What Does Taboo Mean? - Definition & Examples

What Does Taboo Mean? - Definition & Examples
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  • 0:03 When Something is Taboo
  • 1:07 Religious Taboos
  • 2:05 Social Taboos
  • 3:02 Legal Taboos
  • 4:10 Sexual Taboos
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Although they are less common today than they once were, taboos have long been used to maintain social order. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define the term and explore some examples of past and present taboos.

When Something Is Taboo

If you turn on the TV these days, you can flip through the channels and find a wide variety of characters or subjects being discussed. On one channel you might find a reality series about a tattoo shop and its customers while another might feature a frank or humorous discussion about sex. In the 21st century, these shows wouldn't seem at all strange, but not too long ago such topics were unquestionably taboo.

The classical definition of taboo is something that's forbidden for religious or social reasons. For instance, the Hebrew Bible identifies eating pork as taboo because pigs are unclean animals. In a modern context, however, the word taboo is less specific and often used to describe something that's considered socially unacceptable or controversial. Going back to the earlier example of modern television, subjects like sex were once considered off-limits for television because many people felt that it was inappropriate to discuss such things publicly. It's only recently that society's attitudes about these topics have changed.

Religious Taboos

Although we use the term casually these days, the classical definition of taboo (religious or social prohibitions) is still relevant in a contemporary context. In the present day, for example, many Jews continue to abstain from eating pork because it's not kosher, meaning that it's not permitted by Jewish biblical law. Across the different religions there are varying degrees of commitment and adherence, but many people continue to adhere to biblical law and avoid that which has been identified as taboo.

Kosher foods are those that are approved by Jewish biblical law.

Another religious taboo with which you're probably familiar is the issue of homosexuality in the Christian religion. Many people believe that the Bible says homosexual behavior is a sin and is prohibited. As such, they not only abstain from such behavior, but they also don't support the rights of others to engage in homosexual behaviors. Although not all religious people feel this way, homosexuality is a common taboo among several religions.

Social Taboos

Due to an increased awareness and tolerance of diversity, social taboos in Western countries, like the United States, are few and far between these days; yet there was a time in the recent past when many things were considered taboo in society. For example, until about 50 or 60 years ago, ending a marriage in divorce was considered a social taboo because, among other things, it was perceived as undermining the family and breaking up the most valued social institution.

Although they are not expressly religious, social taboos often overlap with religion, particularly on issues of morality. If we go back to the issue of homosexuality, for example, there was a time that LGBT people were far less accepted in society than they are today. In the past, people that were opposed to gay rights might not have considered themselves to be adhering to biblical law, but their opinions about gay people were often influenced by their religious beliefs or the beliefs of the larger culture.

Legal Taboos

In a modern context, the laws of a particular culture can be considered a kind of taboo because the people within that culture have decided that, for one reason or another, certain things should be prohibited. In Germany, for example, it's illegal to use or distribute materials that feature the Nazi insignia, the swastika. After the fall of the Third Reich at the end of WWII, Germany has made a strong effort to ensure that something like the Holocaust won't happen again, so they have made the use of Nazi symbolism taboo in their culture.

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