Once a month, when my brother and I were children, we would set off with our father for a “killer”: shooting a fat bullock in the home paddock and carving it up for meat. While Dad would handle the carcass, slicing out the cuts of meat and throwing them on a bed of mulga branches in the back of the ute, my brother and I would get stuck in around the edges with our pocket knives.
When you remove the bladder of a cow it looks like a blue-grey balloon filled with urine. Kicking it around becomes a game, sort of like soccer but with higher stakes. In bladder ball, the brother who was doused first was the loser.
One might find the idea disgusting — which would involve poking the part of the brain called the anterior insula, which regulates disgust, an emotion tied to physiology.
It is a useful bit of hardware and helps us avoid eating rotten fruit and making contact with those who are visibly sick. The insula takes readings from the gut and other organs in producing these, ahem, visceral emotions. In other words, it goes straight to the experts — and that’s not you but what is inside you.
Over time, Homo sapiens developed a code of ethics for being human and an attendant set of morals. Evolution is something of a handyman and, needing a place to oversee this addition, repurposed the ancient insula to do just that. Conceptual ideas we find morally hideous are shoe-horned through this little bit of brain buried deep within the folds of the cortex, the same bit that makes us retch when we see putrid fish on the shoreline and decide not to eat it.
I am reminded of this circuitry throughout the same-sex marriage debate, which has held this country in its embrace almost full time since 2010. I find myself thinking: why can’t opponents just be honest about the source of their contempt?
They are disgusted by the idea of gay people, perhaps on moral grounds, but either way this concept they find repugnant is shunted through the insula like rotting apples would be and explained away by spurious, bolted-on arguments.
Tony Abbott has warned people aghast at “political correctness” to vote “no” in the marriage survey if they want it stopped. Could he make the same argument if he truthfully said instead: I am disgusted by the idea of homosexuality? Others have conflated the idea of marriage with children, despite being fully aware gay couples already have children in Australia and many married couples do not.
Granting marriage wouldn’t sanction this ar- rangement, it would protect children. This argument, like the others, radiates from disgust but few have the courage to admit it, because making policy based only on disgust is bad news. One must have the pretence of intellectual rigour when driven by the gut.
I have spent much of my life witnessing this instinctual revulsion, most commonly by barking “poofter” or “faggot” when one speaks, or walks, in a way that is an affront to the insula of the beholder. You become an expert at noticing it even before someone speaks.
This idea is important because opponents have marked those who wish to see marriage equality as emotional, while only their side can lay claim to reason and rationality. The most vehement opponents of same-sex marriage, however, are in thrall to an animalistic emotion that predates our species proper.
Identifying it accurately would not make the debate any less hurtful, but it would remove some of the melodrama. Pretending the arguments cause no pain when they are built on disgust and levelled at human beings is just a way for others to grease the wheels of their instincts.
Excise the consequence of harm from words and you may wield disgust how you see fit. That’s this debate’s great scheme. How does one oppose anything that has not been named?
This years-long discussion has been a daily hammer blow to confidence, on top of lives already so lacking in it. I remember watching the cricket with Dad when 1 was about five. He spotted Paul Reiffel on the field with a single earring and remarked: “He’s a f..king faggot.”
I still think about that.