Is Talking Taboo for ET?


By Morris Jones

"Warning: The following broadcast contains the voices of deceased persons." That's unlikely to shock most readers of this blog. But for some Indigenous Australians, it's enough to make them switch off.

Messages like this sometimes appear in Australian media broadcasts. They reference cultural taboos amongst some (but not all) Indigenous Australians, but are only included when the voices of deceased people of Indigenous background are used.

This cultural practice is interesting for sociologists, but it also has implications for the SETI and METI communities. It's a reminder that what we communicate, or even if we communicate at all, is heavily influenced by customs, culture and sociology. What could seem clearly permissible to one group could be taboo to another.

Taboos in communication vary widely. They can be influenced by ethnicity, generational gaps and personal choices. Subjects that were generally taboo to discuss extensively in past times (such as sexuality) are now treated much differently. The rise of new communications technologies also seems to have affected what is communicated, and how much we communicate.

But we still practice restrictions. We are less likely to communicate much with people we don't know than people we do. We also have quiet zones in buildings (such as libraries) and some forms of public transport where talking (or loud noises) is forbidden. Some subjects are classified or private. Penalties apply for circulating some forms of information outside a small group of approved recipients.

Then we have censorship of the arts and the media. Exactly what should or should not be censored is a highly controversial area of debate, and it always will be.

So deciding what is taboo, and what is not, is very subjective in our society. And yet, we are all human beings living on the same planet. Imagine the potential differences that could arise in extraterrestrial civilizations. Restrictions on communications could be used to enforce social protocols and order, for better or for worse. If a society simply doesn't want too much to be said, it could place taboos on the idea of communicating with civilizations on other worlds.

While such taboos could inhibit interstellar communications for some societies, they could not really be expected to apply to every intelligent lifeform out there. Humanity is trying to communicate with the rest of the galaxy. But we are still haunted by the apparent silence of the universe around us. Cultural restrictions on communications could be partially to blame for this, but they cannot explain the total absence of contact.