Last edited: April 03, 2005

Tattoos and Taboos: Those Times Are Constantly A-Changin’

The Star Press, March 14, 2005
East Central Indiana

By Chuck Avery

When I was in the army, I admired the tattoo on the shoulder of a fellow soldier. It was a skull in black and red, under which appeared the words “Death Before Dishonor.” At 19, I was convinced that such a sentiment was an eternal truth. I was tempted to get a duplicate, but social restraints held me back. Since then, I’ve learned that some truths are more eternal than others, and today I’m not so sure about the meaning of either “death” or “dishonor.”

The time and place of our birth—along with the social changes we see during our tenure—greatly determines our attitudes. The culture of my youth, for instance, sneered at tattoos. They were worn by crooks and carnies. Today they are nearly de rigueur for that class that H. L. Mencken identified as the “boobousie.”

I have nothing against tattoos except for their relative permanency. A 19-year-old who acts on his—or her—impulse to have a design indelibly placed under the skin assumes his taste in designs will not change in the next half century. This is an assumption about which I am skeptical. I suspect many of the today’s young people will regret their tattoos each time the nursing home worker comes around to give them a bath.

At any rate, tattoos, like other fashions and fads, are personal matters of little consequence to anyone except the tattooee.

Likewise, a half century ago, homosexuality was shameful and, in most states, criminal. But attitudes change over time and place. There is, for instance, much evidence that the practice flourished during the Golden Age of Greece, the very period and place we so admire for its civilization. (Of course, historical precedent is not always sanction; the ancient Greeks also held slaves.)

In recent years the gay population has become as visible as tattoos and as vocal as the dreaded rock-and-roll that augured doom to traditional Western values. Consequently, our federal and state governments are plotting.

But, as the American Shakers learned, no civilization that eschews the basics of reproduction lasts long. Homosexuality is a personal, self-limiting aberration and therefore not something a nation’s lawmakers should get too worked up about. The only exception would be that of a theocracy where religious sins are incorporated into the criminal code. We have several examples of such in the world today. They are places where blaspheming the latest popular deity is punishable by death.

(Mark Twain, who served for a time as a correspondent to the Sandwich Islands—presently Hawaii—once wrote that he admired the religion of the natives there. If someone committed an act that offended the local gods, he could atone by sacrificing a relative; e. g., throwing his grandmother into a nearby volcano. Therefore, Twain wrote, one could go on sinning as long as his relatives held out.)

The middle-class WASPs, of which I am a member, should be grateful for the recent emergence of the gay communities in our society. We are a dwindling demographic in this country and need lesser minorities to which we can feel superior.

On the other hand, WASPishness is probably an attitude independent of numbers. There will always be those whose greatest pleasure is to tell others how to conduct their personal lives.

That, I suspect, is an eternal truth.

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