Dalia Lithwick Examines Nussbaum's "From Disgust to Humanity" and Gay Rights

Why Has a Divided America Taken Gay Rights Seriously?
Dalia Lithwick
Slate.com
March 8, 2010

New Hampshire state Rep. Nancy Elliott, at a recent state Judiciary Committee meeting on a proposal to repeal the state's same-sex marriage bill, described the issue of gay marriage as follows: "taking the penis of one man and putting it in the rectum of another man and wriggling it around in excrement." Rep. Elliott continued, irrelevantly, "and you have to think, I'm not sure, would I allow that to be done to me?" (Elliott has since apologized for the portion of her remarks in which she falsely claimed that because gay marriage had been legalized, New Hampshire's fifth-graders were being taught to have anal sex in the public schools.) Last month at the trial over California's ban on same-sex marriage, one witness who supported the measure testified that homosexuals are "12 times more likely to molest children." And recently, while addressing the proposed repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council warned Larry King if gay soldiers could serve in the military, "we might have to return to the draft" because other soldiers would refuse to serve. Perkins noted that he had showered together with 80 other men during his own time in the military, and he'd feel threatened by a gay man showering there with him.

Welcome to Martha Nussbaum's politics of disgust: an America in which national policy can be discussed at the level of Beavis and Butthead, chasing each other around in circles with a stick that once touched poop.

In From Disgust to Humanity, Nussbaum, a prominent professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, explains that much of the political rhetoric around denying equal rights to gay Americans is rooted in the language of disgust. Their activities are depicted as "vile and revolting," threatening to "contaminate and defile" the rest of us. Looked at starkly, she argues, much of the anti-gay argument is bound up in feces and saliva, germs, contagion and blood.

The philosophical question for Nussbaum is whether disgust of this sort is a "reliable guide to lawmaking." She cites Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics in the George W. Bush administration, who has argued that it is; that visceral public disgust contains a "wisdom" that lies beneath rational argument. Then she proceeds to annihilate that argument by offering example after example of discarded disgust-based policies, from India's denigration of its "untouchables" to the Nazi view of Jews, to a legally sanctioned regime of separate swimming pools and water fountains in the Jim Crow South. Time and again, Nussbaum argues, societies have been able to move beyond their own politics of disgust to what she calls "the politics of humanity," once they have finally managed to see others as fully human, with human aspirations and desires.

Nussbaum is a clear, essential thinker and writer, and to anyone who cares about the debate over gay rights, she offers here an elegant—even dispassionate—defense. She systematically chips away at most of the policy arguments against gay rights in America until it's clear they are either wholly unsupported by the data or rooted in disgust, fear, or a misreading of religious and historical texts.

Faculty: 
Martha Nussbaum