Totems and taboos are fascinating kinds of devices – they’re a mixture of rational and irrational or, depending on your point of view, heresies. The Celts worshipped tree spirits and there have been taboos (on everything from kosher foods to cannibalism) since before the dawn of time.
Today, racial slurs are tabooed.
That doesn’t sound at all irrational – until you consider the reaction of Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP, to four college students painting racial slurs on a tunnel wall at N.C. State University.
The Reverend Barber wants the students punished. Now. Immediately. What kind of punishment? He says at the least they should be expelled and reading Barry Saunders’ column it sounds like when Barber says at the least it’s a good thing for the students we’ve outlawed the stocks and trial by ordeal.
Rev. Barber’s got some pretty stiff punishment in mind for a college student who got his mouth – our paint brush – into gear before his brain but, at least, didn’t commit any sort of violent crime. What it comes down to is these students expressed an outrageous opinion. But consider this: Not long ago people were pillorying folks like NAACP Chairman for their opinions too. Nonetheless, now, that shoe’s on the other foot (or, rather, that the taboos have changed) Rev. Barber’s in the driver’s seat and he wants to do some pillorying of his own.
That’s the new taboo.
Here’s a new totem is: Gays. Not everywhere. Certainly not in the political world where voters in California just turned thumbs down on gay-marriage. But have you looked at the Pop Culture section of the newspaper recently?
The other morning the front page of the Life Section of the News and Observer was devoted to a photograph of a businessman beside a headline that read, “Passion for Justice” – and the report about Taylorsville businessman Mitchell Gold could not have been more glowing.
Mr. Gold is on a crusade. He is going to make “family values” more than just a conservative slogan. He has built a 2700-square-foot day care center for his employees. His factory is air-conditioned. As a good corporate citizen he sponsors local parades and golf tournaments in his rural community and, most of all, in the fiber of his being Mitchell Gold has a passion for justice.
The newspaper described Mr. Gold in terms usually reserved for saints like Mother Teresa who worked for years in the slums of Bombay.
What is Mr. Gold’s crusade? The News and Observer reports:
“Growing up in Trenton, N.J., Mitchell Gold remembers going out to eat with his family at the Glendale Tavern. His parents were in a good mood. The conversation was lively. For a moment, life seemed good.
“Then he remembered his dark secret. At 14, Gold felt afflicted by a scourge that would forever ruin his chances of happiness. He was gay, and he was afraid his family would disown him if they knew.”
Mr. Gold’s out to end prejudice against gays and he’s identified the culprit: Religion. He isn’t as two-fisted as Rev. Barber and doesn’t want to pillory anyone – but he does mean for the churches to change their ways. And make no mistake: He has the big gun of the Modern Era on his side: Culture. How powerful is that weapon?
The News and Observer is about as preternaturally hardboiled and skeptical as a newspaper can be when it comes to dealing with errant politicians and all kinds of flim-flam artists – but its fabled discernment was completely disarmed in its coverage of Mr. Gold. There was not a discouraging word in sight.
Our Pop Culture has given us Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Brangelina and now in its corner of the universe it’s erected its own totem: Gay Rights. And it’s hung out a sign: No dissent wanted or welcomed.
A lot of people would argue ending racial slurs and praising gay rights activists is progress, a kind of shedding the shackles of the past. But I’ve got an itch that what we have really done is traded our old set of taboos and totems for a new set and in the process our vices outsmarted us – so the result is simple: Instead of rednecks pillorying NAACP Presidents we now have NAACP Presidents pillorying foolish college students.
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