Both Respect and Imagination

Excerpt from the preface of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Inalienable Rights) by Martha Nussbaum:

Today, large segments of the Christian Right openly practice a politics based upon disgust. Depicting the sexual practices of lesbians and, especially, of gay men as vile and revolting, they suggest that such practices contaminate and defile society, producing decay and degeneration…Although the influence of such appeals peaked, perhaps, in the 1980s and 1990s, and has since been declining, the politics of disgust continues to exercise influence, often in more subtle and unstated ways. We need, then, to understand why it is not a good approach to politics and law in a democratic society.

The politics of disgust is profoundly at odds with the abstract idea of a society based on the equality of all citizens, in which all have a right to the equal protection of the laws. It says that the mere fact that you happen to make me want to vomit is reason enough for me to treat you as a social pariah, denying you some of your most basic entitlements as a citizen.

…the politics of disgust is alive and well in America today, as many groups aggressively depict same-sex practices in such a way as to arouse disgust and then draw on that reaction when campaigning against the legalization of same-sex marriage, or nondiscrimination laws. Such appeals are often seen as not politically correct today, so other arguments are increasingly put forward. Disgust, however, has not gone away. We still need to understand its force, and why arguments based upon it are bad political arguments. A closer study of the emotion of disgust and the ways in which it has been used politically through history will suggest some powerful arguments against disgust’s apostles in theory and in practice, by showing how that emotion expresses a universal human discomfort with bodily reality, but then uses that discomfort to target and subordinate vulnerable minorities.

…Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings. Disgust imputes to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able to see one another as human? Only through the exercise of imagination. Humanity does not automatically reveal itself to strangers. No placard hung on the front of a fellow citizen announces that this one is a full-fledged human being. Seeing the shape of a human being before us, we always have choices to make: will we impute full equal humanity to that shape, or something less? Only by imagining how the world looks through that person’s eyes does one get to the point of seeing the other person as a someone and not a something. (Sadly, racial minorities have long been seen as somethings rather than someones, and women are all too frequently so seen today, given the ever-present phenomenon of sexual “object-ification,” in which a person is treated as a mere thing.) That crucial imaginative engagement has been sadly and sorely lacking in majority dealings with lesbians and gay lives…

The politics of humanity, as I shall use the term, includes respect. But respect, as usually conceived, is not sufficient for it: something else, something closer to love, must also be involved. First of all, we are unlikely to achieve full respect for one another unless we can do something else first – see the other as a center of perception, emotion, and reason, rather than an inert object. Put that way, it might appear that this imaginative and emotional attitude is a mere instrument to a respect that might be arrived at by some other route. However, respect without this attitude is certainly not a complete basis for political action in a diverse society: for only imagination animates the cold and abstract categories of morality and law, turning them into the ways we can live together. So, respect is politically incomplete without imagination.

One may, however, make a stronger claim, and I shall defend this claim: the capacity for imaginative and emotional participation in the lives of others is an essential ingredient of any respect worthy of the name. Only this capacity makes real an ability that is a key part of respect, the ability to see the other as an end, not as a mere means. The politics of humanity includes, then, both respect and imagination, and imagination understood as an ingredient essential to respect itself.