Miley Cyrus and the Wisdom of Repugnance

Making the rounds on Facebook is a photo of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and their children taken while they watched Miley Cyrus perform at the Video Music Awards. Everyone looks aghast. Jaden, the son, is wincing like a man who feels a lamb vindaloo dinner coming back to haunt him.

This much is to be expected. The Pinkett-Smiths homeschool their kids, presumably, among other reasons, in order to insulate them from whatever cultural virus makes people strip down to their underwear, surround themselves with backup dancers in furry animal suits, and simulate masturbation using a giant foam finger while twerking to beat the band (or whatever was backing Cyrus instead of one — I forgot to check).

What I didn’t expect was that my own face would take on the same stricken expression. After all, unlike Jaden and Willow, I went to public high school in New York City back when Times Square was still Times Square, and when Sheep’s Meadow was Koh Samui. As Voltaire might have said, nothing raunchy is alien to me. Unlike Will and Jada, I have no kids to fret over. Yet there I was, not merely annoyed in a detached, eye-rolling way, but horrified in an active, positive, pearl-clutching way.

That right there could be the perfect reaction. “In crucial cases,” writes Leon Kass, “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” Indeed, Kass continues, in our age, where the individual, rational will commands the deference due an 800-lb gorilla, “repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

And how. One of life’s most frustrating — no, make that terrifying — experiences is seeing your disgust threshold ridden over roughshod. I remember an episode of The Love Boat where a guy takes his fiancee on a cruise to meet his widowed father. By the time the ship reaches Puerto Vallarta, the woman and the father fall in love and into bed. The betrayed lover calls his father a dirty old man and catches a slap in the face for his troubles. But by the closing sequence everything more or less sorts itself out. Preparing to descend the gangway, the woman tells Doc or Gopher that she and the old man are now engaged.

“I’m going to be a mother,” she says, and adds, with a giggle and a jerk of the thumb toward her former date, who’s still sulking somewhat, “his.”

But I’ve also seen the view from the other side. Plenty of times I’ve languished under the gentle tyranny of a fussbudget who invoked her ick factor like executive privilege. While a smoker, I bridled at the affected coughing and ostentatious waving from diners halfway across a patio and upwind. Still given to spontaneous and vivid self-expression, I seeth at the sight of a swearing jar. I can’t remember whether it was Groucho Marx who riposted “Well, I never” with “And with a face like that you never will,” but whoever did struck a blow for me.

Around the time I entered the Church, my attitude toward people with a robust pre-rational disgust reflex underwent a sea change. If in the past I found them simply to be a pain in the ass, they’ve become objects of my sneaking admiration. Catholicism just seems like such a good fit for them. Don DeLillo, himself sprinkled and oiled in childhood, explained: “For a Catholic nothing is too important to think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain.” The corollary, which I observe all the time, is that no expression of repugnance is too extravagant where sin’s concerned. If it’s worth not doing, it’s worth spazzing out over.

Though his sojourn in the Church — between Protestantism and Orthodoxy — lasted only 13 years, Rod Dreher sometimes shows a touch of this sensitivity I’ve come to think of as distinctively Catholic. A few months ago, in his American Conservative blog, he comments on essayist Emily Witt’s description of a San Francisco porn shoot in which guests paid top dollar to help degrade a bound, blindfolded woman. Dreher’s comments are insightful — what he objects to especially is that the people involved are “the most free and richest people in the history of humankind.” But everywhere he adds flourishes that seem to come straight from the gut. Reading the body of the piece, he writes, is like “swimming from one island to another through a lagoon of raw sewage.”

There’s a grandeur and a severity in those pronouncements that I simply can’t imitate. I’ll match my principled disdain for bored yuppie scum against anyone’s. I’ve visited a BDSM club — a downmarket one in a South Phoenix warehouse — and went away feeling depressed over what looked to me like the emptiness of it all. But something was missing. Heaving is something that just never occurred to my stomach.

So logically, at least, I should thank Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. By triggering my dormant gag reflex, they helped me take my Catholicism to the next level. But it turns out I have a deep-seated disgust for disgust. A lot’s gone down since I watched that Love Boat episode. For a time, I developed facial tics and became an object of disgust in my own right. Later on, to gain my daily crust of bread, I had to make certain compromises. I’ve dumpster-dived, and sat cheek-by-jowl in phone rooms with toothless ex-cons. Hardiness, or at any rate a high tolerance for the toxic, became a valuable adaptive mechanism. Only by learning to squelch my instinctive revulsion could I get through it all.

Martha Nussbaum, who teaches philosophy at the University of Chicago, denies that Kass’s “wisdom of repugnance” ever rises above the wisdom of fussy doyennes and lame-brained lynch mobs. Reflecting our skittish determination “to be non-animal,” repugnance, or disgust, causes us to project “disgust qualities” — dirtiness, smelliness, brutality, licentiousness — onto others. In that way, we reassure ourselves we’re people after all.

In the interest of reason and in memory of my own survival, I’ll say it: Miley Cyrus is not an animal. Neither is her mother, nor her father (who, though it may be irrational to say, always struck me as an okay guy, in a moron kind of way). The impresarios who put together the VMA might be animals, but I’m not sure who they are — maybe that was them in the teddy bear suits.

Martha Nussbaum has a much higher opinion of anger, which, she says, can contain “a set of reasons that can be used for public argument and persuasion.” Running with that, I’ll offer my final word on all the people behind that sorry spectacle, that sad parody of eroticism: What a bunch of assholes. Is anyone not persuaded?

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