Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 6.1--Is Homosexuality a Taboo?

One of the true joys that has come from writing this blog is that it has given me the chance to make what I call "Internet friends."  These are people that I have not met in person, but people who I have interacted with via Twitter or email as a result of something I written, or something they have written, or both.  Frank Strong of Letters to the Catholic Right is one such person (by the way, you should absolutely check out his recent post on the goings on in the Episcopal Church, of which he is a member), as is Bill Lindsey of Bilgrimage.  Another one of my Internet friends is Maureen Clarke, a woman who lives in Manchester, England, and maintains an active Twitter feed involving the Catholic Church, UK politics, and healthcare issues in her neck of the woods.

On Saturday, Maureen tweeted the following:

The debate on LGBT dominated the Synod on the family yet nothing changes.  Why is sin always synonymous with sex?  What about greed power, etc

Wish we could ask Rene Girard's opinion on this dilemma . . .

Perhaps the Episopalian church is scapegoated because it ignores the 'sex thing' and concentrates on its mission?

I'm sure @mboyle78 could put a girardian slant on these mysteries.

With such an endorsement, I feel a bit obligated to take a crack at Maureen's question--how come people are so obsessed with LGBT issues?  I would never suggest that I am providing "the" Girardian perspective on the question, but only "a" Girardian perspective--my own thoughts, influenced by Girard's work and thought.  My previous series discussed some of the more academic and structural reasons why the LGBT issue is vexing to conservative Christianity, but Maureen is right to point to something more visceral at the heart of this opposition.  James Alison has suggested that homosexuality is a taboo, and I think he is right.  But that idea needs to be unpacked--what is a taboo?  How do taboos work, seen through a Girardian lens?  And in what sense is homosexuality a taboo?  I am going to make an attempt at addressing the first two in this post, and leave the third for a part two.

Any discussion of taboos (and if you follow Girard, any discussion, really), has to start with the idea of mimetic rivalry.  The fundamental Girardian axiom is that we desire according to the desire of another--we pick up what to desire (and even how to desire) by modelling someone else who is desiring.  This process puts us into mimetic rivalry with others, and that mimetic rivalry propagates through human communities.  If unchecked, the endpoint of the contagion of mimetic rivalry is the mob--an undifferentiated mass of humanity, completely caught up in the frenzy of rivalry.  Said another way, Thomas Hobbes calls this "The War of All Against All."

The mob is a source of existential terror for all of us, as if we know down to our DNA the dangers of being caught up in it.  And rightfully so, because the mob is a direct threat to our lives, as it could turn on us at any time.  If you have ever been caught in a crowd that is surging in a particular direction, you've experienced a small sliver of that terror.
As part of that fear, we fear the symptoms of the mob, and one of the big symptoms of the mob is the break-down of differentiation between people.  For those of us in the West, 250 years of praise for the American and French Revolutions have made it reflexive to treat egalitarianism as something self-evident and un-problematic, but true egalitarianism is both extremely difficult and extremely challenging.  Witness how easy it is for societies, especially those that take pride in their egalitarianism, to fall into so-called "identity politics"--the notion that we must protect a particular classification or distinction from being swallowed up into a faceless mass of humanity.  Lurking behind those fears, whether conscious or not, is the chaos of the mob.  If we are all the same, then there is nothing to prevent the War of All Against All.

So, here is where taboos come in.  It seems to me that a working definition of a taboo is "a rule of behavior imposed by society for the ultimate, if usually unconscious, purpose of creating differentiation between people or things so as to limit the development of mimetic rivalry."  The word "taboo" comes from the Polynesian word "tapu" (or, in some dialects, "kapu"), and in the Polynesian context referred to certain foods or ritual items that were set apart, only to be used by certain classes of people such a priests or kings.  Maybe the clearest example of a taboo that I can think of are the so-called "sumptuary laws" of the Late Middle Ages and early modern period.  Basically, sumptuary laws were restrictions on certain specified kinds of fancy clothes being worn by anyone who was not part of the nobility.  Even if someone (say, a wealthy merchant) could afford such clothes, it was against the law for them to wear them.

