In his 1993 treatise “Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do,” Paul Cameron, the firebrand founder of the anti-gay Family Research Institute, revealed the “horror story” of “fecal sex.” Cameron claimed that “80 percent of gays” ingest “medically significant amounts of feces” on a regular basis, and also tend to “eat or wallow in it.” He and his allies – in other anti-gay groups and in legislatures across the country – can’t get enough of such descriptions, associating gay sex acts with feces, urine, blood, vomit, and other indelicacies that make for unpopular dinner-party discussion.
The lurid imaginings of Cameron and friends may seem a marginal oddity, just a small, eccentric fish paddling in the sea of propaganda that washes over Americans on a daily basis. But this fish has some mean fangs. In the early 1990s, Cameron directed the effort to pass Colorado’s Amendment 2, a sweeping initiative banning anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians. He spoke of gay people drinking blood, ingesting urine and traveling to the US from all parts of the world to “participate in this biological swapmeet.” The measure passed.
Disgust is a dangerous weapon. According to political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, we must understand its workings if we hope to comprehend how prejudice and discrimination have been hard-wired into this country’s legal system.
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Nussbaum’s new book, “From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law,” examines the insidious use of disgust to achieve political goals, and outlines a framework for rooting out disgust and growing a “politics of humanity” that grants liberty, justice and respect to all.
Although the use of disgust-laden, anti-gay propaganda may not surface as blatantly these days as it did in 1992, it still undergirds the opposition to equal rights for LGBT Americans, according to Nussbaum. National figures are no longer sermonizing about “fecal sex” (at least not in public), but the imagery of contagion, perversity and moral pollution plays a key role in standard anti-equality arguments.
We’re all born with a gag reflex. Humans have a natural aversion to fetid, squirmy things such as excrement, worms, maggots and festering wounds. Disgust propagandists like Cameron associate a group of people with this bodily reaction, driving others to distance themselves from that group – to wall it off, to quarantine it.
Jews were once painted as contagious, homeless wanderers that must be separated from the rest of European society. “Untouchables” in India were portrayed as filthy and unfit to marry into other castes. Nowadays, undocumented immigrants in Arizona are depicted as leprosy-laden, food-tainting drug traffickers, and are sprayed with Lysol by xenophobic protesters. The politics of disgust turns people into contaminants.
We’re All Disgusting
Why are we so fond of foisting the disgust label onto our fellow humans? Nussbaum suggests that it’s partially because we’re scared silly of our own disgustingness. Looking at ourselves through an unromantic lens, the human body is pretty gross. It’s oozy, slimy, smelly and filled with gushing internal organs. It has a pesky habit of emitting urine, feces, blood, semen and saliva on a regular basis, and an even peskier habit of dying constantly, inching closer and closer to corpsehood. (Corpses being, perhaps, the most disgusting phenomena of all.)
No one likes to feel corpselike, and thus, Nussbaum says, we shudder at our “disgusting” attributes, reminders that we are mortal animals. In order to distance ourselves from these reminders, we attempt to erect borders that’ll keep our bodies – and our bodies politic – pristine. A handy tool for accomplishing this is projective disgust: associating others with feces and vomit to efface our own feces and vomit, casting others as the “disgusting ones” to avoid feeling disgusting ourselves.
“Projective disgust involves a double fantasy,” Nussbaum writes, “a fantasy of the dirtiness of the other and a fantasy of one’s own purity.”
This “surrogate dirt” strategy also enters into the moral realm, as its proponents equate the supposed quality of physical impurity with immorality. The politics of disgust then enables dominant sectors of a population to designate a particular group as morally impure or infected, and thereby justify mistreating members of that group.
Nussbaum points to the 1986 Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick, in which Justice Byron White’s concurring opinion states that privacy rights granted to heterosexual couples to engage in sex acts do not bear “any resemblance” to the “right of homosexuals to engage in acts of sodomy.” Since the court had previously determined that sexual decisions are a private, individual, human right, White (and his four concurring justices) needed to conceptualize homosexuals as not quite human, but, instead, as disgusting beings engaging in disgusting practices that could not possibly bear a resemblance to the sex acts of heterosexual partners.
Using such false, disgust-generated classifications, judges and legislators can explain away grossly discriminatory decisions.
Nussbaum’s flagship disgust propagandist is the influential British lawyer Lord Patrick Devlin, who argued against the decriminalization of same-sex sexual acts in the 1950s and set a precedent for disgust rhetoric for decades to come. Devlin held that widespread disgust was a sound basis for legal regulation. He reasoned that disgust revealed the boundaries of a society’s “established morality,” and that abiding by the average citizen’s disgust-o-meter would prevent society from “disintegrating.” He worried that, should the dictates of disgust go unheeded, Britain would transform into a nation of “debauchees” and sex addicts.
When political leaders subscribe to Devlin’s logic, discriminatory laws and inhumane policies can sail through to passage, masquerading as efforts to protect the state from moral contagion. Meanwhile, basic human rights and liberties tumble to the wayside, trampled in the rush toward pre-emptive battle with disgust.
The Way of Humanity
In order to combat the likes of Cameron, Devlin and their armies of “eewwwww,” Nussbaum proposes a “politics of humanity” that replaces projective disgust with sympathy. The basic idea isn’t radical; in fact, the same moralizers who profess a politics of disgust in the courtroom probably profess the art of love-your-neighbor-as-yourself around the kitchen table. However, Nussbaum’s formulation goes beyond neighborliness – after all, we often choose our neighbors. She envisions a framework in which we move beyond stigmatization by way of “historically and socially informed imagining,” working to sympathize with the estranged group’s humanity, even if we don’t approve of their interests and desires, even if we find their interests and desires disgusting.
