My Growing Taboo Awareness (…for Wise Democracy)

Taboo uses social pressure and self-censorship to keep us from thinking, talking or behaving in ways our social group doesn’t want us to. Taboo can help keep a group healthy with minimal effort. But it can be disastrous for a wise democracy where all sides of every issue need to be available for serious consideration so that trade-offs can be weighed and/or we can exercise informed, transformational co-creativity. All this is logical. But when we confront how it FEELS to really consider “the other side” in a highly charged controversial issue, we realize just how hard that can be. However, we really need to meet that challenge in order to effectively move towards a wise democracy.

“Taboo” means that if we act, speak or think in certain ways, something horrible is going to happen – usually social ostracism like loss of status, friendships, income, etc. We will be shunned and looked down on by many of our associates. As a form of peer pressure, it is a pretty big deal.

Taboos exist in most – perhaps all – societies. Taboos often exist to support social order and well being. In modern societies we see taboos against pedophilia, slavery, torture, and killing innocent people. Even if we didn’t have laws against these, social ostracism would go a long way to restraining such violations. Many of us have even watched certain frowned-on behaviors evolve into taboos, such as smoking and certain inter-gender behaviors, and from there evolve into laws.

Taboos are psychologically internalized in ways that constrain our behavior without needing much external enforcement, so they have a certain efficiency about them. By impeding choice, they also simplify life for those of us willing to follow their dictates.

There are of course always people who break both laws and taboos, for many reasons, for better and/or worse. Breaking taboos can be a natural step in both personal growth and cultural evolution.

Now, with all that as background, let’s move on to the main point of this message….

TABOOS AND DEMOCRACY

This essay is not about taboos being right or wrong. It is about their role in a wise democracy.

The fundamental guiding principle – or “prime directive” – of a wise democracy is to “evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole”. Wisdom in this context involves “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long term broad benefit”. Keep those definitions in mind.

If a taboo serves these purposes – for example, by keeping people from harassing or harming marginalized populations – it would contribute to wise democracy. If it impedes these purposes – for example, if it keeps people from seriously considering different perspectives and information regarding a controversial topic – that would undermine wise democracy.

It is important to note here that shame, fear, hatred, disgust, black-and-white thinking and blanket dismissal of people who disagree with us often play a role in taboo dynamics. These dysfunctional social responses can be triggered by well-chosen words and images. So they are powerful tools for people who want to manipulate public opinion and behavior for their own benefit. To the extent these tools are in play, it becomes really hard to develop anything approaching wise democracy.

GETTING INTO IT

This is where this essay gets tricky, because now I’m going to step outside the logical generalities I’ve described above and highlight some emotionally charged specifics for us to dig into. We’re now going to enter the realm of our own thinking, our own feelings, our own psychological dynamics, biases and reactions. It may get personal and disturbing. But I’m going there, because it is important – so important that one of my wise democracy patterns is “Taboo Awareness”. It wasn’t in version 1.0. I added it for version 2.0 because of the taboo dynamics I witnessed dancing around a beloved person close to me – not only around him but inside myself….

Many of today’s divisive issues in the US and elsewhere invoke taboo dynamics, especially at their extremes. Consider – just for examples – the intensely conflicted energies around issues related to:

  • Covid-19
  • the 2020 election
  • race, identity, justice, etc.
  • climate
  • immigration
  • guns
  • high-tech development….

While many of these feel simply polarized – with seemingly only two sides – most involve dozens of dimensions with numerous responses associated with each dimension. A dialogue between pro-choice and pro-life activists in the 1990s revealed that each activist had an individually nuanced sense of the issue but had compromised their views in public in order to generate the solidarity – on a “side” – needed to be politically effective. It is hard to win political battles if there are too many options on the table. The majoritarian system demands that we be for or against something, which usually gets whittled down to two sides in public discourse. One of the dynamics of conflict resolution and wise democracy is to deconstruct those sides into underlying needs, values, and aspirations and then work together to satisfy as many of them as possible – which – fortunately – is usually a lot!

