wOw's Question of the Week: What Extinct (Or Soon-to-Be Extinct) Taboo Do You Find Most Surprising?

Single motherhood, homosexuality, pharmacology … Join Mary Wells, Joan Ganz Cooney and Liz Smith in the conversation!

Mary Wells
I am dismayed at what the wide-open, developed world accepts as acceptable. Mutually beneficial knowledge is what pushed human beings ahead of other animals but it must have been hoped that evolution would not fall off its track and promote the ugly – even the horrific – side of human capabilities. Life is too wondrous to allow standards to drop this low. It is not just abusive language or the promotion of detailed sex; it is also the willingness to go all the way down and show or discuss depravity, even evil in humans as normal stuff – as truth – in our news, in our movies, on the Internet. I keep thinking it can’t get worse but it does. What do we think this is doing to us? Maybe we are satisfied that we are trying to clean up and green up our world, not us.


Joan GanzCooney
The extinct taboo I find most shocking is the continuous talk in continuous ads about erectile dysfunction and four-hour erections. My mother’s generation, which shaped the early years of mine, barely acknowledged in polite company and certainly around children that sex even existed – much less that men had erections. Someone wrote in some paper or other last year that his six-year-old son asked him what an erection was (while watching a Viagra commercial) and the father answered, “Election. He said election.” My mother would not be amused.


Liz Smith

OK, let’s elaborate about single parents, whether male or female. As a matter of fact, 84 percent of custodial parents are women and 16 percent are men. This is an astounding number to someone who grew up in the Great Depression era when most homes had a momma and a daddy and we were all rather hard up.

(If we even knew a single parent, it was a woman who had been unfortunately widowed.)

I think the reason we’ve embraced single parenthood without much taboo is that everybody is relieved that somebody else is doing it! Who are we – the singles in care of nobody else (or even the people in care of their own children) to complain and demand Mr. and Mrs. do their duty and stay together while doing it. We may not want to take care of the burgeoning needs of kids who would otherwise be thrust upon our consciences. Or placed in our hands.

So selfish as I may be, I worship single parents, I salute them, I glorify them, I am willing to pay taxes to help them, to educate their children. And sometimes I will even babysit with pleasure. But do I want all of that responsibility on my shoulders? No.

And even if I were still married and had kids of my own and maybe a husband who was active, we wouldn’t need or want the responsibility of other people’s kids or the orphans we encounter who tug at our heartstrings every day. This is good, old self-preservation in action. (It’s sometimes as painful as going to the dog pound and managing not to take home a handful of pets!)

Single parents, willing or not to assume the burden, are a relief to the population in general. They take the weight off of foxy grandparents who don’t want to be bothered and of Mr. and Mrs. Normal Family, for whatever their reasons. And upscale or middle-class single parents are generally assumed to be doing a bang-up job. (Only poverty, drugs, violence and being nuts can intervene.) A single mother can do a good job with a can of tomato soup but maybe she does need a little help now and then. We want to help her. But we don’t want to be her. Her/his job is too hard for us sybarites.

As for pharmacology, objections to it are silly. Western civilization (the British) are the ones who introduced opium to China and drugs are the chief source today of business in much of Asia. (Just look at Thailand.)

Objections to “civilized” pharmacology to make us feel better, act better, do better or feel as if we are doing better are endemic. They are everywhere and mostly in our medicine cabinets or by the bed. We take anodynes for everything – to get up, to get going to keep going, to relax, to go to sleep, to have sex and all the rest of it.

It is the height of hypocrisy to object to a pharmaceutical life or one ruled by same. One of the reasons to be glad you weren’t born yesterday? The prevalence of drug help in just “surviving.” (Would you have wanted to live before anesthesia, modern dentistry or serious surgery?)

I have a good friend who has intractable back pain. She acts perfectly normal these days and, when I asked if she was cured, she said, “No, just taking a lot of OxyContin.” I was profoundly shocked. I have friends in rehab over and over for that drug. But then I looked at her. She has her pain under control and she is living a normal life. I should tell her to say no to OxyContin?

I have another friend who is famous. She is dying of multiple cancers. She has been given no time to live but she’s still here. Not in bed either. She functions normally, looks well, is writing another book. She told me she gets by on oh-so-many grains of morphine a day. She couldn’t continue without it. This is anodyne to the max. And she is very brave. She could go to bed and give up but morphine helps her not do that. Just as years ago, morphine enabled the actor Béla Lugosi to lead a normal life acting “Dracula” all over the U.S.A. His morphine use didn’t hurt anybody and it helped him.

Have you got a problem with that? Does it account for your belief that people carrying marijuana need to be in jail? I give up on the drug question. Let people have it! It might even solve a lot of our problems in Colombia, Mexico and all of the very civil United States.

Homosexuality? Well, please reassure me that taboo is extinct or soon-to-be extinct in this case. I don’t think it ever will be. We are nicer about it now, we are doing better, we are not nailing people up on walls over it – but we still are judging. I’d say about 85 percent of those who are not homosexual are judging negatively, even when they try not to. Why do you think there are no open, out, gay leading men in show business? Why did [itals]Newsweek recently offer up a theory that gay males can’t act heterosexual roles effectively? How do they know? They might be surprised at how many closeted gays have fooled them.

But homosexuality is like inadvertent racism. It’s as if you sit down with a black person and don’t have the consciousness that he is black and you are white. Or maybe even vice versa. (I find my good friend Whoopi is very considerate, for instance, about not mitigating against us poor whites.)

Homosexuality is still a big taboo and it will be, I fear, for years to come. But – slowly, we may be getting better. So many people are leaping out of the closet now that it’s a good sign. But that doesn’t make them acceptable to everybody and there are millions of people who don’t want to know them, know about them or sit next to them at dinner.

Signed, Liz Smith , who has been gay and been straight and is now retired

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