The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Rick Mor­ton

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.

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