This is the speech I gave today (Friday 9 May, 2014) at the 163rd meeting of the TCS Maitree Kochi, Toastmaster's Club. The theme was #taboo #thrill #tease
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.
Do you want to fight for change? Do you thirst for difference? Do you want to alter the way we live our lives? Well then, start talking what men (and women) avoid talking about.
I believe that Toba Beta was quite right when he said this out loud and exhorted us to be pioneers and go where no man (or woman) has ever gone before, or has at least, been prevented from venturing into – The realm of taboos and restrictions, political incorrectness, unfettered opinions and loud behaviors. So loud that they shatter the very ear drum of social consciousness and sound a rude awakening for all who have been sleeping soundly under the shadow of restrictions.
But enough of this naive idealism and this flagrant call to arms. I’m not here to ask you to break rules. But I’m not here to ask you not to either. I’m here so that we can talk about breaking rules and taboos and restrictions from a purely academic point of view and see where that takes us.
Before we discuss taboos, we need to have an understanding of it. A taboo is a prohibition, generally of the use or practice of something. That was the Oxford English Dictionary definition, in linguistics we understand taboo to be ‘a total or partial prohibition of the use of certain words, expressions, topics, etc., especially in social intercourse’. Yes that was ‘social’ intercourse and not the other more famous one. God! This English language is a pain in as-, I mean neck!
Well, taboos come in all shapes and sizes. There are taboos against swear words, torture, some types of sex, drug abuse, obscene gestures, incest, cannibalism, alcohol, nudity, suicide, terrorism, pregnancy, abortion, polygamy and rape (obviously). But did you know that there exist cultures that proscribe political freedom (like in the case of police states), democracy! (as in totalitarian regimes), gay rights (well, you know where that happens – hint, the name of the place starts with I and rhymes with the last name of Madhavrao Scindia, may he rest in peace; why did I even think of him.. well never mind). But what is even more surprising are societies that forbid one-parent families, divorce, religious belief (an example is North Korea where all forms of worship are forbidden except praise for the eternal president and Founder Kim Il Sung) and as if that were not depressing enough, there are even taboos against depression itself!
And that is no laughing matter. This censure of thoughts, words and deeds affects us in profound ways and shapes our attitude towards everything. It affects our relationships with people and our expectations and obviously our interactions with them. But it also affects us in subtle ways, by making us bow to invisible forces that control our behavior in insidious ways.
We become so oblivious to them that we don’t even realize that they exist. We take them for granted and don’t rebel against them. We get used to them and we don’t question them. We start living them and propagate them without actually intending to do either.
Before I go ahead and introduce the role players for the day, I would like to ask you – Who among you would NOT want to be leaders or pioneers? All of us do, right? Yet, why is it that for days and weeks and months as we sit there and listen to the rules of conduct at Toastmaster’s meetings, have none of us ever got up and asked why exactly are we not supposed to talk about sex, religion and politics? Well, today is your chance. Think about it and come up with at least one strong reason for and against this diktat.
>> Introduction of TIMER (Sneha Ravi), GRAMMARIAN (Manohar Kumar), AH COUNTER (Anju Thomas)
“When people have tried everything and have discovered that nothing works, they will tend to revert to what they know best—which will often be the tribe, the totem, or the taboo.”
If you listen to Christopher Hitchens, you will understand that banning is often the last-ditch attempt by a group of people to ensure conformity, but of course, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes it might even be the first thing that people will do. No, I’m not talking about the explicitly ban-friendly fatwa fanatics of Deobandh or the gagging gangs of the Bajrang Dal or even the condemning clergy of the Church. These are obvious examples, but theirs is actually a last resort attempt at controlling people, because all other methods have failed. Nope, these people aren’t the dangerous ones.
Think back about the question I asked you before the break. Notice that I asked you how many of you did NOT want to be leaders. Had I asked how many WANT to be, I might have got a few hands. But by re-framing the question and making it an opt-out situation, I capitalized on your fear of standing out and forced you all to conform to my idea without even realizing it. Of course, being a leader is a noble thing and everybody wants to do it, so in this case, it can be argued that it was a voluntary thing. But this is not always the case and the best example of this systematic and subtle coercion is the phenomenon called ‘peer pressure’.
