BlogReAnimator III: "On the ‘appeal to disgust’"

15 11 2006

I haven’t rebirthed an old blog post in several months. This one has been prompted by Daniel (late of Seeking Utopia, currently of Secretly Seeking Utopia) who has seen fit to publish an image of an infant, killed in recent Israeli attacks upon the Gaza Strip, whose brains are falling out of its open skull.

(There. I’ve said it. You know the content of the image (NSFW). You know the context. I’m not going to link to it–so track it down at your own risk.)

Before we proceed . . . I think there is an inherent risk in publishing gruesome or grisly images of the dead with the intent of “shocking” viewers into supporting your cause. Such images have a tendency to rob their subjects of their dignity, and you may find that the outrage generated by the image ends up being directed squarely at you. The litmus test can be summed up in a simple question: does viewing this image advance our knowledge of the situation? In the case of, say, the Abu Ghraib images, I would say: yes. In the case of the image on Seeking Utopia: we know already that innocents are being slaughtered in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so does publishing this image achieve anything beyond robbing the dead infant of her dignity? I think not.

Anyway . . .

Friday, July 28, 2006

I have just come across a wonderful interview with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the topic of the deleterious role played by disgust and shame in public policy and discourse surrounding important social issues. You might even say her argument establishes the appeal to disgust as a logical fallacy–though she is careful to emphasise that emotion can have a legitimate role to play in reasoning:

Some emotions are essential to law and to public principles of justice: anger at wrongdoing, fear for our safety, compassion for the pain of others, all these are good reasons to make laws that protect people in their rights. [. . .]

Disgust, I argue (drawing on recent psychological research), is different. Its cognitive content involves a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal. That desire, of course, is irrational in the sense that we know we will never succeed in fulfilling it; it is also irrational in another and even more pernicious sense. As psychological research shows, people tend to project disgust properties onto groups of people in their own society, who come to figure as surrogates for people’s anxieties about their own animality. By branding members of these groups as disgusting, foul, smelly, slimy, the dominant group is able to distance itself even further from its own animality. [. . .] Unlike anger, disgust does not provide the disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for the purposes of public argument and public persuasion.

Nussbaum cites recent debates around same-sex marriage and gay rights–including, for example, claims that “gay men eat feces and drink raw blood”–as examples of public discourse that regularly invoke disgust to persuade people to adopt a particular point of view. Videos of abortions produced for public consumption by anti-abortion groups also spring to mind. There is a case to be made, perhaps, that images of dead, wounded or disfigured women and children–which might be used to bolster both pro- and anti-war arguments–also constitutes an appeal to disgust.

What do you think? Is the appeal to disgust a logical fallacy, and should it be avoided?

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