Huckabee, gay people, and the “ick factor”

He’s getting a bad rap. Too bad, when there are so many good ones to hit him with.m

No, Mike Huckabee didn’t say he was against gay marriage because gay sex was “icky.”

I’m on record as thinking Mike Huckabee is the most dangerous politician now active on the Republican side – like Reagan, someone with the personality and temperament to make nutty ideas seem reasonable, but with far nuttier ideas than even Reagan had – so I’m glad to see my friends keeping up the oppo on him. Poking fun at Sarah Palin is just sport; going after Huckabee is serious business.

But serious business ought to be done seriously. Dangerous or not, Huckabee is entitled not to have his words twisted out of shape and used against him. And it does not seem to me that the good folks at ThinkProgress are treating Huckabee with the fair-mindedness that ought to characterize liberalism.

As a retreaded fundamentalist preacher, Huckabee has decided to make opposition to improving the legal status of gays and lesbians – – sorry, “the defense of traditional marriage” – a centerpiece of his politics. He does so with a mix of Scriptural quotations and simple-minded biology.

In a New Yorker profile by Ariel Levy, which captures both parts of Huckabee’s scariness, the reporter asks him about gay rights, and Huckabee replies:

I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes. Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.

Now it seems clear to me that Huckabee is distancing himself from the “ick factor,” which (as Huckabee notes in his response to the flap over this quote) is actually Martha Nussbaum’s phrase, part of an argument that the policy arguments against gay rights are merely disgust dressed up as analysis. Nussbaum’s characterization clearly applies to much anti-gay “thinking,” but there’s no evidence from the article that it applies to Huckabee’s. He’s saying that apart from any “ick factor,” he thinks there are biological and theological reasons to disapprove of gay marriage.

(Huckabee later adds the argument about child-rearing, confusing the question of whether two-parent families are better than single-parent families with the question of the gender mix in a two-parent family, but admits he’s not interested in research on the topic. Why should he be, if God has already decided the question?)

So I think Huckabee is getting a bad rap. Too bad, when there are so many good ones to hit him with. In a target-rich environment, there’s no need to blow up decoys.

Footnote Just to be clear, I have respect for Huckabee’s talents without having any respect for what he stands for; if – God forbid! – one of the current crop of Republicans has to wind up as President some day, I’d far rather have it be Romney.

I regard Huckabee as very intelligent, albeit ill-educated, and somewhat saner on a purely personal and interpersonal level than the average Presidential candidate, without the sheer lust to hurt people that characterizes so much of his party. But like Reagan’s, Huckabee’s niceness has its limits. He moves from denying that the Palestinians constitute an historical nationality – a plausible enough position – to the astounding conclusion that they aren’t entitled to self-government where they live. And his comments about not finding Nancy Pelosi and Helen Thomas sexually desirable – albeit prompted by the reporter’s joke about an affair between Pelosi and Huckabee – fall somewhat short of the civility he professes.

But whether Huckabee is a nice guy or not, he’s entitled not to have what he said mis-stated.

Update Huckabee apparently misattributed; the phrase “ick factor” was used by a journalist on a gay-activist site to describe Nussbaum’s theory; Nussbaum used the less catchy phrase “projective disgust.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

24 thoughts on “Huckabee, gay people, and the “ick factor””

  1. I disagree – Huckabee brings up the 'ick factor', pretends to distance from it, then brings up the 'biologically, doesn't work the same'. That's ick-factor with a sheen of politeness, and I don't buy it.

  2. More context might help: what is Nussbaum's phrase? Had they been discussing Nussbaum?

    In any case, I took "the ick factor" just to mean the graphic contemplation of sex. Nonetheless, Huck's a bigot.

  3. As to the "ick factor": Who, when talking with a neighbor thinks about what they do in the bedroom? Yet it seems a lot of folks of the chrisian-right persuassion expend a lot of mental energy doing just that. Ick!

  4. To read Huckabee as distancing himself from the ick factor is plausible, but certainly not "clear." The better reading is that, "We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is … ," means that the ick factor is one relevant factor, but the more important fact is … ."

  5. If he was trying to make a biological or theological argument, then it's not at all clear to me why he'd need to bring up the "ick factor" at all. What is also not clear to me is why, of all things you could possibly write about, you felt it was worth your time to post this defense of Huckabee. Not because our ideological opponents don't deserve to be defended against false charges, but because even if this is the misunderstanding you claim, it's a misunderstanding that makes no material difference to Huckabee's argument against equality. I don't know what else you think he might mean by "biologically compatible," but this kind of allusion to "compatibility" is always meant to evoke images of what parts do and don't fit where for the purpose of sexual intercourse. He may not be arguing for the "ick factor," but he is surely trying to put in in play in the minds of his audience.

