The hits keep on coming with octuplet mother Nadya Suleman, who published photos of her disturbingly distended pregnant belly, provoking another round of ill-placed outrage and half-hearted feminist defenses like this one. It is indeed fascinating how people are stuck in moral outrage mode over Suleman, when it seems to me the proper response is compassion for her not even remotely hidden mental health issues that her poor family can’t cope with. But it does draw up something I’ve thought about a lot, which is how our moral responses are conflated with feelings of disgust, and indeed many people have a lot of trouble telling the difference from feeling disgusted with something and feeling morally outraged about it.
Because I’m not outraged at Suleman having a gross, unnatural belly that is made all the more disturbing her her extensive plastic surgery that gives her a face that falls straight into the uncanny valley. But I won’t lie—I flinched and was disgusted. I suppose I should be ashamed of that, but the more I think about it, the more I think that the shame at being disgusted is due to the widespread confusion of “moral outrage” and “disgust”. People think you’re laying moral judgment on something if you find it disgusting. Like if I saw a bloody tampon laying on the sidewalk and felt disgust, does that really have to mean that I’ve got internalized misogyny against women and our body functions? No. It’s just gross. Nor did my flinching at those pictures means that I think Suleman is a bad person. I think she’s messed up, and needs help, but certainly not an evil person. It’s a real shame that the circus around her means that she probably won’t get the help she needs. Everyone’s too busy being outraged.
But the fact that people confuse the two emotions—moral outrage and disgust—is fascinating. And it seems like it’s an accident of evolution, actually. Morality had to evolve out of pre-existing emotions, I suspect, and instead of piggybacking on anger or grief, moral outrage appears to have evolved out of disgust. Last night I was walking down the street and walked by a woman whose dog was shitting on the sidewalk, and when she quite responsibly picked up the poop, I smelled it and my face wrinkled up into the disgust expression involuntarily, and she looked at me, and I felt bad, because for a moment, I worried she thought I was disapproving of her when in fact I appreciated that she cleaned up after her dog. Moral outrage looks like disgust and vice versa. In fact, feeling one or the other can trigger the other feeling, which is why I suspect people look at the incredibly sad photos of Suleman doing her thing and feel moral outrage, outrage that is piggybacking on disgust, which is a tad more understandable.
The two emotions are so intertwined that I can hear keyboards firing up to condemn me for feeling disgusted by Suleman’s photos, as if I judged her a bad person, even though I have explicitly stated that I do not judge her. It’s really not my place, and I’d feel like a bad person if I did, since I think she’s the victim of forces that she can’t control very well. But we have a lot of trouble distinguishing between the two.
But wouldn’t it be awesome if we could distinguish easily between the two emotions? I think a lot of our culture war issues exist strictly because it’s easy to disgust people with things they aren’t familiar with, and from there you can make them feel morally outraged about it. It’s really obvious how homophobes do this. They exploit a lot of people’s anxieties about sex acts they don’t understand and therefore find disgusting, like anal sex, and then allow that disgust to substitute for sound moral judgments. If they could step back from it and realize that even if anal sex does and always will disgust them, it doesn’t make it wrong. Virginity pledges work on the same emotions—teenagers who haven’t really experienced much sexual interaction feel disgust at the thought of it, and can easily be convinced that it’s disgusting because of moral turpitude. On this week’s episode of the podcast, I investigate the ex-masturbation ministries, and that’s the sum total of their argument—masturbation is wrong because it’s easy to cast it as disgusting. Of course, this way of thinking makes two grave logical errors. Not just that it’s wrong to conflate disgusting with wrong, but the concept of disgusting is very context-dependent. If you familiarize yourself with something, it’s less disgusting. So anal sex turns your stomach the first time you hear about it, but as you grow used to the idea, it’s no big deal. Sex in general loses a lot of the disgust response as you grow used to it. Masturbation isn’t disgusting if you don’t think of it as disgusting. But even then, all this is context-dependent. If you encountered any of these behaviors in a public bathroom by accident, you’d be disgusted, most likely. Also, things that aren’t disgusting when they come from you might be disgusting in other contexts—like I am not really disgusted if I cut myself and bleed, but if I see someone else bleeding, I get queasy.
Of course, all this means that women have traditionally been portrayed as morally inferior by dwelling on the idea that our bodies are more disgusting. Which causes a real moral quandary, because every time I shave my legs, I’m contributing to a society that argues that women are more disgusting, therefore women are less moral. But of course, it has a lot more functions than just that, so I suspect I’ll keep the habit up. And Atrios’s joke about how people are easy to rile up about abortion because abortion is icky is more true than you’d think at first glance. God knows anti-choice nuts think grossing you out with bloody fetus pictures is an argument, and sadly some people buy that.
Maybe if moral outrage was more related to anger or grief, we would be better. Maybe then we would get more upset over violence than sex, less worried about how our neighbors use their bodies differently than we do and more worried about if our neighbors are needlessly hurting each other. We wouldn’t get bent out of shape over abortion, and maybe “pro-lifers” could care about lives that are and not just those that could be. And certainly there’d be a lot less outrage over Suleman’s behavior and more outrage about a society that fucks so many women up, and not just her.
Just a thought.