Paul Beston wrote about the Michael Richards case today. In so doing, he invoked the question of taboos. I think taboos do explain the powerful reaction to Richards’ outburst at the Laugh Factory. I wrote about the topic in connection to the Rush Limbaugh/Donovan McNabb controversy a couple of years ago:
I have a theory about why Rush’s brief remarks have unleashed so much antagonism. Many will believe it’s just about liberals trying to bring a big conservative down. That’s part of the story, but there’s something larger underneath. Every society must have taboos. We need to know the difference between sins and virtues so we can order our lives and live in community. In short, knowing what is right and wrong is the key to social order.
America has witnessed a radical re-ordering of our conception of what is good and bad. Socially useful taboos like unmarried cohabitation, having children out of wedlock, adultery, consumption of pornography, and divorce have all been transformed into acceptable activities through a powerful shove from the cultural elite and correspondingly widespread practice. G.K. Chesterton once famously complained about the rich preaching their vices to the poor and introducing them to ruin. He was right. The old sins aren’t sins any more and we’ve paid a certain price for that. Just ask any child of a single mother who hosts a series of transient males in the home.
But sins don’t disappear and leave a vacuum. We have a moral sense and we will exercise it on something. The ever-considerate cultural elite did not leave us empty-handed. Commandments they destroyed have been replaced by others more favorable to people of fashion. The sin that now stands center stage is the improperly crafted negative remark about anything having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, or non-dominant religions.
I hasten to add that Rush’s remarks on McNabb were nothing like Richards’ blast of racial slurs. But the general point about taboos holds. We will exercise our sense of moral outrage about something. We just aren’t sure what that will be at any given point in time.