The Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law: While the effort is made to make the law impartial and unprejudicial, that does not mean that some emotions — e.g. compassion — do not have a role in legal affairs. Emotion is not inherently opposed to reason insofar as it is in the service of evaluation. But the role of some emotions — notably disgust and shame — in the law is more controversial, while enjoying a remarkable revival in our society.
Penalties based on shaming encourage stigmatization of offenders by encouraging us to view them as “disgraced or disgraceful.” This is in contrast to other democratic trends which discourage stigmatization and guard against shame, typified by the treatment of people with disabilities. Should the law protect people from insults to their dignity or shame them? Do criminals forfeit their right to these human dignities?
Disgust serves as the primary or sole reason to make some acts illegal; many standards for obscenity, for example, depend on the disgust of the average viewer, and similar principles underlie laws against homosexual relations between consenting adults. Disgust of the judge or jury also acts as an aggravating factor, and the disgust of the perpetrator as a mitigating factor, in considering penalties for acts already illegal on other grounds.
The theoretical grounds for these expanded roles for disgust and shame are scant. Shame-based penalties are frequently defended as expressions of shared values. This leaves much room to target people who make the dominant majority uncomfortable. Making acts illegal simply because of the disgust of the majority is justified, mostly but not exclusively by social cosnservatives, as defending society’s integrity against threat. [This explains — but does not justify, of course — the otherwise puzzling assertions of opponents of gay marriage that they are defending the institution against destruction.]
Disgust, although a primitive and evolutionarily conserved emotion which defended our forebears against noxious environmental threats, is nevertheless greatly shaped by social training and cognitive set. Nussbaum states that the essence of disgust is “shrinking from animality and mortality”. It is distinct from the merely dangerous — dangerous things can be tolerated and not abhorred if one stays clear of the danger, and disgusting things remain disgusting even when their danger is removed (Most people would not eat a sterilized cockroach; would you?). If what we are disgusted by serves to define our humanity as distinct from the animal, it has been used historically to define certain groups — Jews, women, foes during wartime — as subhuman.
Nussbaum sees this at work in what she calls “the central focus of disgust in today’s United States”, male loathing of the male homosexual.
So does this give us a legitimate basis to shape laws? Given that disgust is distinct from danger and indignation, should laws really be based on “the symbolic relationship an object bears to our anxieties” rather than protection against substantive harms? or, worse yet, on a confused indiscriminate mixture of these distinct types of aversion?
Shaming, the desire to stigmatize others, arises from our own insecurities, and human insecurity is inevitable, since we are at the mercy of a world which is uncontrollable and contingent.
Feared or threatening dissident groups are often conceived of as “deviant” and seen as destabilizing core moral values, even when the dissidents do not represent a realistic threat. [Again, the debate over gay marriage is readily seen through this lens.] A society based on nonstigmatizing equality is one in which grandiose fictions of perfection and control are given up.
Yet, Nussbaum concludes, even if unattainable it can be held up as a Platonic ideal, and it is worthwhile to “make sure that our laws are the laws of that community and no other.” — Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics in the philosophy department, law school, and divinity school at the University of Chicago (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
So that’s what I’m working on now. And what I’m now thinking — though it certainly needs further work — is basically that the point of there being a phenomenally rich subjective present is that it provides a new domain for selfhood. Gottlob Frege, the great logician of the early 20th century, made the obvious but crucial observation that a first-person subject has to be the subject of something. In which case we can ask, what kind of something is up to doing the job? What kind of thing is of sufficient metaphysical weight to supply the experiential substrate of a self — or, at any rate, a self worth having? And the answer I’d now suggest is: nothing less than phenomenal experience — phenomenal experience with its intrinsic depth and richness, with its qualities of seeming to be more than any physical thing could be.” (The Edge)
“Martin Mubanga, from Neasden, is using a mixture of slang and patois in his letters home to describe the conditions in Camp Delta.” The US is shot in the foot not only by its cultural and linguistic ignorance about the Middle East but of the “unique mixture of London street slang, Cockney, Jamaican patois and rap lyrics” used by a British Guantanamo detainee. (Independent.UK)
“Tips from Bobby Fischer” (Slate)
‘This is a real job. He will have to amuse and provoke — although failure to do so will no longer risk beheading…’: “Nigel Roder beat six rivals by public acclaim on Saturday to become England’s first official jester for more than 350 years, succeeding Muckle John who lost his job when King Charles 1 was beheaded in 1649.” (Yahoo! News)
The eight-day tour begins Oct. 1 in Pennsylvania. It will number up to 40 shows, with several concerts in each of nine key ‘swing states’ taking place at separate venues on the same night.
The acts involved — Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam and others — are united in the common goal of voting President Bush out of office in November.” (Reuters)
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“MoveOn PAC asked their members who voted for Bush in 2000 to talk about why they are voting for Kerry in 2004. Academy award-winning documentary film director Errol Morris interviewed these former Bush voters on camera, and cut seventeen ads that tell their stories. These stories of disaffection are powerful statements about the failed Bush presidency.” You are invited to view and rate the ads for MoveOn; the highest-rated ads will be aired during the Republican convention.