I contend that projective disgust plays no proper role in arguing for legal regulation, because of the emotion’s normative irrationality and its connection to stigma and hierarchy.
––Martha Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law
I’ve been wrestling with Martha Nussbaum’s latest project: to eliminate disgust as a sufficient reason for rendering same-sex marriage illegal. Nussbaum is one of America’s leading public intellectuals, and her arguments are always worth considering.
Having distinguished herself as an expert in the philosophy of emotions with Upheavals of Thought, Nussbaum now turns to a single emotion: disgust. She challenges the conventional view that disgust is merely a visceral emotion unaffected by social learning. Here are the findings from the last twenty years of experimental psychology:
Disgust concerns the borders of the body. Its central idea is that of contamination: the disgusted person feels defiled by the object, thinking that it has somehow entered the self . . . . When people experience disgust, then, they are expressing an aversion to prominent aspects of what every human being is. They feel contaminated by what reminds them of these aspects, which people often prefer to conceal. Such aversions almost certainly have an evolutionary basis, but they still have to be confirmed by learning: children do not exhibit disgust until the ages of two or three years old, during the time of toilet training. This means that society has room to interpret and shape the emotion, directing it to some objects rather than others, as happens with anger and compassion.
Nussbaum makes an important distinction between disgust at primary objects (“feces, blood, semen, urine, nasal discharges, menstrual discharges, corpses, decaying meat, and animal/insects that are oozy, slimy, or smelly”), which she says is “usually a useful heuristic, steering us away from the dangerous when there is no time for detailed inquiry,” and projective disgust that is “shaped by social norms, as societies teach their members to identify alleged contaminants in their midst,” which she says rarely withstands rational scrutiny.
“Projective disgust (involving projection of disgust properties onto a group or individual) takes many forms,” she claims, “but it always involves linking the allegedly disgusting group or person somehow with the primary objects of disgust.” Jews were regarded as slimy by German anti-Semites, African-Americans as smelly by whites, and homosexuals as diseased and deadly by heterosexuals. In all cases, “projective disgust involves a double fantasy: a fantasy of the dirtiness of the other and a fantasy of one’s own purity. Both sides of the projection involve false belief, and both conduce to a politics of hierarchy.”
The next part of her argument is necessary to explain but graphic, so if you’re squeamish you may want to stop reading now and confess your “disgust-anxiety.” Nussbaum writes:
What inspires disgust is typically the male thought of the male homosexual, imagined as anally penetrable. The idea of semen and feces mixing together inside the body of a male is one of the most disgusting ideas imaginable – to males, for whom the idea of nonpenetrability is a sacred boundary against stickiness, ooze, and death. (The idea of contamination-by-penetration is probably one central idea, but the more general idea is that of the male body as defiled by the contamination of bodily fluids: and proximity to a contaminated body is itself contaminating.) The presence of a homosexual male in the neighborhood inspires the thought that one might lose one’s own clean safeness, one might become the receptacle for those animal products. Thus disgust is ultimately disgust at one’s own imagined penetrability and ooziness, and this is why the male homosexual is both regarded with disgust and viewed with fear as a predator who might make everyone else disgusting. The very look of such a male is itself contaminating – as we see in the extraordinary debates about showers in the military. The gaze of a homosexual male is seen as contaminating because it says, “You can be penetrated.” And this means that you can be made of feces and semen and blood, not clean plastic flesh. Thus it is not surprising that (to males) the thought of homosexual sex is even more disgusting than the thought of reproductive sex, despite the strong connection of the latter with mortality and the cycle of the generations. For in heterosexual sex the male imagines that not he but a lesser being (the woman, seen as animal) receives the pollution of bodily fluids; in imagining homosexual sex he is forced to imagine that he himself might be so polluted. This inspires the stronger need for boundary drawing.
If you’ve tracked with Nussbaum’s argument so far, congratulations. I regard Nussbaum as an unexpected ally of Christians insofar as a “politics of disgust” is not only bad reasoning, as she contends, but also bad witness-bearing. We should welcome her push toward a “politics of humanity.” Our motivation for restoring the human dignity of homosexual persons does not hinge on a shared animality and mortality, which is true enough, nor on a shared political tradition of equal respect, which is also true enough. Christians have an even deeper resource for practicing a politics of humanity toward homosexuals, namely a conception of all human beings – unrepentant sinners and repenting sinners – as image-bearers of God. Here, I must quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together:
God does not want me to model others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. Instead, in their freedom from me God made other people in God’s own image. I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others. That image always takes on a completely new and unique form whose origin is found solely in God’s free and sovereign act of creation. To me that form may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every person in the image of God’s Son, the Crucified, and this image, likewise, certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it. Strong and weak, wise or foolish, talented or untalented, pious or less pious, the complete diversity of individuals in the community is no longer a reason to talk and judge and condemn, and therefore no longer a pretext for self-justification. Rather this diversity is a reason for rejoicing in one another and serving one another.
In closing, I’ll sign onto Nussbaum’s project of eliminating disgust as a sufficient reason for rendering same-sex marriage illegal because, as Bonhoeffer says, “I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others . . . To me that form may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every person in the image of God’s Son.” Gay or straight is “no longer a reason to talk and judge and condemn, and therefore no longer a pretext for self-justification.” Gay or straight is no longer a pretext for the double fantasy of my purity and the other’s dirtiness. Nothing I have said here diminishes my view that same-sex marriage is a violation of the divinely ordained “one flesh” union between a man and a woman. But at the risk of sounding heterodox, it is worth asking whether the very presence of gays and lesbians in our community ought to be “a reason for rejoicing in one another and serving one another”––rejoicing not in their homosexual acts but in “God’s free and sovereign act of creation.”