Think about what such laws do.  First, they draw a clear line between the noble classes and everyone else.  The message being communicated is that nobles are simply different from the rest of humanity.  To the extent both sides--nobles and non-nobles--absorb this message, it reduces the chance that mimetic rivalries will develop across the class divide.  If we are not the same, than we cannot become a model/rival for each other.  Second, it takes out of play certain objects that we might come into rivalry over.  As anyone who has ever been to high school can tell you, clothes can be fertile ground for the development of rivalries.  By setting apart certain types of clothes from being worn by lower classes, you limit the scope of clothing-related rivalries.  If I can never wear nice clothes under any set of circumstances, I am less likely to desire them when I see someone else wearing them.

Seen in this light, I think there are a few key take-aways about taboos.  First, a taboo, no matter how arbitrary it may seem, is always protecting and shoring up a particular social distinction and/or trying to prevent a particular kind of rivalry between people from forming.  Taboos have a social logic behind them, just as the sumptuary laws have a social logic behind them.  It is a mistake to dismiss taboos out of hand as "superstitious" or "arbitrary" without attempting to grapple with the social purpose behind them.

Second, it is important to distinguish between the specific content of a particular taboo and the system of taboos as a whole.  Particular taboos are often entirely neutral--there is nothing inherently wrong with not eating a certain food or wearing a certain type of clothing.  Some taboos are actually positive and salutary.  Girard's treatment of the Ten Commandments at the beginning of I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning (reprinted in the Girardian Lectionary, an unparalleled resource) would qualify them as taboos, with the Tenth Commandment ("You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.") acting as a kind of ultimate taboo, the one that sums up what all other taboos are trying to do.  Even though they can be classified as taboos, following the Commandments such that you avoid getting entangled in mimetic rivalries with your neighbor is a good thing, and you should do that.

Even though individual taboos may be good or at least neutral, the system of taboos is problematic.  Taboos are ultimately a part of the sacrificial system.  Taboos create a "system of goodness," drawing lines between the people who are "inside" and those that are "outside" and providing fodder for scapegoating.  So it is very possible to have a set of taboos that considered individually are all good or neutral, but add up to a system that is bad, or at least in implemented in a bad way.

Turning to explicitly Christian theology, I think this distinction is a big part of what St. Paul is getting at when he juxtaposes "the Law" with freedom in Christ in various places in his letters, especially in Galatians.  Paul is not saying that there is something inherently wrong with any particular commandment in the Torah, or with circumcision per se.  His problem is that "the Law," taken as a whole, sets up an ironclad delineation between Jew and non-Jew, trapping people into a taboo-based straight-jacket.  Jesus, for Paul, came to break through this straight-jacket.

This leads to my last point, which is that Christianity (at least as seen through a Girardian lens) is ultimately about breaking through taboos.  If Christ came to expose and free us from bondage to the sacrificial mechanism of the world, part of that freedom, as Paul recognizes, is freedom from taboos.  Jesus clearly models the breaking of taboos in the Gospels  But getting rid of taboos is a delicate and tricky business.  If we just rip away all of our taboos, in the same way we would rip off a band-aid, we are left exposed to the undifferentiation of the mob.  We are right to be scared of the breakdown of social distinctions, even as we believe that is the trajectory we are being called to follow.  Jesus's message is a fundamentally radical, dangerous one.  It challenges the bedrock principles of how we organize ourselves as a society, and it bring with it the risk of chaos.  We should be wary of it, but we cannot shirk from it.

So, back to the original question--is homosexuality a taboo?  I believe that it is.  If it is a taboo, the prohibition of homosexual acts and/or relationships must be protecting some form of social order, one that we believe (or at least, we have a tendency to believe) to be necessary to hold the chaos of the mob at bay.  I think the engine that drives the fear of LGBT rights, and in particular same-sex marriage, is a fear of breaking down what might be the most fundamental, and longest-lasting, category of social distinction--gender.  But more on that in the next post.


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