Taboo Breakers: How The Right Is Eroding Norms Of Decency

The radical right has broken taboos in order to introduce harsh repressive norms that give them a license to pursue their regressive agenda.
Supporters of Donald Trump, one holding a sign that reads, “LOCK HER UP,” cheer during a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va – Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Supporters of Donald Trump, one holding a sign that reads, “LOCK HER UP,” cheer during a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va – Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Aristotle Kallis is professor of modern and contemporary history at Keele University. His research interests relate to the comparative study of fascism and the contemporary radical right; the genealogies of populism; and Islamophobia.

Taboos are complex social and cultural constructions. They involve subtle prohibitions derived from supposedly accepted common standards of behavior. They protect society from excess and bestow a sense of identity upon its members. To break a taboo is thus regarded as an unacceptable transgression that violates traditions and shared codes. Such transgressive acts carry moral opprobrium and activate sanctions against the offenders, whether legal, moral or social.

This is the theory anyway. For the world we live in has been recording a bewildering trend towards taboo-breaking that, far from activating sanctions, appears to be rewarding the mavericks. The trend has a truly global dynamic, describing developments in places as far apart as the USA and India, Brazil and the UK, Italy, Hungary, and the Philippines. It involves transgressive modes of thinking, talking, and behaving alike, of treating perceived adversaries, of defining who is ‘us’, who does not belong to the community, and what is considered appropriate language and behavior towards ‘them’. It comes both from elites and from ordinary people, on and offline. In fact, the trend cuts across the nominal populist and mainstream political spaces, if only to remind us once again that the distinction itself (if there existed one in the first place) is fading away. In many ways, taboo-breaking is now so widespread and so constant that it has almost become the new normal.

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What does this tell us about the taboos themselves, the people who break them, and those who support them? Taboos, Freud told us, are emotionally ambivalent in that they may indicate both aversion and desire. Violating a taboo (for example, crossing the line of what other members of the community consider acceptable and permissible in language, behavior or action) can occur because the expected benefits from the violation outweigh the potential penalty of social/legal sanction. But it can also happen because the taboo itself has become unstable and has lost its perceived value among the members of the group. Taboo-breaking is contagious – even more so if it appears to lead to a desired alternative. The more the validity of the taboo is questioned by the community, the easier it becomes to transgress it or to destroy it completely. In either scenario, the mere act of breaking the taboo divulges a hidden, suppressed desire for what is prohibited or for what follows the removal of the prohibition.

Taboo-breakers have always been the protagonists of history. They are the villains but also the fearless defenders of the suppressed. Looking back, those who helped destroy taboos about autocratic divine rule in favor of democracy, who attacked sexism in favor of women’s rights, who fought against institutional racism in favor of universal minority and human rights, who campaigned against traditional sexual norms in favor of individual freedom, are the eminent heroes of history. Then again, there were all those who broke taboos about violence in order to harm, who violated social norms in order to denigrate ‘others’, who attacked taboo prohibitions in order to introduce or restore harsh repressive norms that destroyed the lives of their human targets. The two categories of taboo-breakers could not be more different; yet the mechanisms that motivate them to act in this way and allow them to carry on down this path are strikingly similar.

When a taboo comes under sustained attack by people, when the taboo-breaker is not punished but rewarded with popular approbation, then it becomes clear that the targeted taboo itself has become unstable. It has lost its power because a large percentage of the wider population no longer regards it as useful or justifiable. The taboo-breaker is merely the pathfinder, making the unthinkable possible and inviting the willing to follow. Their acts create an empowering, liberating precedent; and if behind the observance of the taboo lies a suppressed desire to destroy it, in whole or in part, then transgression often begets transgression. One taboo-breaker creates the license that others may use to do the same or go further, if this is what they desire, what they always desired. This is, after all, how social movements build momentum, how revolutions occur, how paradigms change, and how new, radical ideas break through.

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There is a simple reason why the populist taboo-breakers represent such a complex, difficult to counter challenge to the liberal mainstream – they often push a door that is half-open in the minds of their audience. They target a political, social or cultural taboo because they sense it is – or has recently become – a soft and unstable one. They appeal to what they see as a popular, yet repressed desire for change.

The violent anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-Jewish, anti-internationalist, anti-liberal language that they adopt is indeed liberating for significant sections of contemporary society. Taboo-breakers are the iconoclasts who declare the totem poles of ‘mainstream’ ideas as already broken idols of false gods. They attack the fragile icons of liberalism, of globalism, of multiculturalism with the intensity and purposefulness of zealots; but in so doing, they also channel strong undercurrents of popular anger, insecurity, resentment, and frustration. They purport to give voice to those whose views have been excluded and discredited from the official structures of ‘truth’ in contemporary liberal societies. This kind of differential truth was meant and assumed to have withered away over time – yet it did not, precisely because it remains rooted in deep emotional structures of identity, belonging, and distrust of ‘the other’.

Foucault described these alternative, suppressed views as ‘subjugated knowledges’. He noted that this buried, disqualified but stubbornly operative knowledge ‘owes its force … to the harshness with which it [has been] opposed’ by power. The successes of the populists owe so much to the rebellious, uncivil, irreverent discourse through which they express their political message as an alleged insurrection. But the trope of an ‘insurrection’ is an appropriate one for the alternative ‘truths’ that the populists speak, on behalf of the fabled ‘silent majority’, remain widely shared, and structurally rooted in mainstream culture.
They are the ‘truths’ that so many people want to believe, choose to believe, in defiance of the official ‘truths’ that they feel have been foisted on them. Liberals have ignored this complex dynamic for too long, creating, as a result, the spaces where alternative anti-/post-liberal ‘truths’ have subsisted on the anger and resentment caused by their very suppression and by the perceived arrogance of the suppressors. They have tolerated or ignored a growing divergence between normative ideas (how the world ought to be) and the tapestry of actual social attitudes, unreformed predispositions, buried desires, and barely disguised resentments that continued to operate just beneath the surface of the official ‘truth’.

Thus, the anti-establishment message of the populists is so much more than mere posturing. It serves the purpose of destroying the authority of the normative discourses of post-war liberalism about identity, culture, pluralism, mobility, universal rights, tolerance, and sovereignty. Alas, the totem poles that populists attack with increasing impudence are no longer feared or revered. Breaking any taboos associated with them carries less and less stigma or sanction; what’s more, it clearly comes with handsome political and even electoral rewards. It may be an uncomfortable proposition to accept but populism draws so much of its current strength and appeal from its perception by many as an insurrectionary, emancipatory, liberating project against the suppression of alternative ‘truths’.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Opinion // Authoritarianism / CARR / Democracy / Norms / Radical Right