Remember when it was not socially acceptable to verbally attack a Starbucks barista and yell obscenities?
Remember the good old days when the Ku Klux Klan at least had the decency to wear hoods masking their identity?
Remember when presidents didn’t brag about sexual predation, or publicly and personally insult their enemies and allies?
These are just a few examples of the loss of what we might call “necessary taboos.”
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Ted Smith at Emory’s Candler School of Theology has said that the phenomenon of Trumpism has completely upended and erased the boundaries of propriety and taboo in America. He referenced the work of social anthropologist Mary Douglas who studied tribal religions. She theorized that every society constructs itself around the distinction between clean and unclean, pollution and purity. She noted that such ideas are useful because they “force one another into good citizenship” and help to preserve social order.
Granted, such ideas can be harmful when they are used to label certain people as “unclean.” But in its most basic form, Douglas explains that “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience.”
In the Trump era, the rules which had previously governed civil discourse, social interactions and the treatment of those deemed “other” have been completely obliterated. This annihilation of decorum was celebrated by many who cheered when this man “spoke the things that I think.”
He crossed lines of acceptable behavior and emerge unscathed. “I could shoot somebody ... and I wouldn’t lose voters” he said during the campaign. “Burn the whole thing down,” had been the gleeful attitude of his supporters who believed he was anti-establishment. This indicates a deep nihilism at work. Trump violated every taboo of those things you just don’t say or do in public, and yet went on to win the presidency.
As Douglas explained, certain taboos are necessary, otherwise the foundation of a society begins to crumble. The way Trump violates taboos does more than just sully public discourse. It has dissolved the foundations of discourse itself (which indicates that we are now beyond postmodernism and into a new era of what I call “disintegrationism.”)
We keep these shared taboos because they order our thinking and help to shore up our identity as a people, as a community, as a nation. When a taboo is broken, something is revealed. And the domino effect of collapsing taboos in the wake of Trumpism has revealed an evil — yes, evil — the likes of which this country has not seen out in the open for a generation. Examples include hundreds of acts of intimidation and hate crimes since the election. This is what happens when a taboo suddenly becomes acceptable.
The church and Christians of good will have a responsibility to respond. We have some hard decisions to make and serious work to do. We need to shore up the taboos that are worth keeping.
Don’t be afraid to confront the threat that these violated taboos present. Name it and shame it. Do not accept it as the “new normal.” Other people of good will need to see your courage, because this will encourage them to do the same. And together we can begin to shore up the foundations, protect those most vulnerable, and restore some sense of sanity.
Remember the words of writer James Baldwin in “A Letter to My Nephew” (1924): “Great (people) have done great things here and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”
Did you catch that? Not “make America great again,” but “make America what America must become.” Indeed, we still need great people to do great things. In 2018, we need to make America what America must become.