I was at a meeting mainly attended by middle-aged women but also by a moppy-haired 20-something male who was friendly and engaging. After a while I noticed a vague anxiety in myself, which I finally put my finger on: Another presence had entered the room besides the 30 of us: a spoiler of innocence and a stowaway from hell on the ship of civilization as we know it.
Or knew it. Francis Schaeffer said rightly that the die was cast in our grandparents’ time. The wonder is actually that morality hangs on as long as it does after God has been banished. Then comes the fateful day when, without outward signal, all parties seem to realize the implications at once. Like the carnival tamer presiding nightly over compliant tigers, until the night they all happen to notice simultaneously the quivering rope in the hand, the fact that there are 10 of them and one of him. Once the first cat slides off the stool, the others are held back by nothing.
It’s the nothing that’s getting to me in this room. No bottom to this floor, no walls to get the reassuring feel of. Where everything is possible, and nothing automatically off limits, thoughts cross the mind that never dawned on one in a million in our parents’ day; nor could they. That was the power of taboo. Taboo: “a ban or inhibition resulting from social custom or emotional aversion.” Taboo was a good thing, I am now seeing.
It was protection in its day. Not only for pretty little girls from their fathers, and for wives whose husbands had attractive secretaries. Taboo had conferred another benefit, too: No middle-aged woman at a convivial café had to worry that the young man was not mistaking our hovering around him as flirtation. And no lone young male who came out of interest in philosophy had to worry that the women’s attention was not flirtation.
Satan never gives anything without taking something away; in a bargain you are always the loser. Simplicity is the casualty. From here on in no encounter is “understood”; every meeting is ever so slightly charged, every conversation laden with baggage, every introduction arriving with an extra issue to establish: A man seats himself near a woman on a plane; or a man with a man; or woman with woman; or fortyish female with a male her son’s age. No ground rules here. We deal with things no one should have to deal with on a daily basis. I wonder, did anybody foresee that this would be the downside of our merry liberation?
Taboo used to simplify life, and that was nice. You could ask probing questions of the college kid next door and be thought motherly. When the plumber came on house calls the focus was purely the clogged bathtub drain. No inkling of a subtext. We took it for granted. Nor did we wonder at the marvelous power of psychological mechanics behind the fact that a boy will, generally speaking, not find his sister “hot” even if every other guy in high school does.
One’s mind didn’t “go there,” and the whole culture backed it up. There are thoughts so horrendous that God Himself has never entertained them. One is child sacrifice: “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind” (Jeremiah 7:31).
This is the real “climate change”—not meteorology but spirituality. In former salubrious climes it was taboo for men to sleep with men. Now it is taboo for men to sleep with 17-year-old boys, but only for another week and a half. Closing in on us, the circus ring features lipstick-smeared cougars, and the high-school teachers with their fangs that prey, and the sideshow Columbia University professor bedding his daughter with impunity before the community. And every new report registers in the mind indelible images and pollutes the atmosphere by another imperceptible degree.
I miss taboos. I wish we had them back.