Taboo U

There is a lot of discussion of the Taboo mentality going on right now – which is good, in the sense that the dangers of the taboo mentality are being pointed out, but it’s bad, in the sense that there is also a lot of Taboo mentality around right now. Is it worth it to have some people thinking badly to give an occasion for other people to explain what’s wrong with bad thinking? Wouldn’t it be better and simpler just to have everyone thinking clearly to begin with? Yes, probably, but since that’s not going to happen, it’s a good thing there are people around to do some nudging.

Salman Rushdie at Open Democracy, for example.

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

There’s a lot of disagreement over that thought, but it seems right to me. Declaring a set of ideas immune from criticism or satire does seem like the one thing you don’t want to do with a set of ideas. You could say that that’s what the word ‘God’ is for – a kind of imaginary rubber stamp or strongbox or chastity belt serving to render a particular set of ideas undiscussable, unchangeable, non-negotiable. Given what human ideas can be and what they can do, that seems like a very risky approach.

Steven Pinker in The New Republic is talking about the same general idea, though in a different instantiation.

To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true…

And not only history. An easy thought-experiment can show us the same thing. Let’s see…I want it to be true that there is a steaming-hot pizza with feta, pesto and artichokes on the table. But there isn’t, and it isn’t. I guess my wanting isn’t all that powerful, then.

What are we to make of the breakdown of standards of intellectual discourse in this affair–the statistical innumeracy, the confusion of fairness with sameness, the refusal to glance at the scientific literature? It is not a disease of tenured radicals; comparable lapses can be found among the political right (just look at its treatment of evolution). Instead, we may be seeing the operation of a fascinating bit of human psychology. The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo–the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them–is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense.

As a matter of fact, it was reading Pinker on Tetlock and others on taboo that inspired my colleague to create the ‘Taboo’ game. Of course, some ideas are ‘so dangerous’ – the ideas that swirl around ethnic cleansing, genocide, purity, eugenics, generally cleaning up humanity by thinning it out radically, are an obvious example. But as Pinker puts it –

Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong…The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.

Yes. Books published by Taboo University Press are not the ones that promise a searching look at which ideas are wrong for what reasons. I’ll order mine from Free Inquiry Press, thanks.

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