Are taboos social arteries?
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London

There is a five-letter word in the Oxford Dictionary the sound of which has a mixture of warning, embarrassment and contempt wrapped within it. This magic word ‘TABOO’ was originally used by the Filipinos, later adopted by the French and ultimately by the English.

Taboo in simple terms signifies a form of restraint on social behavior. It is classified as, "prohibition of words, actions or anything that is prohibited by tradition or social usage". But in simple terms, how could one easily draw a line in determining this so-called social standard? The societal revolutions that have taken place over the centuries progressively and conclusive liberation we see in the world today, it is quite capable of sending shock waves to our grandmothers in their peaceful graves!

In Sri Lanka, criticism is also levelled against a diminutive section of the so-called ‘affluent’ society, who still believes in a blanket theory of being ‘with it’ and behaving in a ‘post-colonial’ manner, which in their minds is sophisticated and superior to others! Yet the majority of the society points a finger at them for such pseudo beliefs and says that development of a nation should continue homogeneously in tandem with industrial and cultural values embracing the entire society as a single unit rather than in fragments.

When restraint is broken
When a taboo or any acknowledged restraint in social behavior is broken, the result can be either hilarious or painful. Social customs normally demand that one does not draw attention to any physical defect (except of course behind one’s back!) Children being naturally cruel, through their innocence, are exempt from this kindliness. A child may call another by any variety of taunting words.

Small children are naturally exempt from keeping the taboos from a particular social environment not because they are a privileged lot, but because a sense of tact is something that psychologists believe do not develop in a human being until around the seventh or eighth year. Prior to that age, any painful outspokenness is socially accepted, permitted and tolerated simply because such a thing cannot be stopped at any cost.

Once I was at my brother’s house for a formal lunch when my nephews and nieces were small. One of the invitees, the guest of honour, was a well respected gentleman of the society. At the table we all sat quietly concentrating on the delicious gastronomy while rude posterior vibrations of the fat old square punctuated the whole meal from time to time. Poor fellow! I sympathized with him from the very bottom of my heart.

The children seated at the table behaved impeccably at first though the girls blushed and boys studiously tried to avoid each other’s eyes. However, on the fifth ‘blast off’ my elder niece who could not control her laughter burst out laughing into her napkin. Was the embarrassed gentleman sent out of the dinner table or the poor child reprimanded for boorish behaviour ………….?

Taboo in words and customs follows fashion too. What is unthinkable one day becomes permissible on another. What we saw in women’s dress code a decade or two ago in Sri Lanka was similar to that of the old English Victorian style covering the body decently. Today such disciplines have flown through the window and started to blend with new thinking - ‘If you have ‘em why not flaunt ‘em’’!

Even the kaba-kuruthtuwa (the long sleeved jacket), worn by women especially in down south areas, has now been replaced by the short sleeve blouse donned with the cloth to expose their uplifted bustier and the cleavage, with the third button undone at times! Dress fashions of young women are being increasingly replaced by new designs exposing both shoulders with low-cut-neck tops and shapely legs. The elegantly draped sari of the ‘office girl’ which once projected the Asian woman’s femininity and agility has now transformed into what is called hipsters with an eight inch broad midrib exposing beyond belly button and belly studs and projecting her as a sex symbols with noticeable tattoos on her back lumber region! Equally many others, while trying to adopt the fashion, expose their bulging out flesh and sagging bellies to become odd muscular pieces of humanity walking in public! Today the whole concept of ethics, fashions and culture, seems to have overturned.

Needs of man
During the 1900s, it was taboo to admit that a woman was not a virgin but today the trend appears to have a reversed effect in many parts of the world! In France, even to this day, it is taboo for an older woman to have an affair with a young man!

Although the taboos are there to save face and the feelings of other persons in a social environment, these are rigidly kept primarily to save oneself. For instance, if a wife tells her husband that he snores, she may find herself in a single bed. If she tells him he is getting bulky and bald he may seek solace with someone who better obeys the convention. "Self-importance" is taboo in England, very much accepted in France, vitally essential in America and highly traditional in Sri Lanka!

To be courteous, helpful and serve one another is considered more humane than convention. To a Western gentleman, to lead the lady by her hand is highly traditional but appears to be taboo to some Orients. An Asian or Arab walking ahead of his wife on a high street or darting across a busy traffic flow leaving his cherished lady on the other side of the road, for his dear life, is hilarious but appears to be somewhat habitual in their culture!

Taboo is based on the needs of man, though it only functions socially and has no meaning to the inner or individual person. Like religion and superstition when we attempt to break their decree, we find ourselves uneasy without them – courageous and honest may be, but very lonely.

As most of us are gregarious, the best thing we can do for our own happiness is to leave a social group whose taboos seem to us offensive or ludicrous, and seek another whose taboos suit us better because, rest assured, there is no society that exists without them, be it the cream of the elite or a gang of hooligans.