What is taboo in 2020? Taboos change all the time, and once you realise this, they become less taboo. On this cool Autumn walk, we will explore where taboos come from, why we find it difficult to talk about some themes, and what is likely to remain unspeakable.
This is a philosophical experiment pretending to be a city walk.
We want to explore some hot topics: uncomfortable truths about, for example, climate change and how it will affect life in our city.
They used to say you should not discuss politics, religion, sex or your income. These days, people spend a lot of time speaking about all four subjects. Far-right politics have moved from being unacceptable and marginalised in public discourse to now belonging in the White House, Hofburg and even in the EU Parliament. Junior members of the last coalition government were found to be singing anti-Semitic songs. Donald Trump has made a career out of controversy and saying unspeakable things.
At the same time, homosexuality has moved from being illegal to cool and mainstream. Women have been reclaiming words for their genitalia, gay people now own ‘queer’, and the N-word is often heard in rap lyrics – at least from black rappers.
Free speech is a vital feature of modern life, and taboos tend to be unhelpful. So we aim to find ways to discuss – respectfully – some of these difficult subjects, to provide clarity, understanding, and shine some light into dark places. For example, statistically, most paedophiles were themselves victims of child abuse in their own youth, and so need help as much as to be criminalised. How can we break the cycle of abuse?
And of course the media has a responsibility to inform people, but with less sensationalism and fear. One interesting response is solution-focused journalism which addresses bad news by interviewing those groups who are looking for useful answers to pressing problems. The New York Times has pioneered this new style of reporting. On this walk, we don’t just want to provoke, but also find creative responses to the problems out there.
So where is taboo these days? For many liberals, it is unacceptable to say politically-incorrect things on race, gender or sexuality.
It can be disorientating to stay up-to-date with all the changing codes of what you can and cannot say, particularly on American campuses. Even the word American is annoying to some in the German-speaking world, when applied to the USA. Some leftists find it taboo that their children go to a birthday party in McDonalds, or that their friends vote for FPÖ or Trump.
We aim to look at some of the contradictions in liberal positions – loose, inconsistent thinking among progressive, red/green-voting modern types. According to The Guardian, female-focused architecture is not compatible with ecological building, since the former includes social space in the shared parts of a house, whereas the latter urges less glass, heating, lighting and concrete for unnecessary parts of the built environment. The French government has banned religious-based face-covering, to protect women’s freedom, while the British government says that it is not the government’s business to decide how women dress. Both are liberal, feminist arguments, but can they both be right? Migration is a major factor in climate change, since many of these new arrivals will want to return home to see family and friends each year. Can liberals embrace both migration and the fight against climate change? This is almost never mentioned in progressive debates around migration (both the guides on this walk are themselves immigrants). We see how fast coronavirus has spread, whereas even 20 years ago, it would have stayed much longer in isolation in eastern China.
So what will we visit? In a sense, if you can visit something physically, then it is not taboo. But we want to use sites to discuss broader ideas.
Prostitution is now illegal in Sweden, a country which tends to lead on liberal social issues. Should we follow? Pornography has gone mainstream, with for example Kim Kardashian-West having leaked two self-made sex films, and many children now learning about sex through these highly unrealistic, cold and abusive clips of filmed prostitution.
Art plays a central role in pushing boundaries of acceptability, taking risks and engaging people in debate. Egon Schiele was arrested for painting girls naked. Actionism staged performance as provocative entertainment, from shitting on stage to throwing blood at the audience and having live sex. Stefan Zweig, Thomas Bernhard and three of Wittgenstein’s brothers killed themselves. Gustav Klimt had 16 children, but no wife.
Having sex with children and animals is mostly still taboo. But mental health problems can now be spoken about with your employer, which is new and progressive. As well as plenty of racist politicians, intolerance is also a problem amongst migrants towards each other. A surprising number of them vote for the FPÖ/Team Strache.
Why are GMO foods more acceptable in Asia and USA than in Europe? Maybe because of conservative green thinking on the power of GM to feed malnourished people? The best-known ecologist in UK, George Monbiot, who made this playful film with Greta Thunberg, is a campaigner for nuclear power, having opposed it for much of his working life. Why did he change his mind?: Fukushima, the world’s worst nuclear disaster. How many people died after that meltdown? None.
Mobile telephones have changed the concept of privacy – both of personal data and also intimate subjects which people now feel free to talk about on the u-bahn or in parks and streets.
In some ways it is now taboo among the cool crowd to be fat – indeed the desire to be thin has never been stronger, particularly among some younger women. And yet, until the 20th century, fatness represented wealth and health – poor people were malnourished and thin and often sick. And still today in parts of Africa, a rounded figure is connected to prosperity. And historically, having brown, sun-tanned skin showed you worked the land and were poor, and so the rich wore powder to emphasise their paleness, as do some East Asians in 2020.
Taboo is a poetic Polynesian word, meaning social – or physical – exclusion, as punishment.
Start location: Narrenturm, Hof 6, AAKH (nahe Sensengasse), 1090
Start time: 14:30 (til c17:30)
Walk leaders: Udo Häberlin (MA 18 Stadtentwicklung) & Eugene Quinn
Cost contribution: €10 [Udo is an employee of Stadt Wien and cannot earn any money from other sources, whereas Eugene works for space and place – and ultimately as self-employed – and so earned no money from March-mid-May 2020, and these funds go to him, and the tax office).