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September 14, 2020

Taboos are a fascinating kind of thing. When someone foreign to Islam looks at some Muslim responses to satire of or even mere graphical depiction of Mohammed, they see behavior that cannot be understood in any rational fashion. Some of which behavior was the subject of my previous post on the Charlie Hebdo trials.

But from inside a culture, its taboos seem no more than natural to those who act on them. We have built such a strong taboo around a white person uttering the word “n‑‑‑‑r,” even in the context of discussing relevant history, that literature professors run into trouble teaching James Baldwin. In quite different corners of our culture, the political correctness around the totemic use of the national flag and anthem has become ridiculous. If you think one of those taboos is silly and the other wholesome, that just shows which taboo is yours.

It is almost a sure sign of taboo when characters in a word are replaced with nonsense symbols, because writing the word itself is verboten. (With grawlixes?) Some particularly religious Jews write “G‑d” instead of “God,” because they worry any such writing later will be defaced or erased. Which would be terrible because..? Well, because it is taboo. It was common once upon a time to write “f‑‑k,” because writing the word was taboo. It’s as if a writer expects readers both to know the word in question, and not be able to fill in the blanks. I have done that here with the word “n‑‑‑‑r” only because I suspect some of the platforms this post might hit would implement the taboo around it.

Photo from the TV series of the same name.

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