I am seeing more and more instances of the word shibboleth being used to mean “sacred cow.” Like most developments, this one is unwelcome, but I think I can explain why it is happening.
If you know scripture, you know that “shibboleth” was the password that the Sons of Gilead once demanded of every man who wished to ford the Jordan, and by the mispronunciation of which they detected (and slew) the routed remnants of the Ephraimite army. An Ephraimite could not, we are told, pronounce the letters “sh,” and so betrayed himself as an Ephraimite when he answered the challenge by lisping “sibboleth.”
So, a shibboleth is a password that one uses to distinguish friends from enemies. What is more, it is what we might call a natural password because an enemy finds it difficult or impossible reproduce the shibboleth, even if he knows it. When the Fellowship of the Ring wished to enter the Mines of Moria, the inscription over the door read, “speak friend and enter.” This inscription was a riddle because “friend” was the password, but “friend” was not a natural password. Orcs may not have understood riddles or the Elvish tongue, but if someone had told them the password was “friend,” they could no doubt have learned to mouth the vocable, and thus to enter the Mines of Moria.
Like those Sons of Gilead, every human uses shibboleths to identify friends and enemies, and thus to decide which strangers they will allow to ford the Jordan. I mean, of course, which strangers they will accept as friends and accomplices, and which strangers they will reject (and perhaps slay) as enemies and bores. Unlike those Sons of Gilead, we do not demand that strangers pronounce a syllable, but rather that they pronounce an opinion. We put them to the test by demanding, with more or less subtlety, that they bow to our sacred cows and profane the sacred cows of our enemies.
Thus, for instance, Donald Trump is at the moment a great shibboleth for many Americans. Liberals are perhaps more likely to invoke the president as a test, but the Trump shibboleth works both ways. If a liberal introduces the topic of Trump and a stranger responds by spitting, that stranger will be allowed to ford the Jordan as a friend and accomplice. If he bows to Trump as a sacred cow, or even just tries to change the subject, that stranger will be known as an Ephraimite.
Initiation into a conspiracy often requires profanation of the sacred cows of the society the conspiracy aims to overthrow. Initiation into the decadent order of the Knights Templar, for instance, required an initiate “to spit at, drag three paces, or trample on, the cross . . .” Ritual profanations of this sort have been called “Rites of Denial and Spitting,” and they are a very important type of shibboleth.*
In the modern world, ritual profanation is most often expressed in ridicule, so the shibboleth of spitting at holy cows has become the shibboleth of laughing at holy cows. Instead of asking you to pronounce a word you may or may not be able pronounce, a modern Son of Gilead asks you to laugh at a joke you may or may not find funny. Laughing at a dirty joke was long a shibboleth that granted passage over the Jordan into the conspiracy of sexual libertines. Laughing at a blasphemous joke was likewise a shibboleth that granted passage over the Jordan into the conspiracy of godless infidels. Politically incorrect jokes today set the same sort of test, since to laugh at racial or sexual stereotypes is to spit at the holy cows of the enemies of the people who tell politically incorrect jokes.
And because it is hard to simulate convincing laughter in response to an offensive joke, laughter in response to such jokes is a natural password and true shibboleth.
Enemies are thus easily identified by their refusal to spit and laugh at their own sacred cows. The test is not perfect, but very few people have the thespian skill to pass through it undetected. This is why it is very easy to confuse shibboleths and sacred cows. But the shibboleth—the test—is a person’s response to the sacred cow, not the sacred cow itself. Whether he bows or spits will determine whether he will be allowed to ford the Jordan as a Son of Gilead, or he will be slain on its banks as a vile Ephraimite.
*John Younge Anderson Morshead, The Templar’s Trials (1888)