Grossing people out can have a short-term impact, but does it matter in the long term?
The fallout from the Planned Parenthood video continues as Republicans posture about how they’re going to “investigate” the organization, as though the one millionth harassing investigation they conduct is going to be the one that hits a jackpot. I hate even using the word “fallout”, which sounds like a sincere reaction when all of this “outrage” is so calculated and so disingenuous it makes my teeth hurt, but whatever. “Fallout”. Sure. Anger at Planned Parenthood instead of at the lying liars who put this video together. If anyone actually gave a hoot about corruption, their anger would be directed at Live Action and the “Center for Medical Progress” that they spun off for likely unsavory reasons.
As many people, including myself, have argued, since this video shows no legal or ethical wrongdoing, the real “expose” is actually about how abortion is gross. (I hope Republicans launch an investigation into the hospital industry next, because most surgeries are very gross!) But, as Michelle Goldberg argues at The Nation, “gross” may be a totally irrational argument, but it’s still a politically potent one.
Further, it’s a way for the anti-abortion movement to focus the abortion debate on the graphic details of rare, late-term procedures, about which there is less public consensus than there is about early abortion. It serves the same purpose as the ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion,” and as blown-up pictures of bloody fetuses. It induces disgust, a very politically potent emotion, since most people associate things that are gross with things that are immoral. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt describes how researchers asked students at Cornell University to fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing either near or far from hand sanitizer. Those standing closer to it became temporarily more conservative. If something that minor can affect people’s politics, then a video like this one is sure to have a visceral impact.
She’s right, of course. “Women’s bodies are disgusting, therefore women are inferior” is the oldest, most ingrained misogynist argument there is. The impulse they’re tapping into is the same impulse that caused things like declaring menstruation “unclean” and forcing women to live in menstrual huts. Women do not actually have grosser bodies than men—sure, periods are gross, but let’s face it, semen isn’t any better, especially in the staining department—but throughout history, our reproductive capacities and the gross details that make them work have been used to argue that we don’t deserve human rights. This is just part of that long-standing human tendency.
That said, I have some reason to be optimistic. Most of those studies like the ones she cites only study temporary reactions, but there’s also strong reason to believe that being disgusted doesn’t have a long-lasting impact on most emotionally mature people. After all, much of life is incredibly gross: We shit, we pee, we menstruate, we have medical interventions, we sweat, we smell bad at times, we leak all sorts of fluid. Most of us learn to deal with and compartmentalize that, so we can live our lives.
Indeed, learning to deal with grossness is an important part of the maturation process in no small part because you have to grow up if you’re going to be a sexually mature person. Sex is all about rubbing the gross, leaky parts of your body on someone else’s gross and leaky parts. What’s going on with a lot of anti-choicers is that they’ve never really been able to get past that. They’re still stuck in that early adolescent mentality where you’re both titillated by and utterly disgusted by sexuality and bodies in general. Anti-choice rhetoric suggests a worldview that sees the world as if it was a V.C. Andrews novel: Lurid and gothic in the extreme, both disgusting but also weirdly tantalizing. Most of us went through that stage and, if certain buttons are pushed, we revert temporarily back to it. But we return to rationality and an understanding that bodies are gross, but that’s okay. I suspect a lot of these antis are just stuck permanently in the mindset of a junior high schooler rereading Flowers in the Attic for the 50th time, turning herself on and squicking herself out all at once.
God knows Lila Rose can’t open her mouth without coming across as 14-year-old virgin who isn’t entirely sure how the mechanics of all this work but still wants you to hear her opinions on it. David Daleiden sounds like he’s the same sort, getting into this work when he was right at that age of maximum fascination and disgust with how the process of sex and reproduction works, but sort of mentally stuck there while the rest of us move on:
He is 26 years old, he graduated from Claremont McKenna College a few years ago, and he has been involved with the pro-life movement since he was 15. In that short time, his life has become a veritable who’s who of pro-life extremists and Twitter trolls.
According to a cached version of a now-deleted bio that appeared on the website for Live Action Films—affiliated with a youth-focused anti-abortion organization that was led then, as it is now, by current Live Action president and noted undercover activist Lila Rose—Daleiden was a speech and debate enthusiast who started a pro-life club at his high school.
His bio reveals a fixation on anti-abortion activism that started early in life when he saw graphic images like those found in the Genocide Awareness Project, a display of images of aborted fetuses that has been shown in public spaces, such as college campuses, since the late 1990s.
“Ew, gross” is a temporary reaction for most people. For Daledian and the people around them, it’s how they live their lives. Something to keep in mind when considering the potential long-term impact on this video outside of the realms of the already convinced.