  6. Yep, once he mentions it, he's using it. He's a smart person, so he knows this, and counts on people like Kleiman who prize tolerance and openmindedness being willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. (The biological argument is of course crap, as millions of infertile het couples and queer parents can testify.)

  7. Wait… when discussing male-female sex is there an "ick" factor as well? For his sake I hope not. Unless he's merely imaging himself in the act with another man.

    But to think that gay sex is somehow "icky" while heterosexual sex is not, seems the purest definition of bigotry. I'm sure the taboo against miscegenation would have been described in terms of an "ick" factor as well.

  8. I'll refrain from mentioning Mark Kleiman's odd infatuation with feral yaks, as there are plenty of other things about which I disagree with him. So let it never be said that Mark Kleiman's odd infatuation with feral yaks is something I've used against him.

    See, I've completely distanced myself from those who bring up Mark Kleiman's odd infatuation with feral yaks in order to put him down. So I'm off the hook, right?

  9. I agree with MobiusKlein et al. If a Republican politician were to say of Obama, “We can get into the citizenship issue, but the fact is that his economic policies will ruin this country”, he would be tipping his hat to the birthers while still preserving some plausible deniability. Huckabee’s “ick factor” remark looks like it’s in the same vein.

  10. Yep, I have to agree that you've been snookered, Mark.

    If your intent is to distance yourself from an idea, then you don't bring it up unless it's to denounce it.

    I appreciate the intent. I hate it when the left adopts the right's sleazy tactics. I just voted against a guy in a local race who would have been an attractive candidate for me for many reasons, including policy ones, but for the fact that when he campaigns it's consistently right out of Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich–primarily misrepresenting the facts to manufacture outrage. Given that there was another good candidate, I didn't even consider voting for him.

    Huckabee deserves whatever he gets for that remark. I've no doubt there are more references to the "ick factor" to come from him.

  11. "Ick factor" is a pejorative label, like "racism." It represents a liberal's attempt to dismiss all opposition to gay rights as reflecting mere unreasoning disgust. It's never a term used by opponents of gay rights to discuss their own position. In the interview – and, so far as I know, elsewhere – Huckabee does not express, or try to stir up, disgust at gay sex. There's enough bad stuff in Huckabee's record that we have no need to manufacture synthetic reasons to denounce him.

    To my mind, this isn't "about" Huckabee. It's about the willingness of liberals to enforce on one another the standards of discourse we would like to enforce on our opponents.

  12. The "Ick factor" argument is real and live in Christian circles, like it or not. It's an undercurrent, and the reference to "Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship." is the more genteel way to frame it.

    In college, I had a Evangelical Christian roommate. Nice guy except for his taste in Christian Rock. But he justified his anti-gay views using stereo equipment plugs as an analogy, rather than dealing with gay people as humans. A lot has changed in 20 years, but the "Ick" argument still lingers.

  13. Gays rights advocates may have coined the "ick" term, but they didn't create the "ick" argument. Back in the anti-gay rights heyday here, the number two guy leading that charge used to start his political talks by listing what he imagined to be common gay male sex acts.

    Mark is right, though, that the comment in question may be the least of many Huckabee has made on the subject:

    “Let’s face it. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen our country go from ‘Leave it to Beaver’ to ‘Beavis and Butt-head,’ from Barney Fife to Barney Frank.” Mike Huckabee

    I can personally see preferring just about anything, including 'Leave it to Beaver', over 'Beavis and Butthead" but preferring Barney Fife to Barney Frank…

  14. The rhetorical figure of mentioning something by pretending not to mention it is paraleipsis (or paralipsis or many other fancy Greek and Latin names, including preterition as Andy says below). It's an essential tool for smear artists, and should generally be a warning flag for dishonesty or worse (cf. Sharron Angle on political violence).

    Wouldn't it though make a good campus T-shirt: "Mike Huckabee is a paralipsist".

  15. The phenomenon many here are talking about has a technical name: preterition, the rhetorical trope of bringing something up by not bringing it up. (There's a Cicero speech where he says "I pass by the ruins of your fortune," i.e. "I won't make an issue of the fact that you're bankrupt.") Was Huckabee using preterition? As someone who's been on the radio and has been quoted in newspapers, I submit that the only honest answer is "we don't know." A few words, not the main idea of a sentence, spoken orally to a reporter, may or may not have significance. In person we'd be able to tell by tone and volume, but not in print. I think the proper conclusion is agnosticism; I agree that Mark's interpretation is plausible but not clear.

