Cultural contamination

(Not about language, but culture.)

On KQED’s Forum, hosted by Michael Krasny, on Wednesday: “Anthony Tommasini’s Top 10”, an engaging interview with the New York Times music critic about his personal ranking of the top 10 classical music composers in history (Bach came in first, with Beethoven narrowly edging out Mozart in the next two slots). Then came the callers with their comments — among them a woman who went on at some length about the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth as an intensely moving masterwork.

But then she added that after she read that the “Ode to Joy” was Hitler’s favorite piece of music, the work lost all of its attraction for her.

It had become contaminated by the association with Hitler.

This is an extreme version of the mechanism by which some people are put off artistic creations (art, literature, music, film) because of the character, personal beliefs, behavior, or actions of their creators. (Even Tommasini, faced with what he saw as a musical tie between Verdi and Wagner, ranked Verdi higher on the basis of his character and the way he lived his life.)

An example of cultural contamination from a different domain. Some years ago I was shopping in at hardware store at the same time as a woman with a young son, maybe 4. The child was examining, touching, and picking up various objects, including some housewares. No problem until he picked up a toilet brush — at which his mother shrieked at him to put it down, it was dirty!

Mind you, this was brand-new, unused toilet brush, objectively as clean as anything else the child had touched. But its cultural function was to brush out excrement, and that function contaminated it.

(In a similar vein, some people are disgusted when others use toilet paper — perfectly clean toilet paper, fresh off the roll — to blow their noses.)

In still another domain, many have noted that the intense distaste that some people have for same-sex sexual relations (especially between men, especially anal sex) contaminates everything associated with homosexuality: people who have come out as gay (and so are to be avoided), displays of same-sex affection (even just holding hands), pride events and lgbt organizations, symbols like the rainbow flag and the pink triangle, all of it. To the point where I have seen complaints about the flying of a rainbow flag in a neighborhood where children could see it (and so, in the minds of the complainants, be exposed to same-sex sexual acts).


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