But in our examination of taboo dynamics – as in the political battles themselves – it helps to oversimplify the issue involved into two sides, because that’s what it usually FEELS like to the participants when they call up their stereotyped view of “the other side”. In every case of taboo we find a dynamic some psychologists and sociologists call “othering” – framing people on the other side as evil, stupid, destructive, manipulated “sheep”, peddlers of – or suckers for – misinformation, or even less than human. We hear dismissive terms like fascist, racist, libtard, idiot, conspiracy theorist, tree-hugger, communist, traitor, and so on.

Perhaps some people would technically qualify for some of those labels. But these terms are usually applied with a broad brush in an attempt to mock, delegitimize and dehumanize one’s opponents and to inflame taboo sensitivities around what they say and do: If you say anything positive or curious about them and their ideas, you, too, will be shunned as evil, stupid, gullible, a danger to the community, etc. You have been warned.

Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, a pioneering scholar of brainwashing (as practiced by the Communist Chinese during the Korean War) popularized the term “thought-terminating cliche” to mean a word or phrase whose function is to make people stop thinking about a topic and stop listening to people who disagree with them, i.e., to trigger taboo dynamics around a subject.

Consider the term “conspiracy theorist” as applied to those who have issues with the mainstream epidemiological response to the spread of COVID-19. This was the case with my dear friend, which brought my attention to the taboo dynamics enough to include it in my wise democracy pattern language. My research showed that some of his critiques of how the pandemic was being handled were actually valid, or at least worthy of consideration as we think about the serious trade-offs involved in various approaches.

My wise democracy research had already taught me that it is extremely common in controversial topics for valid issues and data to exist on “both sides” (or, more accurately, on “all sides”). Our adversarial political culture – with its demand that we “take sides” – tends to make a full spectrum of claims hard to seriously and neutrally evaluate. This is especially true where taboo dynamics are in play, such that issues are viewed in such life-and-death terms that it becomes emotionally and socially dangerous to even consider looking fairly into the other worldview. Those who advocate fairness in such cases can even end up being vilified by both sides!

So here’s a highly oversimplified summary of the taboo-related attack narratives happening with the pandemic issue. Notice how each FEELS to you as you read it:

  • People who resist wearing masks, social distancing, lockdowns and safe vaccination programs are endangering – and perhaps even killing – other people in their communities. They are ignoring science and stirring up fears that make it hard to get the pandemic under control, with potentially disastrous consequences.

VERSUS

  • People who only follow mainstream media, and thus ignore or denounce available, proven cures, are endangering — and perhaps even — killing people. They are also endangering people by ignoring the increasingly visible problems caused by fast-tracking unproven vaccines. Those who uncritically follow government mandates are promoting massive exercises in social control, through extreme transmission control policies of masking, distancing, lockdowns, etc. The government and health authorities are cherry-picking the science and stirring up fears of the pandemic while ignoring the very real costs of isolation on people – perhaps especially on the development of children.

Notice the emotional, existential charge accompanying both these narratives. Any given individual even considering the possible validity of anything the other camp says or does risks actual shunning from their friends and associates. The taboo dynamics are rampant even with censorship in major media and online platforms and the banning of books, subjects, research and speakers in education and academia. For example, politically weaponized polarization and taboo dynamics around the epidemic has resulted in the silencing of a long-standing debate on the societal risks of genetic engineering of viruses — a critical issue which has only recently resurfaced as a discussable topic [1]. Attempts at truly balanced investigative reporting and research can be dangerous to the careers of professional journalists, scientists and academics.

Anyone becoming more nuanced in their thinking tends to become less vocal. They self-censor or move underground to have side conversations with people who happen to share some of their concerns, doubts or curiosity. The inability to have broadly informed conversations can lead some to slide over into the other side’s self-reinforcing bubble.

Our shared, collective informational “field” on this topic has become increasingly murky and charged at all levels, from the individual to the global. So much is at stake and so much is intrinsically unknown and very complex. We’re immersed in dynamics of confirmation bias, power, manipulation, misinformation and censorship. Most of us have too little time to really sort it all out – even just for ourselves. All this leaves little space for reasonable consideration and reflection. We are all desperate to know what to believe and do, and so we cling to whatever authorities or narratives make the most sense to us.

