News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Rhetoric and Politics of Disgust

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Rhetoric and Politics of Disgust

What has struck me about the rhetoric used by the Right is its spitefulness and ugliness. I find it telling that the Right accuses the Left of being angry, as though that were a profane emotion. As several postings at Unclaimed Territory have pointed out, anger is not an unreasonable emotion in many contexts, especially the field of political debate. Yet, the Right has attempted to stigmatize anger as though it is something unreasonable and ultimately unethical. As Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, however, it is anger at injustice and wrong that forms much of the underlying basis for the legal system. ...

I allude to Nussbaum and her recent work on disgust, shame, and the law (Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law) can give some insight into the rhetorical tactics currently used by the Right.

To shorten this comment, I'll simply provide a quote from Nussbaum that I believe explains the emotion that the Right hopes to exploit in its political strategy. This emotion is disgust. Nussbaum quotes conservative bioethicist Leon Kass, who head Pres. Bush's commission that examines the ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research:

According to Kass, there is a "wisdom" in our sentiment of "repugnance," a wisdom that lies beneath all rational argument. When we contemplate certain prospects, we are disgusted "because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear." Repugnance "revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound." Kass admits that "[r]evulsion is not argument," but he thinks that it gives us access to a level of the personality that is in some ways deeper and more reliable than argument. "In crucial cases...repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom."

Now Nussbaum wants to show that recent legal cases by conservatives have attempted to make disgust a legal criterion. She argues that it's an invalid criterion for various reasons. She also explain how disgust lies at the root of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and violence against women.

Be that as it may, how this relates to Coulter et al, is in how their rhetoric is an expression of disgust. At the same time that it expresses the author's disgust with numerous subjects, it also hopes to elicit in the reader a sense of disgust. The theory behind this rhetoric follows Kass in his belief that disgust is a truer and more authentic basis for morality and ethics (and by extension the law) than rational argument.

If the preceding is true, then we can say that Coulter, Limbaugh, et al hope to forestall rational debate and discussion and evoke what they perceive as moral sentiments that in some way are truer to reality than reason. In this sense, then, it is inaccurate to call Coulter's work an exercise in hate or anger but rather a rhetoric of disgust.

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