Nussbaum delivers George Story lecture

A matter of disgust

(October 7, 1999, Gazette)

By Karen Shewbridge

An if tha shits an' if tha pisses, I'm glad. I don't want a woman as couldna shit nor piss." - D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

When D. H. Lawrence quoted these words from his famous novel in a letter to a lady friend, he told her "if a man would have been able to say ... (these words) to you when he was young and in love, truly it would help to keep your heart warm."

Keeping the heart warm and not filled with disgust, an emotion which stems from societal teaching, was part of the fascinating George Story lecture Dr. Martha Nussbaum delivered to an engrossed audience at Memorial Sept. 24.

The Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics from the University of Chicago began her talk with Lawrence's famous words as she lectured to a large group of faculty and students in a classroom with standing room only. The title of the lecture was Secret Sewers of Vice: Disgust, Bodies and the Law.

Dr. Nussbaum spoke of disgust as a "powerful emotion in the lives of most human beings, shaping our intimacies and providing much of the structure of our daily routine as we wash our bodies, seek privacy for urination and defecation, cleanse ourselves of offending odours."

She pointed out that disgust can also be a way for a "pluralistic democratic society to protect itself" against that which is undesirable to that society. A thin disguise for misogyny, anti-Semitism, and a loathing and fear of homosexuality, Dr. Nussbaum said disgust "can be used as a powerful weapon to exclude persons."

Whereas the emotion of indignation is a constructive one based on the wish to right a wrong, Dr. Nussbaum said disgust stems more from a wish to distance ourselves from the "basely animal" and the possibility of physical contamination.

She put forth the argument that there are degrees of societal disgust. For example, male homosexuality is less acceptable than female homosexuality because men are disgusted at the idea of being anally penetrable thus displaying "the fear of one's own penetrability and ooziness," and at the idea of semen and feces mingling together.

Dr. Nussbaum said disgust has played a negative and confusing role in the regulation banning pornographic materials in the United States.

"It should be an issue of subordination and harm done to women by representing them as unequal and meant for abuse and so on."

Dr. Nussbaum continued: "The concept of the obscene, which mingles in a confused way the idea of sex and the idea of disgust, is an old legacy of misogyny where women's bodies themselves were found disgusting."

This link between sex and obscenity, she added, where the obscenity of an image is decided based on whether it is sexually arousing to the average man, has no business being the basis for a legal concept.

The feeling of disgust plays a crucial role in the law, according to Dr. Nussbaum.

"When we are urged to react with disgust at the criminal acts of a murderer, we are being urged to see that person as a monster outside our moral universe, urged precisely not to have the thought, that there but for the sake of God, etc.

"In reality," said Dr. Nussbaum, "all human beings are capable of evil and many if not most of the hideous evildoers are warped by circumstances, both societal and personal which play a large and sometimes decisive role in explaining the evil that they do.

"If jurors are led to think that evil is done by freaks who are just born different they'll be prevented from having thoughts about themselves and their own society that are highly pertinent, not only to the equal and principled application of the law, but also to the construction of a society in which less evil will exist."

Although feelings such as disgust are deeply embedded in human society, Dr. Nussbaum believes many such responses are morally questionable and unworthy of guiding public action.

"Disgust," she argued, "collaborates with evil and offers us nothing to keep our political hearts warm."