…is a hidden root of almost every war and personal conflict humans have ever encountered. But how could such a seemingly simple concept have so much power and bearing on the direction we take in our lives? To have an understanding of the conflict we must have a clear understanding of first, what it means to be self-determined, second, what personal power is and third, the meaning and scope of a taboo and how it could create such conflict. Let’s start with personal power and see how it relates to self-determinism. These two, especially in contemporary thinking, seem to be inextricably interwoven.
Living in today’s environment where we are feeling the “pinch” in our finances, recognizing our fading emotional “effectiveness” and where our obsession with “getting ahead” has become our primary goal, there is a perception that something is missing; something that we just can’t get enough of; something that seems to be just out of our reach. That something is what I call personal power. It is one of the primary motivational foci that we have extracted from our comprehension of contemporary psychology, the driving force that makes us painfully aware that without it we are not who, what or where we want to be. Generally, anything that we feel a lack of becomes a primary factor in everything that we endeavor to do. So what, then, is personal power? Where does it come from? Why are we so driven to “acquire” it? Let’s look more deeply.
If you asked anyone what they want out of life I’m sure that what you would hear would be all the common expressions such as “more time, more money, own my own home, have a loving relationship, take a vacation,” all desires that are details in an overall comfortable living of life free from conflict. But that’s just it. They are details, factors, pieces in an overall perspective of how we perceive our life to be progressing. But if we were to distill these expressions down to a simple perspective or understanding, what could someone actually say that would reflect all of these factors? They’d say, “I want to do what I want, be what I want, be where I want and do it when I want.” These statements reflect a painful perception that our conditions and actions are somehow influenced, mitigated or, in extreme cases, blocked by circumstances and the influence of others. Feeling this we, essentially, feel that our life is out of our control. Someone else is pulling the strings. Someone other than us is “on the top” dictating how our life is to be lived. Someone else is determining our fate, our path, our circumstances. So what is personal power? It’s feeling like we are able to determine what we’re going to do, where we’re going to do it and how much or long we’re going to be doing it for. Being able to do this labels us as being self-determined. So at this point we can say that for most of us, in today’s days and times, personal power is, basically, equivalent to being self-determined, that is, deciding for ourselves how our life circumstances are going to proceed. The interrelation of personal power and self-determinism is plain to see. This part is easy. Taboos, on the other hand, can be very convoluted and can have a very subtle influence, if not unnoticeable, on how we believe that we can be or are “allowed” to be self-determined and exert our personal power. Let’s, next, look at what a taboo is.
The original word taboo first appeared in 1777. The word itself has many permutations but the use of the word, oddly enough, originated in the Polynesian islands in the south Pacific. The concept is not original as many cultures have this concept involved in their social perspectives but the word is. The concept presents that some subjects and actions are considered to be consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed. The word consecrated can be taken to mean special, holy or somehow reserved and elevated beyond common use. But generally, the others are self-explanatory in that they are considered to be “bad” and constitute what should be avoided. Either way, it represents something that is, socially, not permitted.
