In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell does two things. First, drawing on his own investigations as a journalist, he describes in painful detail the conditions of the English working class in the mining towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire during the 1930s: the ugliness of the conurbations, the perils of the pits, the squalor of the slums, and the deficient diets, substandard hygiene, and endemic ill health of the people. Then, in the second part of the book, after recounting his own privileged upbringing and the development of his social consciousness and conscience, Orwell sketches in prose a political cartoon of those crusaders for the working class, the chattering class socialists.
In this sweeping diatribe, one of Orwell’s observations hits you like a fart in a lift: to the upper classes the lower classes stink. The point is as significant as it is vulgar. The aetiology of upper class snobbery, Orwell insists, is more nasal than cerebral: the contempt in which the rich hold the poor is rooted not in ideas but in smells. Which is why reason alone will never eliminate the prejudice: it is too visceral to be overcome by mere argument. A more radical re-education – a re-formation of sensibility as well as sense – is required.
Which prompts a thought about human sexuality and the church. Like the pong of the proletariat to the left (or right) wing intellectual, the sharing of bodily fluids by gays evokes for the conservative homophobe a sense of physical disgust. One can deploy hermeneutical strategies ad nauseam to argue the case for the ecclesial inclusion of homosexuals, but on their own they are futile in the face of the sheer nausea induced in many people at the very thought, or rather image, of gay sex.
Of course the situation is not hopeless. If the olfactory snobbery of the rich can be overcome, why not also the somatic revulsion of the homophobic? But the Orwellian point is crucial: the yuk-factor is tenacious and will only finally yield, not to distance learning, but to (perhaps) unwitting social exchanges, and then developing friendships, with gay people themselves.