Discussion: What are taboos and what role do they play in society?

Do taboos play an essential role in culture and society or must we simply get rid of them? Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley spoke on the topic at Fritt Ord headquarters in Oslo, Norway, on 21 June at a discussion co-organised by Index, Fritt Ord the Free Word Centre.

Other speakers included Maria Stepanova, poet and editor of the webzine Colta.ru, Moscow, and Pål Johan Karlsen, author and editor-in-chief of the website Psykologisk.no.

Index magazine’s winter 2015/16 issue was on the theme of taboos and why breaking down social barriers matters. In her talk, Jolley presented a global survey of taboos, discussed their history in certain countries and explored why certain taboos lead to censorship.

“Who decided these are the rules and how do they change?” she asked. “Sometimes it takes a generational shift such as we’ve seen in Ireland with the vote to change the law on gay marriage.”

“There’s a tipping point theory where a body of resistance builds up to such a point that the dam breaks and the public suddenly demands another way is found and an older way is discarded,” Jolley added.

Stepanova focused on taboos in Russia, paying special attention to “government-inspired” taboos that were virtually non-existent until a few years ago, but which are now shaped and encouraged by propaganda. Johan Karlsen spoke in defence of the elephant in the room: Why are taboos useful? If we are to co-exist and find inner peace in a dangerous world, we must make space for taboos in our lives, he argued.

Knut Olav Åmås, executive director of the Fritt Ord Foundation, moderated the discussion.