Indignation and revulsion are funny emotions; peculiar funny, not funny “ha ha”. When we something that is culturally taboo we are often filled with disgust, yet something that will throw people of one cultural group into a tizzy won’t raise an eyebrow in another.
We feel revulsion at taboo acts so viscerally that we are tempted to believe there is a natural cause to our emotion, that all normal people would be repulsed, but that is not so.
For example, suppose you take a perfect child, fill them with red ochre, and then twist them in a fiber mat until their bones crush, their eyes bulge, and their innards squirt. In our culture, there are many agencies who would get involved in such an event, and newspapers would buzz and congress would consider passing a law against feeding a perfect child red ochre and squeezing their guts out. And yet, at other times in the Americas the practice was not only acceptable, it was an honor to take part in such a squishy ritual.
How easy it is to think that those were primitive people, backwards and animalistic, and we, thanks to science, know it’s wrong to wring a kid. But, that is not so.
Evolution does not work that way, along “moral” values; values, history has shown us, are really founded in necessity. The tautological explanation of every culture places them near their own pinnacle; our narratives are no different from a thousand other moral philosophies. Such things are not rooted in bone or written in the stars, they are situational and subject to the ever-present realities of the social world, force and persuasion.
Force, and persuasion, shape what is so.
Indeed, our own collective cultural disgust changes over time, even a relatively short time. In living memory it was morally repugnant for people of mixed races to marry or fornicate; the image of a big sweaty black man laboring away over a slim, pale blond gal was enough to cause some to murder, a righteous murder, a moral act, the correction of the balance of the universe.
Likewise, there was a time when two men riding the pony, or two women having “lunch at the Y” would generate moral outrage to the point of murder, and still do in a few, but largely the society has disenfranchised disgust on such things.
Even the features of our enemies, which allow us righteous hatred of them, are not fixed. In the Cold War days we prided ourselves on how different we were from the Soviets. What shocked us was how they separated families and commonly took children to be raised by experts, and how children were encouraged to inform on their parents, and how the state intruded into the lives of people and curtailed their rights in the area of religion, free speech, and firearms ownership.
At that time, those were features we abhorred. In the new America, these are things we are becoming used to, learning to accept. It’s for our good, and the good of the whole community. But, it’s not communist though, it’s democratic, so it’s not wrong, we think. But we would think so.
People act in a context of cultural evaluations. Mr. and Mrs. Roman Frontporch approved of every atrocity of the coliseum; God Fearing Americans generally supported driving the Native Americans to extinction; decent upper class people knew it was right to keep the Nigra in his place. The atrocities of our day are broadly supported by John and Jane Doe, and the little Does, so we have people in prison, and rehab, and foster care, and Guantanamo Bay.
Given the flexibility of our moral outrage, maybe we should stop using it as a guide for social change.