To understand why something should be avoided or taboo we must first understand that the use or participation in what is not permitted somehow “pollutes” or “perverts” the socially desirable behaviors within a particular culture. In other words, for a culture to have a particular type of lifestyle or attitude, certain behaviors must be eliminated so they won’t spoil the effect or feeling people wish to have within their social structure. So laws are implemented, some are written, some are only implied and with them everyone proceeds in their daily lives free of the “polluting” and “perverting” influences. The ten commandments of the bible are the most obvious and the most “discussable” of these in our western social traditions. Other cultures have similar “scripture.” But, like us, they all also have unspoken laws or attitudes that are in play, sometimes within our conscious perception and sometimes below that threshold. They are unspoken because to verbalize or draw attention to them would expose our perceived and repressed feelings of shame related to being able or willing to express them. They emanate from deep within our individual psyches; qualities of our innate animal nature believed to “pollute” or “pervert” the clean or pure image intended for our religious or social behavior. To expose them would verify that we actually do possess those qualities of an animal nature triggering intense shame and leading to denial and projection (defense mechanisms). In western culture, these are the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. All seven are related to one common concept which has become the catchall for what we consider to be a taboo behavior; selfishness. Our social milieu, especially through our religion, has taken the perspective of selfishness and made it the primary taboo in our western culture. The problem this creates is not so much in actually being “bad” behavior in itself but in our use of accusing others of it. In this, it has become a vehicle for suppressing others for our own personal security and comfort while also enabling us remain free of having to acknowledge how it verifies its existence in our own animal nature. This, effectively, amounts to social blackmail. So, what is the unspoken taboo? You cannot be or take whatever you want unless you consider the needs and wants of others first. This undercurrent has been firmly in place in this country and many other parts of the western religion dominated world for at the least five hundred years or more. Let show where this has evolved from and how this applies to us now.
When the settlers immigrated to this part of the world the majority of them had meager resources and were escaping oppression from the European nations. I know that our history cites religious persecution as being the main cause for their migration but we must also consider that in any society imbued with religious principles that those principles and beliefs are completely enmeshed and compatible with the with their prevailing social customs. It’s not only the religious principles that cause conflict but also the social customs that might contradict the way in which those who feel persecuted might want to live. Many of us leave environments that we consider hostile to find ones with more freedom and compatibility for how we want to live. Hence, for the settlers, they chose to leave to do so. Their arrival here with only those meager resources made it necessary for them to depend on each other simply for survival. This coupled with their religious beliefs based on an altruistic tradition of “the needs of the group superseding the needs of the individual” set the foundation for our culture which has permeated and become a dominant force in our American social customs for living based on those original survival needs and religious tradition. Though our physical survival needs are no longer as tenuous, the pattern has survived as a mental and emotional current for those five hundred years strongly influencing our patterns for raising our children. This pattern is very much analogous to how the children of the Great Depression continued the patterns and precautions for survival that they learned in raising their children. These traditions have continued within our current culture but are now a very powerful unconscious undercurrent dictating how we conduct our lives even though we are, generally, no longer at risk for our physical survival. Let’s move on to see what this has morphed into.
As small example but a very enlightening one and reflective of situations on a larger social scale, is of a family sitting around a dinner table. There are two parents and two children. The food has been placed on the table in serving bowls. The younger child immediately grabs the dish of his favorite food and spoons the better part of the dish’s contents on to his own plate. It’s obvious that others at the table will become shortchanged. One of the parents chastises the child and the child is relegated to the status of “bad.” His “punishment” is temporary emotional boycotting by his parents and an obvious perceived “negative” regard by the other child and parents. The chastised child is effectively “in the dog house” because he pursued his own interests before considering the needs or wants of others. In short, he was selfish. Essentially, he has been taught that it is taboo to be or take what you want without the approval of others. He has learned that this behavior is unacceptable and will put him in disregard by others; primarily and ostensibly isolated from the approval, inclusion and support of the “family.” This is, essentially, an unspoken and subtle form of emotional blackmail. This behavior has understandably become a very powerful lesson in exhibiting manners. But let’s look deeper. What did the other child learn? Yes, he learned about his parent’s preferences and the effect on the chastised child learning a “lesson.” But he also learned something else. He learned that if he accuses his brother of behavior that is considered shameful and selfish, he could manipulate his own situation to advantage and not have to expose his own selfish urges to the resulting punishment of parental boycotting. He eliminated the competition through shaming. Essentially, he is suppressing the brother’s actions and creating an opportunity for his own gain with no undesirable consequences for himself. He has learned that he can blackmail others into inaction through shaming them through accusations of their being selfish, thereby, gaining an advantage by being left with what he wants when they refrain from taking action. But what is actually occurring?
