Do we want a society without taboos?

It would be foolish to deny that access to extreme depravity has not affected our view of the world
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The Independent Online

Fans of murder trials will have appreciated a few surprisingly homely details that have emerged in this week's hilariously disgusting story of cannibalism in Germany. Arnim Meiwes, the flesh-eater in the dock in Berlin, has revealed that he had always wanted to improve his English. As luck would have it, his ultimate dinner-date, a computer expert called Bernd Jurgen Brandes, was good at foreign languages. The defendant discovered that, after eating much of Brandes's body, he felt as if his victim/accomplice had actually become part of him to the extent that his English had improved.

As well as sharpening up his linguistic skills in this unconventional manner, Meiwes had a thoroughly modern awareness of market forces. He had restrained himself from snacking on his date's feet, for example, because, as he put it, "there's quite a demand for such things among foot fetishists." This is a world with which most of us are relatively unfamiliar. Foot fetishism we knew about - it even impinges on our political life with the media's obsession with Theresa May's exciting footwear - but the fact that people are enthusiastic enough to purchase the mutilated feet of a dead person puts the preoccupation in a rather more extreme context.

We were aware, thanks to Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter and the gruesome murder trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, that certain profoundly disturbed individuals will gain pleasure from consuming human flesh. Now it turns out that there are quite a few people who want nothing more than to provide the meal themselves. "There are hundreds and thousands of people out there who want to be eaten," Herr Meiwes has cheerfully asserted, and the facts of his case would appear to back him up. After he had finished with Herr Brandes, he contacted on the internet over 400 people who had expressed an interest in cannibalism, some of whom are to be witnesses in his trial.

Those of us of a liberal, even libertarian, disposition have down the years become habituated to taking a broad-minded attitude to matters of human sexuality. Consumer choice, as New Labour politicians like to remind us, is one of the great civic rights of our age, and if some folk like to get their rocks off in peculiar ways, then who are we, the less adventurous, to complain?

So when, a few years ago, a group of gay men were taken to court and accused of GBH on the grounds that their particular hobby was to meet up and nail parts of each other's anatomy to a table, the grown-up view seemed to be that, so long as they did it in private, it was no business of the rest of us to interfere.

The world has moved on since then, it seems. Such is the effect of the internet that deviance and extreme oddity have become normalised. Punch the words "cannibalism website" into a search engine and one is led within seconds to the home page of AHC, the Association of Heterosexual Cannibals, a British organisation which runs, it says, "the only dedicated cannibalism site you'll ever need". It may be a joke - its editorial messages end with a cheery "Keep eating each other!" - or it may be one of the places where Herr Meiwes went hunting for his lonely hearts.

We live in a post-taboo society in which it becomes increasingly difficult to define deviance. Activities which would not so long ago have been a source of private shame and embarrassment are, thanks to the glories of the cyber-age, openly and proudly acknowledged. Want to beat, eat, rape, maim, abuse or be abused? Within seconds, you can find yourself in the company of thousands of people just like you. With websites, newsgroups and chat-rooms, you are part of a community that exists in the shadowland between fantasy and reality.

It would be foolish to deny that access to extreme depravity and violence has not affected the way we view the world, and the way it is presented to us. Decadence bleeds easily from the wilder outposts of the web into the culture as a whole. Sado-masochism is now an accepted style statement. The sexual abuse of children has become the subject of relentless, highly dubious fascination in the media.

From there, why should the removal of those useful, restraining taboos not influence the way we behave towards one another? Suddenly, experience is a good thing, experimentation something of which any seriously contemporary person will approve. An erotic restlessness, born of boredom and satiety, can make ordinary sex, in a dreary old relationship, seem distinctly tame.

We are all watchers now. Voyeurism is in the airwaves every day. Violence has been normalised by the forgiving, domestic medium of the computer screen and curiosity, once piqued, is difficult to satisfy. That may be good news for Herr Meiwes and other members of cannibal community, but the rest of us might yet look back nostalgically to an age when just a few taboos were still in place.