The Owl of Taboo Flies at Dusk

December 17, 2010 at 12:35 pm

| Gabriel |

So the hot new internet toy is the google ngrams engine that gives you time-trends for different keywords from Google Books. A lot of people have been using it to look at the rise and fall of different theoretical or management trends. It occurred to me that you could also use this to do a quantitative replication of Ari Adut’s work on scandal, in which he argues that scandals often represent a kind of death rattle of a taboo since if something is really taboo it’s too scary to accuse people of. Only as a taboo starts to loosen do people get charged with it.

The biggest change in morality in the last generation or two is almost certainly homosexuality so it’s a good test case. Over the last 40 years, homosexuality has gone from being a mental illness and homosexual acts a felony to a completely normal identity in polite society that is gradually being incorporated into central social institutions and opposition to which or discomfort with is increasingly criminalized or medicalized — a nearly complete 360 on the subject in 40 years. Common sense would thus predict that expression of the new attitude and old attitude would be counter-cyclical whereas Adut says they should be correlated. For instance, in Witness Chambers implies that as a young man working on a subway construction gang, he saw colleagues having sex in the bunkhouse but he doesn’t actually say it and refers to the acts as “unspeakable,” which in 1952, they were. I figured that the best words to check this out are “homophobia” (which implies that opposition to homosexuality is deviant) and the best phrases encapsulating the old perspective are “crime against nature” and “sodomite” (which imply that homosexuality itself is deviant).

Anyway, here’s the graph:

It’s a little hard to read since the “homophobia” term is so much more popular than the two anti-gay terms, so here they are shown independently.

So basically, the term “sodomite” has a very close correlation with the term “homophobia.” It’s obviously a much older word, but its usage has really picked up in the last 30 years. On the other hand, the term “crime against nature” has a much weaker correlation in the time-series (it’s only slightly more popular after 1970 as before 1970), but it’s also the least popular of the three. Overall, I’m willing to chalk this up as confirming Adut’s theory that discourse about a taboo, including scandal of it, becomes intense only as the taboo relaxes.

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