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You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos
by Robert R. Arthur
Publisher:
Feral House 
Year:
2013 
ISBN:
978-0979755415 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 12/21/2015

You Will Die is a book about our taboos and how they came to be. It explores their pernicious effects, to what extent they are based on truths or lies, and the ways they have been used more or less globally to deprive us of certain freedoms. At its core, the book posits that we must know our taboos intimately to be able to understand our society, our likes and dislikes, and our minds. Robert Arthur spent ten years gathering the data for this book, and the result is both astonishingly edifying and supremely entertaining.

You Will Die catalogues and discusses almost every taboo imaginable in a funny, fresh, explicit, and frank fashion. Arthur shows us how each taboo he discusses originated, and he exposes their underlying myths. In most cases, he debunks them and explains how our fear, horror, or disgust is misplaced, or at the very least, a cultural artifact. Remaining as neutral as possible, Arthur works his way through an incredible compendium – from Hitler’s gastrointestinal troubles to heroin chippers to children’s sexuality to… seriously, you name it. If it wouldn’t make for polite conversation at the family dinner table, it’s probably here.

So what are taboos? Arthur characterizes taboos as things that cultures refuse to talk about freely, or things that are defined in a particular way that must not be challenged. Not surprisingly they mainly relate to bodily functions and their products, and to activities and substances that cause fundamental changes to conscious experience. In other words, gross stuff, sex, and drugs (not that these don’t occasionally overlap).

As Arthur demonstrates, taboos essentially function as a series of explicit and implicit rules limiting experience. They are communicated through cultural norms, laws, and religious philosophies (and their accompanying rules), as well as through “common sense” and mass consensus. Many taboos are taught via a “yuck” factor. Some objects, such as urine, excrement, or nasal secretions, trigger what may be a generally learned reaction of disgust. For people who don’t engage in them, certain sexual practices may also produce feelings of repellence (along with repressed desire). Some taboos are assumed to be universal, though of course they are not; for instance, taboos against cannibalism, which Arthur leads off the book by examining. He then presents an in-depth discussion of taboos about bodily fluids and waste products. The bulk of the book addresses the two primary taboo topics of most contemporary societies: sex and drugs.

The chapters on sex cover virtually every facet imaginable, and then some. What is “normal” vs. “abnormal” sexuality? When do children actually start to feel sexual urges? How common is masturbation? What is homosexuality, and what are its related sexual practices actually like? How do men and women experience or think about sexuality differently? Is polygamy more natural for humans than monogamy? What sorts of extreme sexual behavior do people engage in, from BDSM practices to an enormous number of fetishes? How normal or healthy is sex work? What are average amounts of sexual activity? Probably a lot of this is covered in human sexuality textbooks, minus all the “fringe” material Arthur includes, and without his blatant, in-your-face, no-holds-barred honesty.

It is when Arthur turns to the topic of drugs, however, that the book turns from curious and intriguing to astounding. In a few chapters, he decimates almost every standard trope of drug prohibitionists.

Arthur starts off by discussing his own experiences and insights: alcohol is used as an excuse for behavior one wants to engage in but doesn’t want to admit to; wealthy and successful people often use cocaine without developing any problematic patterns; etc. He then critiques the standard definitions of drug abuse: “The government has unofficially decided using a drug for pleasure equals abuse.” Next he tackles addiction and shows how it is actually quite rare with most drugs; more common for legal drugs than illegal ones; relatively easy to avoid; and just not that dangerous in most cases anyway. Arthur breaks down drug fatalities and the ways in which they are exaggerated and overcounted, and also avoidable, and then discusses adverse health effects not leading to death. His conclusion, arrived at quite logically, is that the vast majority of illegal drug use is unproblematic and mainly just provides happiness to the user. He goes on to list famous and influential people who have taken drugs, and then elucidates all the reasons drugs are useful, pleasurable, often beneficial, and fun.

