Tuesday, February 19, 2013

C14.  As a natural reaction, homosexuality elicits disgust.  It is inherently repellent.

A. The Charge.  Many would subscribe to the following statement, a very moderate and reasonable one.  “My reaction to homosexuality is personal and subjective; it is simply one of disgust and abhorrence. For that reason I think about the matter as little as possible.  Perhaps I should not feel this way, but I do.”

Some young people today are more forthright.  When they say "no homo," they indicate that they want nothing to do with this behavior.

B.  Background.  Disgust is a type of aversive reaction that involves withdrawing from a person or object with strong expressions of revulsion, whether real or pretended. Another approach to disgust defines it as a defensive response guarding against potential contamination. In the view of some observers, disgust is a universal, basic emotion that functions to help protect an organism from ingesting potentially harmful substances, thereby promoting disease avoidance. It is is typically associated with things that are regarded as unclean, inedible, infections, gory, or otherwise offensive.

Fear of contamination, by insects, waste products, or any kind of rottenness and corruption, may inspire disgust. In this case, disgust arises from a process of inference from perceptual experience. For example, the understanding that insects have, in the past, caused pestilence may lead to a present-moment extrapolation that certain other insects, however innocuous, are disgusting because they are causing, or could cause, disease.

Such analyses do not take into account cultural differences.  For example, many Americans detest "stinky" French cheeses, which are nonetheless highly prized in that country.  The reaction may also change over time.  During the 1950s few Americans registered disgust when others smoked cigarettes.  Now many do.

In the Hebrew Bible male homosexuality is condemned (in the book of Leviticus) as to’ebah, abomination.  The abomination category embraces many forbidden things, including food taboos.  Common to many of the objects of Scriptural disparagement, however various they may seem, is the idea of disgust.

Popular versions of the aversive reaction are still common.  On September 7, 2011, the celebrity Paris Hilton reportedly remarked to a gay-male friend:  ""Ewww! Gay guys are the horniest people in the world.  They're disgusting. Dude, most of them probably have AIDS. ... I would be so scared if I were a gay guy. You'll like, die of AIDS." Later Hilton apologized for the outburst.

Today some straight men report strong feelings of aversion when they perceive gay men making sexual overtures to them.  In most cases these individuals remain unmollified when reminded of the fact that heterosexual men often "hit" on women in the same way.  When they do it, it's A-OK, but not when they receive such attentions. 

C.  Response.  While homosexuality may inspire disgust in some individuals, it is not clear that it is inherently disgusting.  In fact studies have shown that as individuals become aware of the homosexuality of close friends and family members the aversive reaction dissipates. 

Martha Nussbaum, a legal theorist and ethicist, explicitly rejects disgust as an appropriate guide for legislation, arguing that the "politics of disgust" is an emotional gambit, not a rational argument.  She maintains that the politics of disgust tends to reinforce bigotry in the form of sexism, homophobia,  racism. and antisemitism.

Her 2004 book Hiding From Humanity examines the relationship of disgust and shame to a society's laws. She identifies disgust as a marker that bigoted, and often merely majoritarian, discourse employs to “put people in their place” by belittlement and disparagement, relegating them to the category of a despised minority. Taking the disgust ploy off the table would represent an important step towards achieving a humane and tolerant society.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.  William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust,  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998; Martha Nussbaum, Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004; idem, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.


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