Religious freedom and the ick factor

by H.B. Koplowitz

Gay_marriage_-_Matrimonio_gay_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto_26-Jan-2008The furor over so-called religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas, which critics say are efforts to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, once again raises the question, just what do straights have against gays?

When 67-year-old “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson was quoted last year in a GQ magazine article titled “What the Duck?” that homosexual activity is sinful, and that as a youth, he never saw “the mistreatment of any black person,” I defended Robertson’s First Amendment right to hold and express his ignorant, redneck, homophobic, racist views.

Someone took me to task for calling Robertson’s opinions ignorant, and I readily agreed, since redneck, homophobic and racist seemed quite sufficient. She also asserted that “about 80 percent” of Americans” agree with his views on homosexuality. Robertson says sodomy is a sin because the Bible tells him so, but the Bible also says sodomites should be put to death, and he doesn’t believe that, so it seemed to me there must be an additional reason, call it Bible+, for his and so many other people’s bias against gays.

It’s possible that 80 percent of religious conservatives believe homosexual behavior is sinful. It’s also possible that many liberal secular humanists who don’t believe in God or sin might think 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 concepts have in common, what 80 percent of Americans might agree on — and, mea culpa, what resonates with me — is that girly boys, butchy girls, shemales and same-sex sex seem icky.

I vaguely remembered that someone got in trouble for bringing up the “ick factor,” and Google quickly led me to former reverend and Arkansas governor, sometime Fox News commentator and presidential candidate 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 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 civil rights advocates have themselves used the term “ick factor” to describe one of the barriers they face in seeking equality, which is why many gay activists prefer “respectable” plaintiffs and toned-down gay pride parades.

Google also led me to a 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 at 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 indicate 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 there’s the proverbial rub. The science of emotion can get murky because feelings like disgust, fear and hate tend to blend into one another. If I say I hate beets, do I really mean I’m afraid to eat them, that they disgust me, or all three? There’s the nature versus 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 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 natural selection, humans may also have developed an instinctual aversion to homosexual sex, since it doesn’t result in more Homo sapiens. Similarly, as prehistoric humans formed clans and tribes, we may have grown a self-preserving disgust/fear/hatred of the “other” — other tribes, other races, stranger danger.

But that was then and this is now. There are plenty of Homo sapiens and America is a melting pot, so anti-gay and racist instincts have become anachronisms, like tonsils. To America’s credit, a growing number of those who have a gut feeling that gay love is icky have “evolved” and are supporting the rights of those who don’t find it icky to get married. We may not always feel comfortable around members of other races and sexualities, but recognize their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For unlike God’s immutable laws, our feelings can change, especially by getting to know the “other,” which can give rise to an even more mysterious emotion, called empathy.

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