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October 15, 2008


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Martha Nussbaum

Paul, I'd be inclined to be cautious about attributing our bad habits of (what I call) "projective disgust" to Christianity in particular. All human societies evince some level of discomfort with our smelly, unclean, decaying bodies: that's why Walt Whitman thought that the world where we could all celebrate the "body electric" would have to be invented by poets. Well before the advent of Christianity we have the extremely tenacious disgust-taboos associated with the Indian caste hierarchy. Nor is the Judaeo-Christian tradition free of such ideas -- in the form of a persistent misogyny, in which menstruation and other aspects of women's bodily humanity are surrounded with taboos of various sorts. Jesus was a moral radical, like Gandhi. When he embraced lepers and prostitutes, it was to challenge convention, not to validate or express it. And years of work in India have taught me to value the universal respect for human dignity inherent in Christianity, which has made Christian institutions a major source of empowerment and education for women. And much more: when women got raped in the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, and were regarded as sullied by their own families, who took them in? The Christian missions.

So, one should be careful before blaming so much on that religion. Indeed, the projective disgust that was so much a part of Southern American racism seems to me totally unconnected with the Christian faith of the racists -- as Lincoln noted wryly in his Second Inaugural.

Nor were the ancient Greeks free from disgust. They didn't associate it with male-male acts, but they were highly misogynistic, and they also had other quirks. For example, they viewed fellatio as one of the most disgusting acts, and thought that one could not kiss someone who was known to engage in it. The second-century dream interpreter Artemidoros says that the dream of fellatio is one of the most inauspicious there is, predictive of total financial ruin. (He remarks, however, with characteristic pragmatism and flexibility, that it is an auspicious dream for "those who earn their living by their mouths, I mean flutists, trumpet-player, rhetors, sophists, and whoever else is like them." Professors take note.)

So, in general, I think we see all societies engaging in some type of disgust-stigmatization, and unfortunately more or less all societies have taught some disgust at women's bodies. Why Anglo-American society has focused particularly on male homosexuals is a large question, which I hope Paul and others will try to answer in future posts and comments.

Dennis Tuchler

What do you make of the old-testament prohibition of homosexual activity that relates only to men, not women? I can understand a general opposition to non-productive sex at a time when warring tribes needed to expand their populations, and female homosexuality is just as much a diversion from productive sex as male homosexuality. The only difference I can see is that men can command sex from women and women can't from men, which makes male demands for sex from other men a wasteful activity while female demands for sex from females irrelevant to the expansion of the tribe.

Paul Heald

Rereading my post, I think it's clear that I'm bashing St. Paul and not taking a pot shot at various Christian institutions around the world, many of which are firmly in the service of humanity. I think it's also clear that my reference to St. Paul himself is symbolic, that he stands for a persistent mind/body dualism that dominates Western thought. "Some commentators" blame the historical tolerance of many Christian institutions of racism and anti-Semitism on Paul's professions of disgust at the human body. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. And remember, I only "blame" Paul or mind-body dualism for the first move, self-disgust. The second, most important move, the transference of self-disgust to others, is one, as Martha notes, that we see across cultures. Virtually all cultures evidence dangerous expressions of disgust. But Martha's right; they are aimed at different sorts of people in different cultures. A rape victim in Gujarat may be rejected by her family, while a victim here would be consoled and comforted by her family. A homosexual may be rejected by his family in the US, but embraced by his Swedish relatives. Cultures value different sorts of uniformity. Sorting out the political and evolutionary origins of cultural norms is as difficult as trying to separate out nature v. nurture in general.

Uzair Kayani

I like the evolutionary view of disgust, but I wonder if the natural selection story works differently. I think disgust operates as an aversion to those who are perceived to be weak or lacking self-control. Appearances and bodily functions are simply indications of such weaknesses, or of vulnerable moments. On the flip side of disgust is awe: people freezing in the presence of others, or fawning, etc. We might be disgusted by a regular bug but be in awe of a bug the size of Dallas. Both reactions seem irrational and unrelated to "filth." They seem to be a heuristic that people use to surround themselves with strong things (or people) rather than weak ones. A cactus likes its thorns, but not much else.

It follows that people who are uncommonly weak themselves are likeliest to be disgusted by things. This is because they must surround themselves with images of strength. But people who feel secure or self-reliant would have no use for either disgust or awe. I think this is roughly what we find in real life.

Fazal Khan

As Edward Said points out in Orientalism, the West created a vision of the East as decadent, corrupt, and sensual, as a way of expressing erotic fantasies that otherwise would be taboo/shameful if directed at their own bodies and culture. For instance, look at the sensual paintings of Ingres and Delacroix depicting harem women. This of course went hand in hand with asserting physical dominion over the East through colonization. Thus, in the concept of disgust we can see elements of both sublimated self-loathing and projecting power over subordinate others.

Martha Nussbaum

I believe that Fazal Khan has pointed to something very important. Well before Said, the great (and openly gay) historian George Mosse, in Nationalism and Sexuality, pointed out that projects of aggressive nationalism often work by imputing to the conquered people a decadent or degenerate sexuality. In my book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, I examine the way the British demonized Hindus in India as soft and sensuous, and I then argue that this experience led to the Hindu Right's creation of a militant warlike sexuality, and the imputation of degeneracy (hypersexuality, hyperfertility) to indigenous Muslims. Prior to the pogrom in Gujarat, pornographic hate literature was circulated that suggested that the right way to deal with the hypersexuality of Muslim women was to torture them to death, and this happened. This situation was already prefigured in Rabindranath Tagore's 1916 novel, The Home and the World. Its Hindu nationalist antihero wants to rape the woman he desires and finds himself unable to do that. He reflects that there are two kinds of music: the music of Krishna's flute, and the music of the British military band. He wishes that he could hear in his blood the music of the band, instead of that disturbingly non-aggressive flute.

Uzair Kayani

I understand that communities are likely to project disgust onto outsiders, and that there may be limits to empathy. However, every community seems to do this. I worry that the West gets singled out when it is probably least at fault today. I think this encourages a mentality of victimhood in the east: people become vindictive and morally pompous, armed with a ready excuse for their failings. Many eastern cultures show far greater disgust of women, minorities, aliens, dissidents, and people with health defects. They are also more hierarchical: no major country other than India has been able to approach democracy there. And discrimination in India has led to considerable violence. Explicit class divisions are rampant elsewhere. They are reinforced by notions of honor, shame, and disgust. This is especially true in the Islamic world. I would have expected open class warfare in most of these places, except that people have internalized their class structures.

I suspect that patriarchal societies only use morality and emotions instrumentally, because most men are predisposed to instrumental thinking. Therefore, in male dominated societies, we should expect pervasive emotional and moral perversions. I struggle to think of a stupider notion than an "honor killing."

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