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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

Posted April 20, 2009 | 02:41 PM (EST)

Susan Boyle, Gay Marriage, and Not Trusting Your Gut


By now, both the story of Susan Boyle -- the unlikely record-holder for most YouTube views during a single week -- and the moral(s) of that story are well-known to all of us who follow sites such as this one. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on the television show Britain's Got Talent can still knock our socks off (here's the link in case you've missed it), and, yes, we have now been reminded that you can't judge a book by its cover, that even not-so-attractive people over forty may still be wonderful, et cetera.

Trouble is, we always judge a book by its cover. That's what covers are for. As Malcolm Gladwell reminded us all in Blink, and how teams of neurologists and psychologists have shown, we human beings excel at snap judgments, and at decisions so intuitive we don't even know we've made them. This talent has, over the aeons, ensured our survival in a perilous world. If our caveman ancestors had to think about whether that hairy beast over there is friend or foe, they'd get eaten.

So, while the appreciation of the "deeper meaning" of the Susan Boyle phenomenon is certainly laudable, it also flies in the face of how most of us live our lives, moment to moment, day by day. We know, from yet more studies, that attractive people are paid more than ugly ones, that tall men are regarded with more respect than short ones. We chide ourselves on being superficial, but we're superficial all the time, in ways which even ad men have yet to exploit. We're hard-wired to be superficial.

This is not, however, the end of the story -- it's the beginning of it. Because the significance of the Susan Boyle phenomenon is deeper and broader than "don't judge a book by its cover" -- it's don't trust your judgment at all. Or rather, see it for what it is: an impression which is sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful, but nothing more. Just because you feel it in your gut doesn't make it true. It just feels a certain way, and that may mean nothing at all.

Now, this is strange advice -- not to trust your gut -- which flies in the face of everyone from business writers like Jack Welch (Straight from the Gut) to pop songs which urge us to "Listen to Your Heart." But, conveniently, it's also what separates us from animals, and what religion used to call the soul.

The point, you see, is that while all animals have gut reactions, only humans (and perhaps a few others, in more limited ways) are able to reason beyond them. Our guts will always be primitive: lots of men will always want the biggest club to beat their enemies with, and the prettiest woman (or girl) to have sex with. Many women want the biggest man. This is nature.

But it's not the sum total of humanity. We've so drunk the Kool Aid of conservative consumerism that many of us now believe that if you feel it in your gut, it must be true, or valuable, or right. The most deservedly infamous example of this is when George W. Bush looked Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye and decided he could trust the former KGB chief. The subsequent years saw the re-arming of Russia, and the worst degeneration in U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War. I have no doubt that Bush was certain of his gut feeling. But as John Kerry told him, you can be certain and be wrong.

Let me also give a personal example. I was raised to believe that being gay was about the worst thing in the world. Before I even knew what a faggot was, I knew I didn't want to be one, because it was what you called kids you wanted to degrade -- "Gay Jay" was the one name that I'd try to beat someone up over. Eventually, I learned what these words meant, and, years later, that they did in fact apply to me.

It has taken years, however, to get over the self-hatred, internalized homophobia, and regret about who I am -- years of love, activism, therapy, and, above all, meeting hundreds of people who have shown the stereotypes I learned as a child to be wrong. Even today, I will occasionally feel a twinge of self-hatred, or regret about who I am. These feelings don't come often, but when they do, I sure feel them in my gut.

But what is this gut, anyway? Does it really exist? Of course not -- it's just a word we use to describe a certain feeling. In my case, self-hatred feels "deep down" not because it's more right, but because it's older. It's just been there longer, that's all. In fact, this whole mythology we have, that some feelings are "deep down" and others are "on the surface," is made up. Some feelings feel deeper, others shallower. But there's no connection between those feelings and reality.

I was raised, after all, in a culture that's not only homophobic but also sexist and racist -- and age-ist and size-ist in ways that inevitably color my first impressions of someone like Susan Boyle. I've learned, however, not to dignify the "gut reactions" of bigotry with any kind of value. This is how moral progress takes place: we learn to stop trusting the gut reactions based on falsehoods we've been taught.

Does my gut-mind continue to judge books by their ethnic and gendered covers? Of course. Do I listen? Hopefully not.

In past decades, our country kept racist laws on the books because that's what traditional values dictated, and that's how we white people felt in our guts. Today, as the title of this piece suggests, I think we're reacting similarly toward same-sex marriage: condemned by some (though not all) traditional values, it strikes many people as wrong, even disgusting, on a gut level. And that is the end of the discussion.

But guts should never be the end of a moral conversation. If Western religion has taught us anything, it is that there is a moral value in transcending our baser instincts -- and that includes the snap judgments all of us make all the time. At first, and maybe for a while, adjustments to our gut reactions may not "feel right." But they are the defining marks of our humanity.

This is what connects a pop-culture moment such as Susan Boyle's "I Dreamed a Dream" with the moral grandeur of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream." We may be hard-wired to judge people in an instant, and to feel those judgments deep down in our guts. But only once we rise above them can we allow such dreams to soar.