Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sardines, Beondegi, and Not-My-Kind-of-Sex: The Irrelevance of Gag Reflexes

A recent essay at the Gospel Coalition, by Thabiti Anyabwile (Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands), has garnered quite a bit of reactions from more progressive Christian writers.

This is not surprising. The essay, "The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and 'Gay Marriage'", is striking in what it advocates. One might even say shocking. Anyabwile, with obvious sincerity and a sense of moral conviction, argues that conservative Christians should make more use of the following strategy when debating homosexuality and same sex marriage:

They should try harder to fire up and channel visceral disgust against same-sex activity. 

As Richard Beck puts it, "The article attempts, unapologetically, to elicit and then direct feelings of revulsion and disgust toward gay persons."

More surprisingly, Anyabwile in effect confesses why he advocates this strategy. Years ago he was privy to a well-argued, eloquent, reasonable, and essentially conservative defense of same-sex marriage rights, one that left him stumbling clumsily for a response. His retort fell flat in the face of it.

And in hindsight, he thinks that the retort that would have worked, that would have neutralized the argument's effect on those listening, would have been to invite others to focus on the details of gay sex in a manner intended to elicit disgust.

There's only one way that Anyabwile can justify such a move, and that would be to assume that our feelings of disgust have evidentiary value on moral matters--in other words, to assume that feeling disgusted by X is a good reason, by itself, to believe that there is something wrong with X.

But there are all kinds of problems with this assumption.

I love sardines. I've been known to eat them in the presence of others. Often these poor witnesses respond with disgust. Some are disgusted by the mere mention of me eating sardines. I confess that sometimes, based on a devilish impulse, I've described to these sardine-haters the act of eating sardines in a manner akin to the vivid detail that Anyabwile recommends with respect to gay sex.

Something like the following (and since Anyabwile prefaced his explicit descriptions with warnings to the faint-hearted, I should do the same and say that if sardines make your stomach heave, feel free to skip the block quote):
We are talking here about a man, at lunch, plunging his fork into the silvery skin of a small fish, a fish that has been canned with the bones still inside its body. We are talking about lifting that punctured fish corpse up towards human lips, the finned tail flopping as the scent of sardine and olive oil reaches the nose. We are talking about the man shoving the entire body, skin and bones and all, into his eager mouth.
Thankfully, although my descriptions (not to mention my public indulgence in the act) sometimes cause people to scrunch up their faces in horror and utter sounds of disgust, no one has on the basis of their visceral reaction concluded that what I was doing was morally wrong (although some have defended this conclusion based on concerns about overfishing). After all, everyone knows that their disgust isn't relevant to the question of the morality of sardine-eating.

When it comes to such disgust, I found myself on the other side of things a few years back when I was traveling in Korea. Frequently I'd pass street vendors selling something called Beodegi: silkworm pupae that are steamed or boiled. I remember Koreans buying paper bags of them on the wooded path up to a Buddhist monestary I'd come to visit, and crunching them like popcorn as they strolled among the trees.

It was disgusting. The things smelled disgusting. They looked disgusting.

The sound of crunching silkworms made me want to gag. But I did not, on the basis of this, conclude that they were doing something wrong. I did not conclude that there was something wrong with these Koreans--something amiss with their moral sensibilities based on their apparent lack of disgust at their own behavior.

After all, I like sardines.

After all, what someone is disgusted by varies based on upbringing, socialization, familiarity, and a range of other factors that have nothing to do with morality. And sometimes disgust can be a tool or a symptom of serious social injustice, in which marginalization of certain disempowered classes is perpetuated in part by encouraging feelings of disgust. As Richard Beck notes,
...disgust properties have always been imputed onto despised groups. More, disgust creates justifications for violence and social scapegoating. From kids being bullied on playgrounds to acts of genocide, disgust justifies exclusion, violence and extermination.
People used to be disgusted by interracial marriage, not because their moral sense was discerning the wrongness of such marriage and communicating it through feelings of disgust, but because an unjust system of discrimination had shaped the human capacity for disgust in the service of injustice.

One of the most eye-opening discoveries I made after developing friendships with gays and lesbians was this: the visceral disgust that so many heterosexuals have when they contemplate having gay sex is matched by a comparable disgust that many gays and lesbians feel when they contemplate having (or actually do have) heterosexual sex. To be more precise, when any of us imagines participating in not-our-kind-of-sex, we are prone towards a yuck-reaction.