As I considered and researched the non-mainstream evidence my friend shared with me, I found myself censoring my own communication with others, out of fear of being dismissed or worse by my friends, my community, my networks and my audiences – like you reading this article. I noticed how the label “conspiracy theorist” isolated my very intelligent, rigorous and dear friend who fed me non-mainstream information I had a hard time refuting.

I could feel how that “conspiracy theory” label operated in my own consciousness to make me more inclined to dismiss him and less able to seriously consider what he had to say. Living through repeated instances of that feeling led me to notice how that phrase “conspiracy theorist” was playing the role of “thought terminating cliche” in my own consciousness. And I realized that that dynamic had disastrous implications for “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for longterm broad benefit” – i.e., the development of wisdom. I could feel how easy it is to manipulate and trigger people, using a phrase like that.

I like to think that institutions I promote – like citizen assemblies, citizens juries, citizen deliberative councils – COULD provide a balanced, trustworthy review of the claims made on all sides of such an issue. I do think that they have that potential. But I also know that the people convening and organizing such forums – and those viewing these forums – are subject to the same dynamics I’ve described above. If citizen forums include expert briefings from all sides of the issue, that could delegitimize the whole effort in the eyes of partisan observers. Both sides don’t want “the other side’s misinformation” to pollute the minds of the citizen deliberators.

Not only that: the conveners themselves need to manage to rise above their own confirmation bias dynamics to courageously produce what my pattern language calls “Full Spectrum Information”. This is hard stuff!

Much of these same dynamics play out in other charged issues, making it hard to give due consideration to the gifts and limitations of the views of “both sides.” As you consider my brief “both sides” presentations of the pandemic, I invite you to really FEEL what it feels like to even IMAGINE seriously considering BOTH such perspectives (as in the wise democracy pattern Multiple Perspective View). You may feel it’s deeply, viscerally repulsive to acknowledge ANYTHING about the side you despise, whose consequences seem to be so dangerous and ugly. If you feel that, there are probably good reasons to feel that way.

BUT/AND then what does it mean to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness OF THE WHOLE on behalf OF THE WHOLE? How do we address the visceral feelings that certain perspectives are inherently toxic and should never be seriously taken into account? How do we balance that with “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for broad, long term benefit”? How do we legitimately – to say nothing of wisely – decide “what needs to be taken into account” without due consideration of the pros and cons of all perspectives at large in the issue?

THE CHALLENGE

The wise democracy taboo pattern guidance doesn’t say “No Taboos”. It says “Taboo Awareness”. The power of taboos is simply too great to ignore and too potent in its capacity to close us down – unless we are AWARE of that power and attending to its presence in ourselves and in the functioning of our wise democracy innovations as well as in the world around us.

Can we take up the challenge to be neither manipulators nor manipulated, to be neither arrogantly certain nor lost in relativism as we seek to understand the Big Picture of whatever we are considering? Can we help others be likewise able to open their eyes and ears, minds and hearts, to as much of real life as they possibly can? Can we collectively grow to embrace as much of The Whole as is needed to behave wisely together – so we can act as if we truly ARE all in this together?

If we can, what a path that would open for profound transformation!

Coheartedly,
Tom

[1] On this topic there has been a very welcome call from Stanford microbiologist David A. Relman for a deliberative investigation into the pandemic and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “Conflicts of interest by researchers, administrators, and policymakers on all sides must be revealed and addressed, and all relevant global constituencies must be included…. A deliberative process for investigating the origins of this pandemic must be representative of all relevant disciplines, expertise, and stakeholders; must achieve political neutrality, scientific balance, and access to all relevant information and samples; and must operate with transparency and independent oversight. Without these features, it will not be credible, trustworthy, or effective.” In another context, Relman wrote, “It is unethical to place so many members of the public at risk and then consult only scientists — or, even worse, just a small subset of scientists — and exclude others from the decision-making and oversight process.”

So I suggest it would be very wise to convene inclusive expert/stakeholder deliberations for every major polarized issue, complemented bycitizen deliberative councils that voice the coherent, informed views and values of the population, as well. This combination has the potential to generate real collective wisdom to guide us – so different from the political incoherence and co-stupidity we see today.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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