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Taboo is a Right-Brain Activity

Bob Herbert, in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Stolen Kisses," compares the arguments against same-sex marriage with the arguments a generation ago against miscegenation. "We have a tendency," he wrote, "to prohibit things simply because we don’t like them. Because they don’t appeal to us. They don’t feel quite right. Or we've never done it that way before. And when things don't feel quite right, when they make us uncomfortable, we often leap, with no basis in fact, to the conclusion that they are unnatural, immoral, degenerate, against the will of God."

Even though it’s hard to look at social things with a rational eye, many of us are accustomed to the notion that ideas ought to be based on evidence. Justice, we think, is a matter of law, not feelings. When we are given our instructions as jurors in a legal case, whether it is a criminal case or a civil case, we are told to base our verdict on the facts of the case, not on whether we find one party attractive, or deserving, or in some other way like us. Often we’re aware of the struggle within us to conform to those instructions. Nevertheless, when it comes to evaluating personal or social situations, we go with our gut feeling much more than with our better judgment. This is actually a conflict between right-brain and left-brain attempts to control our decisions.

To be truly creative, we’re told to listen to the right side of our brain, where intuition and spatial relationships predominate. The left side holds our understanding of language and "rules" and logical procedures. We drive on one side of the road and obey red lights and stop signs. We count our change at the grocery store and sometimes compare unit prices to get the most from our money. But if we’re choosing a paint color for our living room, we depend upon something other than logic. If we’re young and looking around for a possible mate, we’ll respond to our feelings, not our heads—even after we’ve learned that our feelings are not always to be trusted.

As children, we learn right from wrong mostly from listening to our parents and other figures of authority. Approaching adulthood, we sometimes begin to "think for ourselves," and may even revise some of our most cherished values. Yet some of those old beliefs that we learned as children haunt us long after we have discarded them in favor of more reasonable ideas.

The word taboo is defined as "A ban or an inhibition resulting from social custom or emotional aversion." I’d add that the social custom usually creates the emotional aversion. We learn taboos long before we learn critical thinking, and they don’t go away easily. They fit a clear distinction between right- and left-brain activities. What Herbert is describing in the first paragraph above are taboos.

Herbert is arguing, in his op-ed piece, that the gut-feelings some of us have when we think of homosexual activity are very similar to those many people expressed in the early days of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. People respond to those feelings rather than from principles. And as he points out, "we often leap, with no basis in fact," to conclusions that lie on a path of least emotional resistance.

Our taboos might contain images of awful things to befall us if we turn our backs on them. Laws, on the other hand, are supposed to be reasonable, logical and fair. We absorb this assumption pretty much the same way we absorb those other assumptions on which our taboos are based. In our society, laws are usually based upon the best guesses of groups of people trying to ascertain the consequences of human behavior. The more homogeneous the group, the more likely its laws will reflect its taboos. Conflicting taboos are likely to cause difficulty in making laws that are acceptable to all. The compromises we then make may not still the inner apprehensions, but they may be the best we can do under the circumstances.

The trouble is, we usually don’t know all the consequences of a given action, be it social or personal. When we don’t know, we make up "reasons" that seem to fit. A judge in Virginia in 1958, sentencing a multiracial couple for miscegenation, wrote:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. . . . The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." Nine years later, the United States Supreme Court took exception to the law under which the judge passed sentence, and a goodly number of states in the Union were forced to abandon their laws against interracial marriage. The larger society, with its greater diversity, is considered to possess a larger perspective and therefore greater wisdom.

How strongly someone feels about a subject doesn’t give us much to go on when we try to decide whether they are right or not. "A difference in opinion is what makes a horse race," someone said a long time ago. Agreeing to a horse race is a logical way to resolve the difference of opinion; the Virginia couple who traveled to the District of Columbia to marry and then return home were forcing a decision about a law they considered wrong. They hoped that the larger context presided over by the federal court would find their value more reasonable.

Because of all the legal attention given to civil rights in the years since then, a similar challenge is now growing toward laws which one side claims "protect the institution of marriage" and the other side claims "deny a significant portion of our society their civil rights." Both sides claim that God and justice and reason are on their side. In fact, taboos are in conflict.

A campaign to amend the U.S. Constitution might be seen as the horse race that will resolve the conflict. Yet even this idea does not guarantee the rightness of one side or the other. It’s simply a matter of "might makes right." And in our society, money is mighty. I like to think that my vote is not for sale, that it goes to the cause I believe in. It satisfies my own taboos. How do I know that the consequences of my choice will be what I want or expect?

Humans are unquestionably rational creatures. But not entirely. Much as we idealize reason and logic, we are moved by the realms of the right hemisphere. The word taboo carries negative connotations, those of ignorance and superstition. But there is where we feel; there is where we derive meaning and value.

Our greatest challenge lies in balancing the truths from both sides of our brains. We have to learn to trust our gut feelings, but only after measuring them against the power of reason. And we must continually examine our assumptions. "The mark of a civilized man," Justice Holmes once wrote, "is that he frequently re-examines his own first principles." Fitting it all together—integrating all the differing aspects of life as we constantly learn them—is the measure of wisdom.

And nothing trumps wisdom.

 

March 3, 2004

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