When gays and lesbians, too often pressured by a heterosexist society into conforming with the dominant sexual expectations, find themselves engaging routinely in not-their-kind-of-sex, they may become desensitized to this reaction. But it will never be a joy. It will never be a source of bonding. It will never be what sex at its best is meant to be: not just a physical act but a means of forging intimacy. (This point is beautifully made by Kimberly Knight in her recent response to Anyabwile.)

When I'm disgusted by the beondegi-eater, it's because eating is such a universally human phenomenon that I find myself instantly imagining myself in the place of the eater, sympathetically sinking my own teeth into the worm pupa's steamed little body. Likewise for sex.

The disgust begins to fade as soon as I remove myself from the imagining, as soon as I remove from myself the impulse towards vicarious participation in something that doesn't suit me. When that happens, I am better able to see that the beondagi-eater isn't me, that my disgust isn't hers, and that my reaction is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether eating beondegi is right or wrong.

In topics that, for many, are more morally vexed than the permissibility of eating sardines or beondegi, we do no one a favor by encouraging disgust.

If something disgusts you, by all means refrain. But don't treat your disgust as evidence of someone else's sin.


  1. Just how is this different from the evidentiary value of mystical feelings, or feelings in the middle of one's gut, etc? You have cited those kinds of things as of the highest importance for providing a fair amount of whatever evidence exists for god and religion in general. And I wouldn't buy any of that either.

    1. The following analogy may be imperfect, but I think it's helpful:

      Joe, who lives alone, wakes up abruptly one night and groggily looks towards his bedroom door to see a shadow move across the entry. The next day he tells Mary that he thinks someone was in his apartment last night. She asks if he has any other evidence besides the fleetingly glimpsed shadow. He says no. She dismisses his claim.

      A few days later, Joe encounters Luna, who insists that whenever she feels amused, that means her boyfriend Fred is in the kitchen tickling the feet of her favorite doll. Once when she laughs in amusement, Fred is witnessed to be fast asleep in the lounge. On another occasion, he is sitting next to Luna, no doll in sight. Joe tells Luna her theory can't be defended, since she is obviously amused on occasions when Fred clearly isn't tickling her doll's feet in the kitchen. And anyway, amusement seems to be an emotional response TO something other than favorite-doll-tickling, as opposed to being an experience OF favorite-doll-tickling.

      Mary, on hearing this, jumps in and says, "How's that any different from your attaching evidentiary value to a shadow?"

      There may be all sorts of reasons why one can doubt the evidentiary value of Joe's experience (he was groggy, he'd just come off sleep, there's no additional corroborating evidence, etc.). But positing a parallel between Joe and Luna isn't one of them.

  2. Let's stipulate that the shadow was real. I agree that it constitutes evidence of some sort. But that has nothing to do with the other cases. They are not very analogical. Each of the other cases- of amusement, of mystical gut feeling, and of disgust, are feelings one has, either in response to something concrete (gay sex), or to something essentially unknown, (doll tickling, or god), each of which are essentially imaginative inferences.

    I think that in the overall hierarchy, the disgust counts for a great deal more than the other two. Yet all the same, it (if it exists at all), is something we can consciously squelch if upon reflection, we think that it doesn't represent a moral harm. We have instinctive disgust at bats as well, until we get to know them.

    As for the other two inferences, they rest on the worst kind of evidence.. none.

    1. Burk,

      I think you're missing what I'm trying to do with my analogy.

      For the analogy to do what I intend, we cannot stipulate that the shadow was real--since the whole point of my analogy is to compare the invocation of two different sorts of *subjective states* to support one's claims, as opposed to comparing the invocation of a fact (there was a shadow in the hall) with the invocation of an emotional response (say, "I was afraid") to support a claim.

      My point is that the unsuitability of invoking an emotional response ("I was amused") as a reason to believe a certain conclusion ("Frank is in the kitchen tickling my doll's feet") does not speak to the suitability of invoking a subjective experience of something appearing to be a certain way (it appeared to me that there was a shadow moving across the hall) to support the conclusion that things are indeed as they appear to be ("something was moving in the hall").

      There may be various reasons for resisting the move from subjective appearances to conclusions about reality, but those will be very unlike the reasons we have for resisting the invocation of an emotional response to something as a reason for believing that something is the case about it.