First, we have to realize that this lesson may occur either consciously or unconsciously. The effect will remain the same but in the unconscious version; the younger brother may be totally unaware that he is putting the older brother into this situation. It may just become “instinctual” for him to do so. Or, he may grow to become aware of the ploy and actually plan the scenario in order to gain the advantage. In the case of the planned scenario, “enforced” manners actually become a liability to the older brother who is being manipulated through the shaming.
This small example exemplified by only four people in a nuclear family resonates with our social structure on a much larger scale. It shows a social dynamic that has metastasized and is rampant throughout our cultural existence. The implementation of a taboo has become a primary ploy used to prevent others from competing with us. It is an instinct utilized by our ego and deeply rooted in our persistent animal nature as it, nevertheless, still permeates and “seeps” through into our social structure. We have, euphemistically, come to call these people who plan this kind of behavior and who look out for only themselves, “opportunists.” Even in the face of our “altruistic” planned and intended “pure codes of behavior” our animal nature still shines through.
The introduction of a taboo in a culture necessitates that we decide between receiving the belonging, family inclusion and acceptance of our parents and others while conceding to their desired behavior of us verses our own desire to be or take what we want without the “permission” of those others. But looking back what did we determine earlier? Taking or doing what we want is equivalent to our perception of personal power and self-determinism. Guilt, shame or the feeling of being a “bad dog” attached to a perceived or accused selfishness can severely inhibit our ability and willingness to wield that personal power and be self-determined while risking being “punished” or ostracized for doing so. Underlying all this is the tacit and often unspoken social assertion and early childhood training that everyone else’s preferences must be considered first before we address our own, otherwise, we are considered to be selfish. What this boils down to is that if we wield our personal power and are self-determined, it is highly likely that we will lose the support of others through making them self-conscious of their own perceived short comings and cowardice in not acting themselves and they, in turn, will accuse us of being selfish. When we acquiesce and conform to the wishes of others, we often sabotage our own individuality and miss opportunities for creativity by “dumbing ourselves down” so others won’t feel bad about themselves. The irony is that the others who do not wish to become aware of their own cowardice and reluctance in acting would also take what they want had they perceived no potential for “punishment” or social ostracizing. It becomes easiest for them to let us be the “fall guy” or “scapegoat” through manipulated shaming. This tactic produces a very powerful pillar for security in the structure of many dysfunctional families.
What is truly unfortunate is that with the increasing absence of corporal punishment, shame and withholding in the form of emotional blackmail have become the subtle and most dominant control mechanism for creating and maintaining desirable social behavior in our offspring. It becomes a safe guard against us actually looking at our own animal nature while enabling our “control” over others’ behavior who might expose our possession of it. In this light of the fact that it is our animal nature that drives our passion, is it any wonder why so many of us feel so much anger and rage while we really have no clue as to why or where it comes from? We’ve allowed our creativity to become “capped” and what’s even more tragic is that we don’t even realize it.
The subtle and unspoken messages of repression, employed by our culture, amount to collusion. They cloak our awareness of our assumed inadequacies and pose a major stumbling block to a much needed honesty that would free us all to be eminently creative and expressive. It takes courage to call it as we see it and, in the face of “excommunication,” be self-determined and follow our own path. In choosing to express our personal power and to be self-determined, the “excommunication” we risk is the security of belonging to and being protected by the “herd.” The choice to risk “excommunication” was most likely a hard one to make but overcome by the great individuals of our civilization such as Beethoven, Einstein, Copernicus, Newton, Rosa Parks, Jane Eyre, Gandhi and many, many more. No one becomes powerful or self-determined by following the rules. We have to ask ourselves, how far will we go to exercise our personal power in being creative and self-determined? Will we risk “excommunication” and being labeled selfish in order to actualize ourselves? Are we still a lion in sheep’s clothing believing we’re sheep? It’s this quality of courage and maturity that we, eventually, must all choose to embrace…