10 April 2009


Will Wilkinson on the Ick-factor
John Holbo knows what’s up:
What do the [National Review] editors, and Gallagher, really think? The ick argument, I’ll wager. They want to stop same-sex marriage as a way of sending a message of ‘ick’ to gays, and about gays. But they also don’t want to be labeled homophobes. That is, although saying ‘gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because I believe gay sex is icky’ is actually a less terrible argument than anything they’ve got – hey, it’s not flagrantly internally incoherent, it’s basically honest (I’ll wager), and who doesn’t believe that on some level people steer, morally, by emotional attraction-repulsion drive? – it’s considered embarrassing. (Homophobia: the yuck that dare not speak its name.) [...]

What makes these arguments so weird is the mildness of the underlying opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality – the implicit inclination to be basically tolerant. ‘C’mon, gays, you know you’re ok, and we know you’re ok, and you even know that we know you’re ok, but we don’t like it, so can’t there be some way that we can insist on us being a little better than you? It can be a small thing. Symbolic, but slightly inconvenient for you, so people know it’s also serious?’
I agree that many people's objections to gay marriages amount to "Ewww, icky," but I'll go one further and say that many people's objections to many issues amount to the same.

I've had people — smart people, reasonable people — tell me things like "Of course we should ban smoking in bars; smoking is gross," or more specifically "We should ban smoking in bars so that my hair and clothes don't smell gross after I go out." They say these things not as observations but as if they were actual arguments.

You can wrack up most of the support for bans of fast food or soft drinks or transfats or salt to "Ewwww... fat people!"

Most of the populist current in economic policy boils down to "Ick, profits." (Yeah remember all the way back in summer 2008 when people had time to complain about "windfall profits?" Those were the days.) Could there be an argument more based on superficial aesthetic revulsion than yammering about "McMansions?"

(To be fair I think there's more than a bit of "Ewww, poor people" going on as well, but that's mostly kept under tighter wrap and isn't trotted out as obviously by the stuffed shirts and talking heads as if it were an actual argument.)

PS Tyler Cowen has a testable hypothesis about the ick-factor (or a subset of it) regarding gay marriages. I don't think the correlation would be as strong as he seems to, but it's an interesting thought nonetheless.

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