You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Death of Taboo

How Donald Trump and his allies have drained the stigma from society's worst transgressions.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 1988, a German journalist for the left-wing paper Die Tageszeitung (a.k.a. Taz) described a busy discotheque as “gaskammervoll,” meaning that it was as packed as a gas chamber (literally, “gas-chamberful”). Another journalist immediately wrote in protest to his editor. Next, a Taz colleague came to the original writer’s defense, calling the whole conversation “Endlösung der Dudenfrage”—“the final solution of the dictionary question.” This was a second pun: Duden means dictionary, but it rhymes with Juden, playing off the Nazis’ plan for exterminating the Jews, “Endlösung der Judenfrage” (“The Final Solution”). The German press was scandalized by this use of verboten vocabulary, and as a consequence the original Taz writer and two of the paper’s editors were sacked.

In Germany, the prohibition on Holocaust jokes is policed by law and informally maintained by social taboo—both the wages of the Third Reich’s sins. Those controls can sound draconian and provocative to the American ear, trained to despise the “thought police” and to revere the freedom of expression. But this minor episode from the world of 1980s German media might have new relevance in America today, where taboos both rhetorical and actual are falling as fast as Donald Trump can invoke them.

Murder, rape, concentration camps, child abuse—all these taboos have lost some of their peremptory power in the past month alone. The president was publicly and credibly accused of rape last week, and yet he easily dismissed his accuser as a liar. Also last week, Trump dismissed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as essentially less important than Saudi Arabia’s money (“If they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”). On June 18, Liz Cheney defined a “concentration camp” as a place that can only exist in German history, even though Latin American migrants are being held in American concentration camps at this very moment. And on that same day, a Department of Justice staffer named Sarah Fabian proposed continuing state-sanctioned child abuse by pretending that the words “safe and sanitary” do not specify the provision of soap and toothbrushes to migrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents by Trump’s goons.

Saying, “This is rape!” or “That is a concentration camp!” or “The government is abusing innocent children!” is not having the desired effect, because the president and his allies are leeching the powerful stigma attached to these crimes. The loss of taboo shows us its value, and how prohibitions are a crucial part of the social contract we live by. In the absence of law or when the law is used to commit moral outrages, the taboo is enforced by society and policed by language, which is why, for example, Republicans hysterically deny that U.S. government is shuttling desperate migrants into “concentration camps,” but, rather, into something else, something nameless.

The question, then, is where the new boundaries will settle. Once the sea has washed it away, how do you know where to redraw a line in the sand?

The word “taboo” was long used to deride the superstitions of nonwhite populations; James Cook introduced the word tabu to Europe in his 1777 book A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. But in the modern era, political scientists like Robert D. Putnam have built on Freud’s earlier rudimentary analysis to develop the idea that taboos—on incest, say—help people to exercise everyday moral judgement. They form a behavioral heuristic.

It can be hard to discern the extent to which such social prohibitions are the result of legislation, or organic social mores, or some combination of the two. For example, the taboo on child abuse is the result of both social movements against child labor and federal law like the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). And the definition of abuse is always changing; it was not so long ago that children were regularly beaten or spanked by their parents. It’s impossible to pull the factors apart—did law follow feeling, or feeling follow law?—but we can be sure that they reinforce each other.

But if the government were to flagrantly reject its own federalized values by, say, detaining hundreds of children under horrendous conditions and pretending that it’s legal, then the loop of morality that stigmatizes the crime breaks down. The taboo begins to malfunction, and the prohibited action subtly shifts in status, sliding between categories—always punish the perpetrator becomes sometimes punish the perpetrator.

Something similar is happening to the taboo on sexual violence against women. A few days ago, the writer E. Jean Carroll alleged in New York magazine that Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room 23 years ago. In the very instant that her account became a news item, however, the idea of a rapist president lost another ounce of stigma. In a Twitter thread posted yesterday by the journalist Igor Bobic, he quoted six separate Republican politicians who dismissed Carroll’s claims out of hand. “I don’t even want to get into believable or not believable,” Oklahoma Senator James Lankford told Bobic, for example. “I know that she’s selling a book.”

Yet more dispiritingly, leading Democrats were complicit in destroying this particular taboo. “I wouldn’t dismiss it, but let’s be honest, he’s going to deny it and little is going to come of it,” said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, giving new meaning to the word “honest.” Meanwhile, the national news media paid relatively scant attention to what should be a presidency-ending claim, to the point that The New York Times apologized for not covering Carroll’s claims more extensively. Carroll will now join the 21 other women whose claims of sexual abuse or harassment by the president live in limbo.

This is how a taboo breaks down, with deleterious effects on due process for victims of rape and abuse, both in court and in everyday snap judgments. (Taboos, of course, can be antiquated and foolish, such as the old taboo against gay sex—a taboo that fell, crucially, because a consensus determined it should fall.) President Trump has broken the rules to suit himself and his racist government, but of greater concern is that moral transgressions of this level alter the foundation of American society itself. After all, there’s no better way to undermine a democratic government than for that same democratic government to publicly flout its own laws and norms, then expect its citizens to follow them anyway.

Faced with all the awful news about their hero, the Trump supporter has two choices: He can either believe that these things did not happen, or that they are not that bad if they did. All the other laws we hold to be manifestly true condemn harming children or murdering journalists, so how is the Trump voter who chooses “not that bad” supposed to make sense of this new and contradictory reality? His other options are attitudes of denial or ignorance, which run counter to the principle of collaborative, social existence.

The rest of us are left speechless. Nobody expects their nation’s moral architecture to collapse on them like a house of cards. What can we do? Shrugging is one option, I suppose, or stubbornly plugging away at daily existence, ignoring the world around us.

But we are not literally speechless; our talk is the raw material of politics itself. If the people hold half of the responsibility for setting social prohibitions (the other half lying idle in the hands of the government), then we are not in a totally hopeless position. Still, we would need a common vocabulary, a common morality, a common vision—all seemingly impossible in a country as extremely divided as America.

Beware the smallest-seeming dangers. In 1968, Enoch Powell delivered an anti-immigration tirade to Parliament that came to be known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech. In it, he referred to black children as “grinning piccaninnies.” The speech’s nickname comes from Powell’s peroration, which quoted a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” Powell was sacked the next day, leaving politics for good and marking such words as eternally taboo in British politics.

All it took was one man to undo it. In the early 2010s, the far-right politician Nigel Farage began bandying around the word “flood” in his speeches on immigration, telling the European Parliament in 2015 that ISIS intended to “flood our continent with half a million extremists.” One man, one moment, and the unwritten rule on anti-immigration rhetoric was gone—along with the U.K.’s membership in the European Union, and the soul of a nation that rebuilt itself after World War II along moral guidelines we all thought would last forever.

How do you repair a broken taboo? They take so long to build, and they cost us so much in suffering. The global taboo on anti-Semitism, for example, seems to have been only temporarily bought by the death of six million Jews. The despair that underlies all of these questions stems from the suspicion that nothing has meaning at all anymore: not words, nor democracy, nor lists of rights, nor the Ten Commandments, nor the Atlantic Treaty, nor anything else that humanity has learned through the great trial-and-error experiment we call world history. It’s easy to speak out when a taboo has been broken; harder to make those words meaningful once more.