“How in hell is THAT related to taboo?” I hear you asking in your minds. But it is! We are social animals and we need external validation. For this we need to be part of groups that appreciate us and to be part of that group we need to show that we are like them? See the pattern? If we do something that the rest of the group doesn’t do, we immediately become the outsider. We are shunned and ridiculed and denied the sense of belonging that we crave.
So powerful is this tendency to ostracize, that we will willingly make fun of people with disability or disadvantage to be part of a group because it is taboo in such groups to NOT make fun of them.
Our sinister overlords are no longer the religious, political and communal leaders, but the heads of mega corporations that influence our choices by controlling trends and fashions and demand loyalty in exchange for exclusive inclusiveness. That might sound ironic, but we don’t want everyone to have an iPhone, but just enough cool people (including us, obviously) so that we can make fun of the rest.
Throughout history we will see that the most diabolical of all taboos have been in favor of something rather than against it. Slavery survived for so long because it had become a norm; racial discrimination or caste based segregation had become so much a part of our societies that imagining life without it became impossible for us. We denied a voice to non-whites and non-males in socio-political spheres because we had become used to the way things had been set up for us and till recently, men beat their wives and children because that was the only way for them to show their manliness to their buddies and women tolerated it because that was what was expected of them; to not tolerate it was in fact taboo. Children had no say in it, they just waited until they could say – “Remember dad, how you slapped me when I asked for ice cream while you hogged an entire box of it? I don’t think you thought of diabetes back then. Bwahahaha!”
We become inured to selfishness (hording money and spending it on luxury goods), cruelty (killing animals for sport) and hatred over trivial matters (Mac vs Windows, Man U vs Chelsea etc) because to not be like that is doing the unthinkable. To not do that would be to stand out and to stand out is taboo.
To borrow from Plato’s allegory of the cave; We have spent so much time in the darkness that the light is blinding to us.
>> Introduction of prepared speech by TM Vidhyaparvathy (a demure, outspoken and fiery intellectual with cute glasses)
WHY & WHY NOT
Why are we asked to refrain from talking about sex, religion and politics at Toastmaster’s meetings?
Before we see why, let’s see how many here will support the following practices – Wife-Swapping? Infanticide? Oral insemination of young boys (basically oral sex with kids)? Penile bifurcation as rite of passage? Oh come on! What about cannibalism? Can we have a few hands up please?
Well, I’m not surprised. But what if I told you that these are accepted cultural practices in certain communities and not just accepted, they are MANDATORY! Yes ladies and gentlemen, meet the Inuits and Aluets of Alaska that practice wife swapping, meet the Yanomami of the Amazon that practice infanticide, here are the Sambia from Africa that have oral sex with their young boys, and these are the Arrente from Australia who carry out penile bifurcation to prove their manhood and of course, who could forget the Miyanmin from Papua New Guinea, who indulge in cannibalism?
Well, I’m not trying to make you feel bad that you’re missing out on all this by being in boring old India. The point I’m trying to make is that one man’s weird is another man’s normal. There are no moral absolutes. That is good as well as bad.
This allows the Inuits to practice wife-swapping and thus, allows diversity in the gene pool among a sparsely populated Tundra, thus ensuring that the tribe survives on the whole. It allows the Yanomani to kill younger dependent kids when there is a shortage of food in the jungles so that the eldest ones survive. Same with the Miyanmin.
The Sambia and Arrente are just plain weird, even for the probing eyes of science and this is where this freedom becomes bad because it allows us to take this concept to any level. If given the freedom, not all of us may be able to handle it and there will be disagreements on what is fine and sunshine and what is mean and obscene. Not all of us know where to draw the line.
So, we have to come up with some taboos and restrictions. Thus, throwing the gauntlet to those who are brave enough to be creative and come up with euphemism, innuendo, double meaning, formal and informal equivalents of things that they are not supposed to say and do, so that we may enjoy a little horse-play here and there and be teased by the thrill of breaking the rules and standing out and having little moral adventures of our own.
Taboos can’t stop us. And nobody could have said it better than Virginia Woolf, a glittering star in the sky of 19th century literature that is otherwise filled with bloated old red giants that have forgotten to twinkle. This is what she says about the effect of the restrictions imposed on women – “Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”
Break the walls, but don’t hurt yourself doing it.