The notion of imagination as the solution may seem, at first, dopily idealistic. How do you drum up sympathy in those whose minds have wrapped themselves around a slimy, oozy, puss-filled delusion of dehumanization?
The short answer: You don’t – at least, not right away. However, building a politics of humanity into the law can help spur our imaginations toward a sympathetic mindset. Nussbaum bases her vision on John Stuart Mill’s concept of a harm standard for lawmaking, in which restrictive laws are acceptable only when necessary to protect others from injury. Under this principle, the law should not infringe upon “self-regarding” conduct – “conduct that involves only the interests of those who participate in it.”
In other words, regulations shouldn’t depend on whether the public approves of a certain behavior or identity. This book is not about how you should like same-sex marriage. It’s about how, regardless of how many citizens think a particular group or practice is wrong, or even disgusting, the government can’t dispense with the rights and liberties that are built into our Constitution – and into the fabric of democracy itself.
Go Forth and Pursue Happiness
Nussbaum shows that tying gay marriage to our constitutionally granted freedoms is no stretch. She links the right to marry to the key principles of the 14th Amendment: equal protection under the law, and the right to due process and the liberties that come with it. Even more strikingly, Nussbaum ties marital freedoms to the basic values upon which the founding fathers built their vision of democracy.
Many of the early American colonists embraced the notion of conscience: the idea that every human being is born with the drive and the ability to achieve a meaningful life, and that all should be granted the chance to attain it. At that historical moment, when religious preference was the paramount issue, subscribing to a philosophy of conscience meant recognizing the basic right of other humans to follow their own spiritual paths.
This did not necessarily connote approval or even respect of others’ religious traditions, but simply a respect of their right to have them. Nussbaum tells of how Rhode Island founder Roger Williams “refers to Native American religion as ‘satanic’ – even while consistently showing the most delicate respect and friendship to its practitioners.” So strong was Williams’s belief in religious freedom that he called the denial of conscience “soule rape.”
In other words, you may have your disgust, but don’t go injecting it into the politics of rights and liberties.
The writers of the Constitution sewed this philosophy into the framework of US law, striving to place all citizens on equal ground in matters of conscience.
Sex, Nussbaum argues, is a matter of conscience. Sexual choices are manifestations of our individual desires to find meaning and joy – and as long as they’re self-regarding and not harming anyone who doesn’t want to be harmed, they deserve a wide range of freedoms (no matter how “satanic” they might be).
The politics of disgust, then, just doesn’t jibe with American democracy. The state is not designed to protect the vague and varied emotional sensibilities of its citizens, nor is it supposed to interfere with the inner workings of their souls.
What, then, is the state supposed to do? This question may garner 300 million different responses in a nationwide poll, but “From Disgust to Humanity” takes the preamble at its word: the state should allow – and even facilitate – its citizens’ ability to live freely and pursue happiness.
Nussbaum argues that for many if not most citizens, the right to marry is integral to that happiness. (She notes that maybe we’d all be better off if we attached less importance to the “married” label, but that societal shift doesn’t look like it’s coming anytime soon.)
The most popular argument against same-sex marriage – that it will denigrate traditional marriage – soundly fails the conscience test. It’s also infested with the politics of disgust. What does marriage need to be defended against? Contamination? Defilement by those who pursue happiness in different ways? This sounds suspiciously like soule rape.
Civil unions also flunk Nussbaum’s conscience test. They create a second-class category and fall into the “in-group, out-group” trap that the architects of our democracy strove to avoid.
Granting same-sex couples the right to marry, Nussbaum writes, is a “true realization of the promise contained in our constitutional guarantees.”
Nussbaum triumphs in showing that we don’t need to make a grand, flying leap from “tradition” to recognize same-sex marriage. She demonstrates that this recognition would echo the spirit of foundational American thought, the core principles of much legal precedent and our old friend, the Constitution.
With the Constitution on her side, Nussbaum disposes of flimsy anti-gay-marriage arguments with trenchant aplomb. Think same-sex marriage defies the common morality? You’re out of luck. The “common morality” doesn’t make laws. Think it’ll defile straight marriage? Too bad. Marriage is a self-regarding phenomenon; your gay neighbors – whether or not you love them as yourself – can marry without impacting the state of your own prospects of divorce. Think procreation should be marriage’s sole purpose? Well, no one is calling for the abolition of marriage for sterile people or 70-year-olds in love. That would be unconscionable under the lens of the Constitution, as is the ban on gay marriage.
Though “From Disgust to Humanity” centers on the case for same-sex marriage, delving also into laws around discrimination, sodomy and public sex, the book accomplishes even more wide-reaching objectives. It pushes us to look at the role of emotions in governance, and to recognize when, which and whose emotions become embedded in legal precedent. It forces us to confront the ways in which disgust, in particular, slithers into our conversations, our political mindscapes, our national agendas. It provides a deep examination of the purpose of law itself, and what it means to regulate a free community.
Nussbaum shows us that law – in combination with hearts, minds and prudent judicial decision making – can reshape the substance of our national existence, allowing us all to live happier, freer lives. The civil rights era demonstrates that law done right can lead the way to large-scale shifts in consciousness.
However, the continued prohibitions on same-sex marriage, not to mention the recent passage of the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” in Arizona, show us that disgust is alive and well when it comes to lawmaking. The foot soldiers of the politics of humanity have a long, long road ahead.
Both Nussbaum and the Constitution advise us to go forth and pursue happiness – and to let others do the same. We can only hope that the courts, the state legislatures, the White House and the American people will come to agree.