I have a cough. I have had it for weeks. A deep hacking affair that brings up nasty thick greenish goo. It’s not the virus — I haven’t got a high temperature or any other symptoms. But it is dramatic enough to clear the seats next to me on the tube.
In church on Sunday, too, I could feel the anxiety radiate out from my coughing away behind the altar into a twitchy congregation. We have suspended sharing the peace for the time being. Instead of shaking hands or kissing, we wave at each other. So, too, we have decided to take communion in one kind only — that is, we share the bread but not the common cup of wine. And in this context, the symbolic handwashing the priest performs before the Eucharist is no longer simply a ritual act. It feels like a necessity. Cleanliness is next to godliness.
But this cross-over between cleanliness and moral and religious purpose is one that makes a lot of people even more nervous than the virus itself. The moralisation of disgust is regarded as a dangerous Right-wing/religious cross-over that has regularly been aimed against “unclean” menstruating women and against lesbian and gay people especially. Moralised disgust is a familiar expression of hostility to gay sex, for example. And as Ed West made clear in his excellent piece on the black death, it has historically been employed to stoke the flames of anti-Semitism. Jews were said to spread the plague. The politics of cleanliness is often a way we are encouraged to fear the threatening presence of the other.
And no one is more adept at employing the language of disgust against his opponents than Donald Trump. As Hillary Clinton went for a bathroom break during the Democratic debate in 2015, Trump commented: “I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.” And he was back at moralised disgust again this week, calling out Michael Bloomberg for the way he was eating a pizza: “Mini Mike, don’t lick your dirty fingers. Both unsanitary and dangerous to others and yourself!” he tweeted.
Which is why this dreaded virus is playing right into Trump’s hands at a pivotal electoral moment. For Covid-19 is amplifying the politics of the bathroom and its connection to a fear of the other. “The virus is a weapon” my barber explained to me this week, surveying his empty shop, “invented by the Chinese.” I mumbled disagreement through the hot towel wrapped around my face.
But those who want to resist these dangerous conclusions, need to do more than mumble their opposition to it. They need to understand where it comes from.
Back in 2012, the political philosopher Jonathan Haidt published the hugely influential The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion, a book that sought to explain the appeal of the conservative world view to liberals —who generally find it totally incomprehensible. At the heart of Haidt’s explanation is the point that conservatives employ a more extensive palate of political values, including values such as purity and disgust. These, Haidt contends, are values that the right employs — to powerful electoral effect — but liberals denigrate and misunderstand.
As Richard Dawkins tweeted last year:
Tissue culture “clean meat” already in 2018? I’ve long been looking forward to this.https://t.co/p41NR3NEZn
What if human meat is grown? Could we overcome our taboo against cannibalism? An interesting test case for consequentialist morality versus “yuck reaction” absolutism.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) March 3, 2018
Which is why my UnHerd colleague Peter Franklin describes himself on his Twitter bio as a “yuck reaction absolutist”.
Consider another example. Is there anything morally wrong with having sex with a dead chicken in the privacy of one’s own kitchen (or bedroom?) — not one specifically killed for the purpose, for that introduces an element of harm — but one purchased at the supermarket? Strictly from the perspective of the liberal world view, where harm is understood as the deciding moral factor, there doesn’t seem to be anything obviously wrong with having sex with a dead chicken. After all, what or who is harmed in the act? Yet the sense that there is indeed something wrong here would be a common reaction. Would Dawkins see this, too, as yuck absolutism?
In my view, the best person to read in order to understand the workings of disgust and purity as a moral reaction is the anthropologist Mary Douglas. For Douglas, the nature of impurity only makes sense in terms of a world view in which things have a certain place. An ‘impure’ substance is not, in and of itself, impure — it is simply in the wrong place. And, so, saliva is not disgusting your own mouth. But is disgusting if you are invited to spit it in a glass and then re-swallow it. Dirt is a good thing in the garden, but a bad thing when trampled through the house. In other words, impurity and disgust are context dependent. And here is the big point: disgust and purity only make sense with reference to a sort of map of the world in which things have a certain place.
The phrase “a place for everything and everything in its place” – often associated with Benjamin Franklin – has its origin in a religious world-view: “The Lord hath set everything in its place and order”, preached Bishop John Hacket in 1675. The sentiment behind “a place for everything and everything in its place” is probably a popular Victorian rendition of this religious idea. God sets things in a certain order during creation. And disgust is a gut reaction to things not being as God has set them up to be, or — in a secular rendition of the same basic idea — as nature intended.
Small wonder Dawkins is not a fan. The Bible proposes a map of the world where all things have their place. Ritual washing is a form of boundary maintenance. And the nightmare from this perspective is when boundaries are effaced and things come together that shouldn’t come together.
As the barber was jabbering on about the Chinese, the plot of Mission: Impossible II started running through my head. The baddies make a weapon out of a virus. Ethan Hunt has to save the world. The virus is called Chimera. Significantly, the chimera is a figure of Greek mythology, an animal that is composed of different parts of different animals: the body of a lion, the head of a goat, and a tail that becomes a snake. The chimera represents perfectly the fear of things coming together that shouldn’t come together.
But unlike Peter Franklin, I wouldn’t describe myself as a “Yuck reaction absolutist”. In fact, I don’t think he is one either. Because there are yuck reaction absolutists who would, for instance, regard the marriage of a non-Jew to a Jew — my marriage — as a contravention of the need for strict boundary maintenance. The hostility to so-called miscegenation is a variant of the fear of the chimera. And we are right to be having none of it.
There is, though, an ocean of space to negotiate between Dawkins’s refusal to recognise anything to the wisdom of repugnance, and Trump’s desire to weaponise it against minorities. And this is territory that the Left is so much more uncomfortable exploring than the Right. For boundary maintenance is not just a visceral refusal to eat human tissue or have sex with frozen chickens. It is also about protecting the vulnerable from unrestricted capital flows and the community-dissolving properties of globalisation. This should be territory the Left gets involved in: boundaries are not just ways of othering people, they are also mechanisms of legitimate protection from harm.
What liberals generally don’t get is that the desire for a world in which everything has a proper place is a reaction to a radically uncertain world, a world in which boundaries have been effaced, and thus a world in which nothing is protected, nothing is safe – especially for the most vulnerable. Our fear of the virus is partly that it knows no boundaries. That it is the great disease of globalisation. And unless the Left finds a way to distinguish good boundary maintenance from bad boundary maintenance, it will keep on handing electoral victories to the likes of Donald Trump.