Arthur and Kevin's Nellorat (nellorat ) wrote,

Queer Book Review; Imaginative Disgust and Orson Scott Card's Homophobia


I highly recommend The Trouble with Normal, by Michael Warner (Harvard University Press, 1999). The writing is clear and often witty; he's a bit repetitive in making his general point, but it's a good one, both insightful and salutary. His central argument is that for various psychological, sociological, and historical reasons, the public voices of the GBLT movement have striven to position queers as normal, which includes de-emphasizing actual sex as much as possible. Thus not only the prioritizing of gay marriage, but the rejection of voices within the community who question whether marriage, and its dividing of relationships into a privileged class and unprivileged others,  is a good idea for anyone.

I don't always agree with his views, but one marvelous thing about his voice is how thoroughly his own thoughts and words enact his own ethical basis: someone else's sexual choices don't have anything to do with you. He sees the resultant freedom and tolerance as a quintessentially queer value that the mostly college educated, mostly white spokes(wo)men for the gay-rights movement have lost or never had & work against in many ways. Reading the book is refreshing, because his ethical stance is so firm that it both questions and enhances one's own ethics.

Many interesting points are made along the way. For instance, lesbians did develop a pro-sex voice in magazines like On Our Backs, but many of the pro--sex gay voices died of or were silenced by AIDS. Yet the split between sexual-freedom voices and those who wanted gay rights through acceptance of gays as "normal" goes back at least to the Mattachine Society in the 1950s.

He starts out with his basic thesis that the desire to divorce homosexuality from sex stems from an unresolved ambivalence, a not-total rejection of the shame society imposes. Yet in specific arguments, he gives other reasons, including that any communication between the GBLT community and mainstream society is shifted by the power imbalance to what is acceptable by the latter. I think he's right in that most pride/rights movements, actually, are probably marked by unresolved shame; but I also think that unresolved shame can lead to more vocal struggle, as he himself points out, as well as attempts to be accepted as normal. However, because his arguments are very much grounded in fact, even if you disagree with his shame/ambivalence hypothesis, you may agree with the rest of his analysis.


I previously read some books about disgust, including the excellent That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, by Rachel Herz (Norton, 2012), and two things seem clear:

1) What is viewed as disgusting is culturally conditioned, but the reaction of disgust is innate, visceral, and not susceptible to cognitive control.
2) Imagining something disgusting can produce a sensation of disgust virtually as strong as something really disgusting, much moreso than, for instance, fear.

So my theory* is that other people's sexual practices are so often an emotional hot spot because many of us cannot help imagining ourselves doing those things, whether we find them attractive or neutral or disgusting. In fact, maybe the resultant disgust is the most powerful .of those three alternatives. Here, imaginative empathy, which is usually a source of compassion, turns on itself. Conscious ethics may help one not act on the emotional response, but it could still be there. If social hierarchies reinforce the disgust, then it is validated and one is "right" to act on it.

If this is so, then the most anti-gay people would be not only those who have a strong emotional reaction, but also those who can most easily imagine themselves in the same actions. It's been shown that many anti-gays have physiological reactions of pleasure/interest in pictures of gay sex--dilated pupils, breathing, where the eyes track in a picture--and besides just protesting too much or self-hatred, they could be experiencing imaginative disgust; the erotic imagination is naturally active, but the conscious mind rejects the imagined images.

But this also means that some of the strongest homophobes might be not only closeted GLB people but also those with the most active imaginations. Like, say, a novelist. Like Orson Scott Card.


In the wake of controversy over Card's politics that the movie version of Ender's Game brought to the fore again, we three have sometimes talked about the paradox that Scott Card is one of the nicest people you'd ever meet, and yet he can say things against gay rights that have such draconian, even malign implications. We knew him somewhat when we all lived in North Carolina, and he is considerate, not only intelligent but wise, and admirably generous. Yet he can advocate keeping anti-gay-sex laws on the books but not enforcing them (except that you could, always, like statutes of Damocles) as a kind middle-of-the-road approach.

Various people have discussed various possible reasons, from Scott's Mormonism to totally-unproven speculations that Scott was a victim of man-on-boy abuse; but maybe it is or is also a side-effect of his vivid imagination of thoughts that do in fact disgust him. An occupational hazard. Reinforced as "right" by the culture(s) around him.

This speculation, like any other psychologizing of someone the psychologizer hardly knows, is virtually worthless, but it's an occupation I & a lot of my friends can't resist, and at least this has an interesting theoretical basis.

* Which is mine--literally in the sense that I haven't seen it in any of my reading

Status: Must get ready to spread knowledge like manure
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