Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Dignity and Disgust in Misogyny

Martha Nussbaum, a well-known philosopher, has recently written a book entitled Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law. Her main thesis is that while emotions such as anger, fear and compassion have a meaningful role to play in the formation and execution of laws, we should be much more wary of the role that disgust and shame can play in legal decisions. This is because disgust and shame have a different root from other commonly felt emotions, and this root grows from some very nasty soil.

Nussbaum argues that the feeling of disgust, especially, is often provoked not only by things which we might find disgusting (feces, animals, corpses, slimy and smelly objects), but also by groups of people that we have assigned the role of being disgusting. She quotes as examples Hitler's views on Jews and suggests that something similar may be provoke the current argument that homosexual marriages would defile the institution of marriage.

Shame functions somewhat similarly. Shame may be a consequence of wrongful acts, but it may also be used to stigmatize groups of individuals. Both shame and disgust generalize this way because human beings are frail and mortal and will ultimately die and rot and this is simply unbearable for many. By shaming some other groups of people and by expressing disgust at their behavior, especially those behaviors which are slimy, gooey or reminiscent of bodily orifices and wastes we can build some distance between ourselves and our animal nature with its unbreakable links to mortality.

This is an interesting theory. It would explain why societies 'need' a group of outcastes and how this group is created. Nussbaum points out that women have almost always carried some aspects of the disgusting and the shameful by just being born female. This is because women are more closely associated (in some minds at least) to the earthly via the processes of menstruation and giving birth, and because to some men the bodies of women are seen as the depositories of their own bodily wastes, the ever-present reminders of death. If one then combines the repugnance of the female body to such men with the idea of its sexual attractiveness, a base for misogyny may be created.

I am not sure if I find this theory an adequate one, but it is certainly true that many so-called primitive tribes attribute the reason for women's lower social standing to their ability to menstruate. This ability seems to be viewed as both disgusting and frightening at the same time, which supports Nussbaum's arguments.

If she is right, the term 'misogyny' should not be translated as simply 'hatred of women' but also, or perhaps even mostly, as 'disgust of women'. This would also explain the tinge of contempt that most misogynists exhibit and which can be absent in other types of hatred towards a group, and the view sometimes expressed that women should be ashamed of the fact that they are Eve's daughters.

What does this have to do with dignity? Nussbaum uses the term to express the opposite idea from the one that argues for the use of disgust and shame as a basis for laws. If I am found disgusting and shameful my dignity as a person is violated. But I think that the concept of dignity is used slightly differently by others who fear shameful and disgusting things. Though I have no idea whether Cardinal Ratzinger finds women shameful and disgusting, his use of the term in the recent letter about the role of women in the church and in the wider society is revealing:

. The Church, expert in humanity, has a perennial interest in whatever concerns men and women. In recent times, much reflection has been given to the question of the dignity of women and to women's rights and duties in the different areas of civil society and the Church.
(bolds mine)

Likewise, I have read the word 'dignity' on the Taliban website some years ago and also elsewhere in the writings of islamic fundamentalists about women. Women are seen as having 'dignity' when they are not accorded equality, and this term always made me very curious about its actual meaning. What is a dignified woman in the world that Cardinal Ratzinger or a Taliban theologian envisions? How is femaleness dignified? I believe that Nussbaum's theory shows me the correct way to read this term: it's not women's dignity that is being addressed at all, but the dignity of those who find women disgusting, and such dignity is best preserved by enforcing strict separation of the sexes or at least sexual roles. An equal woman would be undignified because she would provoke repugnance and disgust in the observer with conservative views, because she would get too close, would remind him too much of our shared bonds to the material, the wastes, the body that makes them, would remind him too much of his own death.

In this sense dignity is just another word for disgust.

A short introduction to Nussbaum's ideas can be found here.