    More substantively, it seems to me that there's nothing inherently evil in finding a sexual practice icky. What another person finds icky isn't any more of my business than what another person finds sexy. The ick factor only becomes an issue when those who feel it don't have the good sense to keep quiet about their personal tastes but instead use them as a basis for social stigma or political regulation–as they so often do. Thomas Nagel has the right idea, I think, in saying that it's in some sense natural for a heterosexual man to find the idea of gay male sex distasteful, but that that's because he's imagining *himself* having sex with another man. But he should be imagining what it's like for a man *who is in fact attracted to men* to have sex with a man. Perhaps we all have a moral responsibility to make this transition, but I think it's a lot to ask —and an unnecessary ask if people will merely give those different from themselves full rights.

    Finally, I wonder whether there's a coherent "biological" argument that isn't a sublimated version of the ick feeling. As the Prop 8 trial revealed, it's not at all easy to explain why gay people shouldn't be able to marry when sterile heterosexuals can. One of those couples' sexual relationship is as much about pleasure and companionship, not biological reproduction, as the other.

  16. Nah. Andy: "..that that’s because he’s imagining *himself* having sex with another man. But he should be imagining what it’s like for a man *who is in fact attracted to men* to have sex with a man." If he (A) imagines another man having sex with an octopus, it's merely funny or sad to him, unless A is also a cephalodophile. The disgust has to come from A's recognition that he does actually quite fancy the idea of having sex with another man, and finds this aspect of his own nature shocking.

  17. "I wonder whether there’s a coherent “biological” argument that isn’t a sublimated version of the ick feeling."

    I can answer that: no. Speaking as a behavioral biologist, Huckabee's appeal to "biological compatibility" in the quote above is meaningless in the context of biology as a scientific discipline. Speaking as a refugee from a Southern Baptist upbringing, I can assure you that it only has meaning as code meant to call up images of reproductive organs fitting or not fitting together in the way "god intended," a code that allows Huckabee to fall back on an argument from reproductive imperative (an argument that fails in well-known ways to any supporter of marriage equality). As a gay reader of this blog, I am disappointed in Mark's tin ear on this. The "ick factor" is not a pejorative label; it's a fact of life – the only relevance it has to marriage equality is that it's a poor basis for making decisions about people's status under the law. What Huckabee is doing here, on the other hand, is arguing against marriage equality on the basis of mere unreasoning disgust while trying to appear reasonable. While you're enforcing the standards of discourse, Mark, you're letting Huckabee off the hook for corrupting that discourse with dog whistle politics. You can't hear it because it's not meant for you, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

    You've really got it wrong on this one, and it's painful to watch you stick to your guns.

  18. James: maybe this is just a difference among people. When I see or hear about people doing something, I very often, and involuntarily, imagine myself in the place of one of the people doing it. When people do embarrassing things in movies and we're supposed to laugh, I feel embarrassed; when I see a picture of a guy at a fish shop, I can't help but wonder what fish I might buy if I were there. If I heard about someone having sex with an octopus, I would start to wonder how on earth I would go about doing that if I were next to an octopus and wanted to–and would rapidly realize how little I wanted to. (And I'm not a cephalodophile.) This tendency may not be universally shared. Adam Smith's *Theory of Moral Sentiments* is based on repeated assumptions about people putting themselves in the place of others. But many people find that book incomprehensible, and it may be because they're more like you, who doesn't tend to get personally involved in impersonal narrations (and you're lucky!) than like Thomas Nagel and me.

    So: amend my claim to say "for some people, who spontaneously imagine themselves in the place of others, an initial 'ick' may be natural" until they realize that they should change their sense of what the other person's situation in fact is (the kind of amendment Smith insists on, by the way). For others not. But in any case, it's a ridiculous basis for policy, just as my imagined fish-marketing would be a ridiculous basis for health regulations.

  19. I should have written cephalopodophile. For the record, I'm not one either. I think… Andy: I'm a bit insulted you think that I don't try to put myself in others' shoes, as the Golden Rule requires and Adam Smith rightly insists is to some extent natural and instinctive. Where we differ is on the consequences of this imagining. Optimists like Smith think it will make us nicer and more sympathetic to the other. I fear it may also trigger revulsion, especially if we learn something unpleasant and unacceptable about ourselves in the process: a cognitive dissonance resolved by a violent rejection.

