In my recent Allvoices column on “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson’s politically incorrect utterances, another Allvoices contributor, Cyberiante, took me to task for calling Robertson’s views ignorant. I had to agree, since redneck, homophobic and racist were quite sufficient.
Cyberiante asserted that, “While Ole’ Phil certainly didn’t express his opinion very well, he just happens to believe the same as about 80 percent of the US.” Cyberiante didn’t specify which of Phil’s opinions is held by 80 percent of Americans, but went on to note, “Phil didn’t say to arrest, kill or discriminate against gays. He said their actions (in this case, sodomy) is a sin.” Cyberiante further contended that “Phil is not homophobic, which means he is afraid of gay people. I doubt that he fears what a gay person can do to him.”
I know, Phil opposes sodomy because it’s in the Bible. But the Bible also says sodomites should be put to death, and he doesn’t believe that. So there must be an additional reason, call it Bible+. And that brought me back to Cyberiante’s assertion that 80 percent of Americans feel the same way. It’s possible that 80 percent of conservatives believe homosexuality is a sin. It’s also possible that many liberal secular humanists who don’t believe in God and sin might still feel that homosexual activity is immoral. Even evolutionists who don’t believe in religion or morality might consider it unnatural. Sinful, immoral, unnatural. What all three groups have in common, what 80 percent of Americans might actually agree on — and, mea culpa, what resonates with me — is that the thought of having sex with someone of the same sex is just plain icky.
I vaguely remembered that someone got in trouble for bringing up the “ick factor,” and Google quickly led me to former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate and current Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, who in a 2010 interview in The New Yorker opposed gay marriage by saying, “We can get into the ‘ick factor,’ but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.”
When Phil Robertson clumsily professed his preference for vaginas over anuses, he was also raising the ick factor. As with Robertson, Huckabee was accused of gay bashing, but he noted that gay activists have themselves used the term “ick factor” to describe one of the barriers they face in seeking equality. Which is why some gay activists prefer “respectable” plaintiffs and toned-down gay pride parades.
Next I found a Jan. 23, 2012, article by James Gorman in The New York Times. Headlined “Survival’s Ick Factor,” it noted that the scientific term for ick is disgust, and “in several new books and a steady stream of research papers, scientists are exploring the evolution of disgust and its role in attitudes toward food, sexuality and other people.” According to Gorman, “researchers [have found that disgust] does more than cause that sick feeling in the stomach. It protects human beings from disease and parasites, and affects almost every aspect of human relations, from romance to politics.”
Speaking from what Gorman described as “a conference on disgust in Germany,” Valerie Curtis, a self-described “disgustologist” from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the emotion is “in our everyday life. It determines our hygiene behaviors. It determines how close we get to people. It determines who we’re going to kiss, who we’re going to mate with, who we’re going to sit next to. It determines the people that we shun, and that is something that we do a lot of.”
Disgustologists have found that people from different cultures make the same facial expression when they are disgusted — wrinkled nose and scrunched eyes — and that many languages have the same word to express disgust, “yuck.” Studies have indicated that political conservatives are disgusted by more things than liberals, especially sexual things, and “it is clear that what people find disgusting they often find immoral, too.”
But as Shakespeare said, there’s the rub. The science of emotion can get murky, just as emotions blend into one another, like disgust and fear. If I say I hate beets, am I afraid to eat them, do they disgust me, or both? There’s the nature vs. nurture conundrum — was I born hating beets or did I have a bad experience with borscht? Advertisers use the ick factor in anti-smoking campaigns, and what disgusts or scares us also gives us pleasure — think horror movies and gross-out comedies.
At least three types of disgust have been identified involving disease avoidance, mate choice and moral judgment. Researchers think the original disgust, the one we are hardwired with, has to do with the smell and taste of excrement, rotten food and other things that might kill us if we ate them. Through the process of natural selection, many, but not all, people may have developed an instinctual aversion to homosexual sex — otherwise there might be a lot fewer Homo sapiens. Similarly, as prehistoric humans congealed into clans and tribes, we may have evolved a fear/disgust/mistrust of the “other” — other tribes, other races, stranger danger.
But that was then and this is now. There are plenty of people and America is a melting pot, so anti-gay and racist instincts have become anachronistic, like tonsils. Unlike God’s laws, our feelings can change, especially by getting to know the “other,” which could give rise to an even more mysterious emotion, called empathy. If I gave it a try, I might learn to like beets, or at least tolerate them. We could all learn to become more tolerant of other races and sexual preferences, even if we have to deal with both nature and nurture, or what I call racial baggage.
Although the two often go hand in hand, I believe there is a difference between racism and afrophobia, just as there is a difference between homophobia and being anti-gay. I think it is possible to have a gut feeling that gay love is icky, yet still support the rights of others who don’t find it icky to be gay, or to switch genders. Ole Phil is probably against that as well, although I doubt it’s mentioned in the Bible. But for a lot of us, it’s icky.
Originally published at Allvoices.com.