From here, Arthur turns to a lengthy and detailed critique of the history of drug prohibition and its various effects: mass incarceration, organized crime, terrorism, the destabilization of numerous states, inner city poverty. An unending litany of woes has been caused by the drug taboo, and Arthur brings it all together into a few incredible chapters. This is not the standard critique of the War on Drugs. This is an overarching critique of every facet of prohibition in the past and present, including the War on Drugs. When you untangle the drug taboo as systematically as Arthur does here, what you find is that drug prohibition has affected almost everything for the worse. Arthur also discusses the flip side, the benefits of decriminalization and legalization. I would love to see the head of the DEA try to argue against the evidence Arthur marshals to make the case that drug prohibition is one of the modern world’s most grievous, terrible mistakes. I have thought about assigning Arthur’s section on drugs to my students at the college courses I teach, but it is so comprehensive it would supplant the reading list for the entire course! If you had a friend or relative you wanted to convince of the evils of drug prohibition, you really couldn’t find a better and more complete summary. Unfortunately, this would have to also be a person prepared to read several detailed pages about fisting. With Arthur’s comprehensive take on taboos, few people will have an open enough mind to not end up offended or at least squeamish about something.

Taken as a whole, You Will Die is like an encyclopedia of things you are not supposed to know. It’s a guidebook to topics you simply will not learn in school, at home, and most likely, anywhere. It makes the case that what we don’t know, because we don’t want to talk about it, becomes increasingly important because of its neglect.

And this matters politically. The history of the world since at least the Roman era has been in part the oppression of people who hold different ideas about taboos. The early Christians persecuted the pagans who “took drugs” and had what seemed to them to be deviant sex (often on drugs). The persecution of witches later also mirrors this. The Old Testament and the Abrahamic religions are constructed around intricate systems of taboos. Later represented as puritanism, these ideas manifested themselves in politics around the world. Our global war on drugs, along with the drug control treaties upheld by the United Nations, are themselves based on the drug taboo. The Muslim world is rife with taboos, many of which form the foundation of Sharia law. Proscriptions and punishments stemming from the Judeo-Christian traditions are not much better. We may not stone women to death for pre-marital sex, but we lock people in cages for the rest of their lives for possessing or selling illegal – because they’re taboo – inebriants. Countries not under the sway of the Abrahamic religions can be just as harsh, or harsher. Buddhist, Hindu, and largely secular societies continue to persecute their own citizens who violate sexual or drug-related taboos.

In the less religious societies the emphasis may no longer be explicitly on upholding 2000-year-old laws etched into tablets of stone. But the urge remains to protect individuals and societies from “sin” and “vice” through coercive means. Only some anarchist, libertine, or society-defying countercultural groups have systematically dared to oppose these laws and norms by disputing the underlying belief that taboos are important and must be upheld.

The bottom line is that taboos do tremendously more harm than they do good. Many people who have relaxed about some taboos – premarital sex is no longer penalized by death in most places – still maintain other ones. Even individuals who think they are liberal about some taboos tend to not be liberal about others. You might accept that people will recreationally use marijuana or psychedelics, but view those people who use methamphetamine or heroin as junkie degenerates. Some forms of sexual behavior are normalized, but others are just “disgusting.” People who consume some bodily secretions are normal, but those who willingly consume others are pathologically sick. And on and on, ad infinitum.

Clearly, we need the opportunity to choose our behavior free from concerns about whether we are breaking taboos or not. In order to do so, this book is beyond helpful. By clearly understanding the nature of our taboos, their origins, and history – and to what extent they are supported by truth or lies – we gain the freedom to challenge these taboos, deny them, or engage in taboo behavior without guilt or shame. Only through explicating every taboo we hold can we arrive at social mores, and ultimately legal structures, that honor the diversity of human desires and experiences and stop penalizing people for behavior that does no harm to anyone else. In essence, our refusal to acknowledge taboos and the weak basis on which they rest prevents meaningful social, cultural, and political change. Taboos may not be the roots of all evil, but they are the roots of a hell of a lot of it.

When my children reach young adulthood they will each be receiving a copy of this book from me.

Cover of Feral House edition pictured. Earlier editions of You Will Die were self-published under the imprint Suburra Publishing and contain illustrations by the author. The Feral House edition is updated, revised, and contains a chapter on the taboo of death.

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