    A "ridiculous basis for policy"? How about paedophilia? It's a gut taboo of this type, justified by reason.

  20. James: I didn't say that you didn't *try* to put yourself in others' shoes when appropriate (not a requirement of the Golden Rule, by the way, which only requires reciprocity in treatment, not thought), nor that you weren't good at doing that. I said that you might be more able than some to avoid doing so *involuntarily* when it's not a good idea–as here. If indeed that's a difference between us, you're better off than I am in these moral situations, not worse. I completely agree with you that too much imagining at the wrong time may trigger revulsion. That's why I said that you were lucky, that corrections on the Smith/Nagel model are desirable if one can't avoid negative identification; and that such identification, if it involuntarily occurs, is a poor basis for policy.

    All this may be a complicated way of saying that toleration–leaving well enough alone when it comes to behaviors one doesn't understand–is underrated, and "celebrating diversity" overrated.

    But I continue to find it baffling that you think that one will only experience "ick" if identification reveals something unwelcome about oneself. That may be true of "violent rejection," as you say (the Great Santini and all that). But the mere feeling that an act would be against one's taste seems to me to reflect a straightforward difference in taste, not a secret similarity. Kenneth Dover, whose sympathetic study of ancient Greek homosexuality is famous, has been quoted (by Nussbaum) as saying something to the effect that he would find having a man's penis in his anus distasteful–but neither more nor less distasteful than letting a big lump of beef tallow dissolve in his mouth. Because he could see that his disgust reflected only his taste, not the moral order of the world, he was able to be not only a non-homophobe but an early champion of gay rights.

    As for pedophilia, if laws against it were motivated by a gut taboo, a feeling of disgust at the pedophile's desires, I would indeed find that a ridiculous basis for policy. (Like Nagel, I find most laws against pornography morally offensive for this reason.) The only good reason for banning pedophilia is because it has *victims* whose suffering we care about. (That's another piece of Smith, the Lectures on Jurisprudence–or so I'm told; I haven't read those, except in small pieces.)

  21. Regardless of ick factors, why are we allowing pseudo-claims about biology to determine ethics and laws?

    The first point is that if we are going to talk biology, let's bring in real biologists. Do we see homosexuality in other animals? Yes. In other mammals? Yes. In other primates? Yes. In humans in previous societies? Yes. So exactly what is the nature of this "biological" argument?

    The second point is that, since when is what is seen "biologically" and "in nature" relevant to how we should live our lives. We see plenty of infanticide and rape in nature. Plenty of animals dying from a variety of ailments that we can cure in humans. Plenty of death from localized famine and drought. Do Huckabee and his apologists believe that because these things are natural they should define our behavior and society?

    I mean, seriously, what does "two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same" MEAN? Does he mean literally that different parts are stuck into different orifices? I don't see how you can take that reading as NOT being part of "ick factor". So let's assume that's not what he means, in which case we are left asking what "relationship biology" means? Something to do with divorce rates or happiness in the relationship? Something to do with the lifespans of the partners in the relationship?

  22. Readers may have seen Martha Nussbaum's comment by now. I suspect that when Huckabee's comments were criticized, he did a quick ex post Google search; at the top of the list was an article from EDGE Boston that attributed the term to Nussbaum. I'd like to think that's the source for his pseudoscholarly & point-missing little potted etymology.

    Even if his use of the term isn't bit of apophasis, it goes a step too far to say he's "distancing himself" from the experience of disgust, or even arguments based on it. To say "we can get into" something at the very least doesn't prejudge whether it's warranted. (The fact that we use arguments of wide appeal to persuade diverse audiences doesn't mean our own hearts aren't moved by parochial concerns.) It's enough to say that "he’s saying that apart from any 'ick factor,' he thinks there are biological and theological reasons to disapprove of gay marriage."

  23. "The first point is that if we are going to talk biology, let’s bring in real biologists. Do we see homosexuality in other animals? Yes. In other mammals? Yes. In other primates? Yes. In humans in previous societies? Yes. So exactly what is the nature of this “biological” argument? "

    Do we see animals with three legs? With one? Do we see two headed snakes? Do we see sickle cell anemia and cholera? Biology doesn't get you anywhere in an argument about morality without a moral theory, and "If it occasionally occurs, it must be ok." is a really stupid moral theory. Possibly even more stupid than "If it doesn't usually happen, it's not ok."

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