Our subject is taboos and magic, but given the source material, a bit of background might be welcomed by some. If you are in a hurry, skip right to Taboo.
In pondering a post about the differences between certain Africans and those of European stock, we recall Albert Schweitzer’s African Notebook, which is now almost impossible to find (in non-electronic form).
The reason for it missingness is well known. He was “canceled” before it was cool, because of statements like this: “The African is my brother, but he is my younger brother by several centuries.” Fr Rutler reminds us early versions of Schweitzer’s book had this passage, later expurgated:
I have given my life to try to alleviate the sufferings of Africa. There is something that all white men who have lived here like I must learn and know: that these individuals are a sub-race. They have neither the intellectual, mental, or emotional abilities to equate or to share equally with white men in any function of our civilization. I have given my life to try to bring them the advantages which our civilization must offer, but I have become well aware that we must retain this status: we the superior and they the inferior.
This is what we now call “judgmental”, a clear sin against Equality, which says all are equal, and none inferior to another except because of hateful circumstance. Though, paradoxically, Equality does allow that some are superior, and it’s usually the inferior in some way. But never mind that.
The real problem with Schweitzer is not his “superior”, but that his “superior” is not universal, and so neither is his “inferior.” Both words do not apply to all things, only to some things depending on circumstance. Africans are superior in living in accord with those parts of the culture created by them in their surroundings, with the culture formed by their own natures in those surroundings, and likewise with Europeans. Malaria, anyone? Milk digestion? All this is in general, on average, and now there is much mixing.
In any case, Equality demands superiority, universal or conditional, never be spoken, except, as said, certain Villains are allowed to be inferior. Villains are those peoples holding back perfect Equality.
Rutler’s article was from 2016, a time when the attitude of superiority was still allowed to be spoken, but only from the left:
During last year’s Synod on the Family, Cardinal Walter Kasper expressed frustration with African bishops for opposing more conciliatory attitudes toward homosexuality that he called their “taboo” and said that Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”…The cardinal’s remarks echoed the poorly tutored John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church who said of Africans in 1998: “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world: that is just not on their radar screen.”
The Ugandan parliament, in a clear show of what they view as local African superiority, but which Kasper and others see as inferiority, recently passed a “bill criminalizing identifying as LGBTQ,” which also “imposes [the] death penalty for some offenses”. “A person who commits the offense of aggravated homosexuality…is liable, on conviction, to suffer death,” says the new law.
The gentleman in the first link said Africans had another superiority, which is living in small family groups and in a land in which the fruits of nature are had with ease. Whereas, many say, it is a superiority of Europeans to live on lands which have to be tamed. Natures and Nature, working together and over a long period of time, have combined to make different peoples.
The charge now made against this attitude is “racism”. David Stove:
“Racism” is the belief that some human races are inferior to others in certain respects, and that it is sometimes proper to make such differences the basis of our behavior towards people. It is this proposition which is nowadays constantly declared to be false, though everyone knows it is true; just as everyone knows it is true that people differ in age, sex, health, etc., and that it is sometimes proper to make these differences the basis of our behavior towards them.
Equality frets that if superiorities and inferiorities are acknowledged, “disparities” in participation in certain favored activities that are not “representational” will not be lamented. They need the lamentations. Whereas naturalists say “disparities” are to be expected, so why worry about them? Let people and peoples find their own place.
Taboo & Magic
Our subject, however, is taboos, in Africans and Europeans. But we needed that dull throat clearing because nearly everybody today is an equalitarian.
Taboos in Africa where Schweitzer served were not (always) the same for every person, like they are in our culture. In Schweitzer’s society, taboos were created at the individual level, whereas for us they are usually more general. All whites now are forbidden certain speech here, for instance.
Schweitzer says, “There is nothing in life that may not give occasion to a taboo.” Taboos originated in any number of ways, holders often inventing them for themselves, and also desiring to do so.