      My point about disgust might be put this way: Anyabwile treats the emotional response of disgust as if it were a subjective experience of the wrongness of something. But any kind of careful look at the emotion of disgust shows us that this rests on a misconstrual of what disgust IS. First of all, disgust has the form of being a RESPONSE to a perception, as opposed to having the form of a perception (something appearing to me to the case). Second, it is not a response to the perception of WRONGNESS as such (although we often do feel disgust at what we perceive to be wrong). After all, we are disgusted by all sorts of things that have nothing to do with morality. Were I to say what disgust IS a response to, I'd say its a response to our perception of the dirty/unclean/unhealthy.

      Mystical experience, however, has a *perceptual* form as opposed to an emotional one--which is not to say that it is a veridical perception, nor is it to say that mystical experiences aren't accompanied by strong emotions. Rather, it is to say something about the kind of experience that it is: it is the experience OF something, the experience, if you will, of "being appeared to" in a certain way, rather than the experience of having an emotional reaction to something. This is what William James is talking about when he discusses the "noetic quality" of mystical experiences.

  3. Eric-

    I think that the idea that mystical experiences are perceptual experiences of something is very much in question. You are asserting on the basis of extremely subjective reports, and on a formal basis (visual hallucination) that has no special claim to being real. What at this level is the difference between this and having a feeling? Are hallucinations "something"?

    We have a special acceptance of proper perceptions (such as eyesight and hearing) because they arise from organs and cognitive processes that we know to be quite reliable, under usual conditions. Not completely reliable, with all the hallucinations and illusions and errors possible, but seeing something is believing, as they say, and eyewitnesses have a special (if declining!) value.

    It all has to do with biology... that sight works typically extremely well, is quite well understood, gives rich data, and calibrates with other senses. None of that is true with mystical revelations, to say the least. So I really do not get on what basis you can attempt to analogize them with anything other than feelings, which can give us very appropriate, if vague, information about our surroundings as well.

    After all, vision is also merely a *response* to the world around us, processed through some very complicated machinery. Feelings respond as well, through more ancient, and simpler machinery. It is just that the machineries have very different levels of accuracy, richness, and usefulness. Feelings tend to grip us before we have a chance to get a cognitive grip on the situation. So I think the perception/response/feeling distinctions are not strong.

    All we really know at the moment of the machinery of mystical experience is that it has a variety of effects and can experimentally be turned on, not reliably, by extreme treatments like LSD, TMS, perhaps surgery or epilepsy. Otherwise, their putative perceptions and content does not calibrate to anything else known about the (ourside) world, and honestly, these clues do not indicate that it ever will.

  4. From the web:

    2. Noetic Quality - Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discurssive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.

    Well, at this level, one has to understand that the conviction of knowing something is also a feeling. When one solves a math problem.. how do you know it is solved? It is some feeling that wells up from our silent machinery saying that the pattern at the end of the numbers seems to match the pattern vaguely expected. This is a very interesting and little-understood area, really. But it goes without saying that an hallucination that included this feeling might have very powerful effects without actually signifying anything.

  5. A brief clarifying comment: in characterizing mystical experience as akin to perception, my point is to characterize its phenomenological structure, not to make a comment about veridicality. In order to be veridical OR delusional, a subjective state must be of a certain type. Mystical experiences may well be delusional, but to BE that they need to be a certain sort of subjective state, a sort with a subjective form like that of perceptual states (but not necessarily possessing the outward relations that we take perceptions to have).

    What I'm claiming is that, purely in terms of their phenomenological form, mystical experiences are (according to the reports of mystics) in the same class as perceptions. This is not a claim about their authority or accuracy.

    One other brief remark: When using the term "feeling," we need to be careful about equivocation, since the term is used in multiple ways. In one sense, it is used to pick out a specific kind of subjective state. In another sense, it is a general name for any phenomenological report about what a subjective state is like for the experiencing subject ("Sense perceptions 'feel' like subjective encounters with objects outside the subject"). There are also other uses.

  6. Well, I would note in return that the "phenomenological structure" is hardly cut and dried as you make it out to be. I think we are learning that our feelings influence far more than previously thought, and shade imperceptably into perceptions. As it were.

    And as far as mystical perceptions go, they are composed of two parts- the feeling, and the hallucination. And there may be none of the latter, solely the former.. a feeling that everything is now understood, without any imaging or aural event. And often the image is not hallucinated at all, as in the case where a mystic saw the truth of the universe in a teacup.

    In any case, the feeling far predominates in importance over any perceptive element. If one didn't attach vast importance to an apparition, (or non-appartition), it would likely be chalked up to schizophrenia, or per Oliver Sachs, just a harmless malfunction.

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