Shocking, isn’t it? The popular British newspaper The Sun revealed on Friday that a British girl on holiday in Magaluf performed sex acts on 24 men in a night club. ‘Binge-drink Brits’ have sunk to a ‘new low’, according to the front page.
The point of the article was that the reader should be disgusted. Two Guardian columnists, Holly Baxter and Laurie Penny, did indeed express disgust, but at The Sun rather than the girl. Baxter comments:
You'd think that the purveyors of Page 3 – something that has more than once been referred to in serious conversation as ‘a British institution’ – might consider the irony in their own moralising over Brits hitting a ‘new low’
and goes on to point out that The Sun had sent journalists there with the specific aim of finding a story like this.
It's no secret that the Sun is part of the sexism problem rather than the solution. But what I read into its latest ‘investigation’ – or if we call it what it is, its latest medieval public shaming of a young girl – is a stark warning. What it says is: we get to police your sexuality. We choose what is sexually pleasing, what is provocative, where the lines lie and when they are blurred.
Penny uses stronger language:
Hypocrisy oils the belching engine of modern media misogyny. The celebrity and tabloid press, particularly in Britain, has perfected a profitable combination of pornography and priggishness… Look at how disgusting these girls are, the editorials seem to be saying – look harder. Look at the sex acts they're performing while drunk and vulnerable. Look at their parents crying. Look at the blurry cameraphone footage, so shocking that we're featuring it prominently on our website, with the flimsiest smear of pixels positioned to protect the paper from prosecution.
The Guardian journalists approach the story from a feminist angle: in stories of sexual misdemeanour it is always the women, not the men, who come in for condemnation. Penny adds that the story is designed for sexual titillation. I am inclined to agree, but I am concerned here with the role of moral disgust.
In this story it works both ways. The editors of the Sun, no doubt, just want to sell the paper, and know that stories like this sell well because of the readers’ moral disgust. They positively look for stories to generate it. I am not a Sun reader but I guess most of its readers are likely to respond emotionally to a story like this, and interpret their emotion as moral. Meanwhile the Guardian columnists make no secret of what they think of the Sun.
As I am a moral realist I think it is important to distinguish between moral rights and wrongs. However, when we have information about something that is morally wrong, there is a big difference between looking for ways to put it right and simply condemning offenders. I can’t look inside the minds of any one person, but a purely negative moral disgust is a very common phenomenon. This is what concerns me, from an ethical perspective.
It seems that the people feeling moral disgust are seeking to establish a big difference between themselves and the people at whom the disgust is directed. The message is ‘You are completely different from me because I would never do a thing like that’. So when the Sun readers are shocked at the events in Magaluf they reassure themselves that they have higher standards. Ditto for the Guardian readers shocked at what the Sun gets up to. The corollary of moral disgust is moral reassurance about oneself.
Who needs it? Not the people who genuinely want to help put right whatever wrong concerns them; rather, the people who have some need for personal reassurance. Moral disgust is prevalent in prisons: the burglars look down on the murderers, the rapists on the paedophiles. Condemning other people through moral disgust is about one’s own self-image.
Yet there is another class of people, at the other end of the power spectrum, who also seem to need large helpings of moral disgust. The southern USA, where the Republican Party gets most of its support from people incomparably wealthier and more influential than most of us can dream of, generates countless campaigns based on moral disgust at things which the rest of the world finds morally acceptable or positively desirable: bans on gun ownership, taxes spent on medical care and the teaching of evolution in schools, let alone activities like abortion which are also controversial elsewhere. My attention has just been drawn to another of their campaigns, Stop Masturbation Now. Even if they think these things are immoral, why do people who have more money than they can ever need feel such a strong desire to campaign so strongly?
I suspect that it is something to do with distraction. We all have, somewhere in our consciences, a natural desire to help other people. The richest and most powerful people could do a lot of helping. Most choose not to. This leaves a moral hole. They could end up feeling guilty. They cover the hole by convincing themselves that something else is more important. The sense of moral disgust, directed at whoever commits the disapproved act, replaces a more realistic assessment of what good they could do and leaves them feeling morally superior, just like the burglar looking down on the murderer.
Similarly with the British Government, who have done so much to drive the poorest into such desperation that thousands of them depend on food banks while the richest get richer still. They feel the need to do more than just blame the poor for their poverty. They generate, within themselves, a sense of moral disgust at the poor. Like the Sun reader learning about Magaluf, they feel the need to establish their own moral superiority.