One instance: “In the neighborhood of Samkita there lived a woman whose taboo was that she must never touch a broom but do all her sweeping with her hands.” A more important example:
During my first stay, a tragic taboo affair happened at Samkita. A boy at the Mission school there had as his taboo that he must not eat plantains, and must even be careful not to eat any food out of a cooking-pot in which plantains had been cooked immediately before. One day his schoolfellows told him that he had eaten fish from a pot in which there had been remains of plantain. He was immediately seized with cramp and died after few hours. A missionary who was present gave me an account of this perplexing affair.
The modern European will seek for a scientific, medical explanation. A pastime of historians is diagnosing figures from the past from tenuous clues, so strong is the urge to put everything into accepted medical bins. In this case, the modern European will surmise that the boy had a serious allergy, maybe, and the chemical reactions inside his body brought about by eating the plantain caused his death.
This proves, as do the actions of the unfortunate boy himself, that it is not unusual to try to fit the round pegs of observation into the square holes of theory that culture provides.
But notice, and notice carefully, that there is no indication that the pot had any plantains in it! The other boys only said there were. The taboo killed the boy.
If you’re not sold by that story, realize there are many, many other similar ones. They are anyway well known, or used to be. And not restricted to Africans. Fahrenbach tells us Comanche life was in most respects ruled by strict custom enforced by taboos, which we discussed before.
What’s important to us today is the causative effect of the taboo. Taboos caused illness and death. There is no doubt of this. Just as other forms of magic gave health and preserved life. There is no doubt of this either.
Europeans call the health-giving properties of magic the “placebo effect”, to make it sound like science, as all things must. Giving a thing a label is sufficient to put it into a bin, so we can more or less forget about it, as if the label has explained something. It’s not surprising that this label-explaining happens most in psychology. Theories on causal mechanisms abound, but there is no consensus, and many contradictions.
Interestingly, no magic-oriented culture would quail at prescribing magic readily, whereas our science-oriented culture has many long hang-wringing debates over whether prescribing placebos is ethical. We desire to cure people, but we don’t want anybody to stray too far from science.
Taboo translated into science is nocebo, a more recent coinage than placebo. It took a lot longer for science to acknowledge the causative evil effects of taboo violation. Yet nocebos are just more label-making: nothing has been explained. But the acknowledgement is a step forward.
Europeans like to think themselves above taboos and magic. But they often treat science in much the same way. For instance, I knew a fellow—East Asian, a race not quite as saturated in science as Europeans—who wore a mask religiously, but still got covid. Europeans would say he got it because some other person, not my fellow, violated the mask taboo. But my fellow dismissed this and insisted that if he were not wearing it, he would have got sicker. That attitude is, I think, half way between magic and science.
The half-way point is peopled with Europeans, too. For instance. Magic-science “Palm line surgery is now available for people who believe in palm reading but don’t like what their natural palm lines say”. They had “good” lines lengthened and “bad” ones shortened, taboo and magic, by science-based surgeons.
Europeans were keen on taboo breaking during the covid panic, and not just for masks. Many, many people believed that their mandated science vaccine would not work if they came within sight of an unvaccinated person. They would move away if they knew. It was, after all, a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. The good magic of the vax was easily canceled by the bad, and stronger, magic of “purebloods”.
Science-minded readers will have all kind of objections, but they will all be science-based objections. Yet there is still that African boy. He was killed by his taboo. How do we know that somebody who died of covid, and who blamed his catching the disease on taboo violation, did not die in exactly the same way as the boy?
Others will say that the antibodies of the vaxxed were higher than those unvaxxed, and not infected, and maybe this is so. But how do we know these measures were not elevated by the magic of the vax? Beyond scoffing and dismissing the question as unworthy of science, I mean.
After all, the taboo did kill that boy, and it is well known taboos killed and injured untold numbers. Just as we know magic cured and preserved many. And nobody has any real, proved idea how, beyond giving labels. How then can we know it wasn’t taboo violations that killed some covid victims, and that it wasn’t magic that cured some? Know, not guess.
Science-minded people will say that of course science was responsible for both. But they are just bluffing.
I am, of course, not advocating magic. But I am asking for there to be naive science. And that is because I believe in both. I believe in prayer, which (though I do not seek to prove it here) is the perfect marriage of science and the transcendent.
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