a loved one that was addicted to drugs. I find them as morally reprehensible as they find me. Addiction is often driven by people seeking an escape from problems -- not by drugs themselves. Addicts need mental-health treatment, not a permanent criminal record. Outside of marijuana, Hollywood and journalistic portrayals of drugs are still just as misleading as the Reefer Madness films of old were. Often, the only media image of drug users is an out-of-control addict, despite statistics showing that they constitute a small minority of users even with "hard" drugs. When it comes out that Barack Obama used cocaine, people are surprised he was successful, but non-addicts like him are the norm. If Obama was branded with a criminal record as a young man for drug possession the government would have been responsible for destroying his future, not cocaine. Suffering people will always find something in which to lose themselves, but Mexico's annual carnage on the scale of 9/11 and the mass incarceration of America's black men -- that requires prohibitionists.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.