If you need to be convinced that the feeling of disgust is a peculiarly powerful and primitive emotion, try this experiment. Get a clean glass. Spit in it. Now drink it.
Even if you can drink the spit, you know what I’m talking about. You know there’s nothing wrong with the spit. You swallow your own spit all the time; but, by expelling it from your body, you make it an object of disgust, and disgust is not only powerful and primitive, it’s also unreasonable.
Disgust is also a useful emotion, as they all are. It patrols the boundaries of your body. It’s your defense from imbibing something that is generally bad for you. Disgust keeps you from taking in spoiled food, stagnant water, and other things contaminated by feces, urine, or bacteria. Disgust is not foolproof. There are plenty of bad things that can still get past your nose; but, for the most part, it has served you well and kept you alive.
Babies are not born with the sense of disgust, it’s an acquired emotion. Babies are well known as being people who will put anything in their mouths; but, by the end of the first year, they’ll start to wrinkle their noses at things and, by the time they become toddlers, they may become particularly fussy and squeamish eaters. Perhaps this brief window of disgust-free eating gives their parents the opportunity to introduce the foods of their culture.
Once the emotion of disgust sets it, the experience of disgust becomes particularly vivid. When you’ve been disgusted by something, you don’t want to be disgusted by it again. You begin to erect fences around your disgust so that the very sight, the slightest smell, or even the briefest mention of it is enough to arouse your disgust. Not only are you disgusted by the offending materials, themselves, but also by the things associated with it. This is how toilets, for instance, get imbued with all the disgust that properly belongs to shit and piss, even though they may be nothing more than clean, unoffending porcelain. Indeed, even the words, shit and piss, themselves, take on the disgustingness belonging to the objects they refer to. You can even go so far as to say that the people associated with the objects connected to offending materials get marked by disgust. A garbage man, for example, becomes implicated, because he handles garbage cans; a nurse, because she empties bedpans; and a janitor, because he cleans toilets. In traditional India, you have a whole caste of people who handle disgusting objects consigned to being untouchables.
By the way, there’s an interesting theory arising from the psychodynamic literature, where many crazy, insightful theories originate, that misogyny, that irrational loathing many men have towards women and many women have towards themselves, comes from the fact that women are the receptors of semen. Semen, you see, comes out of the body and, even though it’s the stuff of life, once it exits the body, it can be regarded as a disgusting fluid. To a misogynist, the people who receive any disgusting material become disgusting, as well. This theory may also explain how homophobia originates and why male homosexuals, who are also the receptors of semen, get targeted with more homophobia than female homosexuals.
You can see how far we can take this. Disgust is such a powerful emotion that it travels well and arrives at a new place just as potent as when it left. People have used this property of disgust to make it do other work. The emotion originates from the need to protect the boundaries of the body from infection; but, with a little bit of retooling, it can patrol morals, as well. I don’t think it’s an accident that, when parents, religious leaders, and teachers indoctrinate children into morality, they use the language of disgust to make them regard evil as it were a spiritual pollutant. Raw disgust becomes refined by its importation into morality and is often called by different names: contempt, disdain, or superiority. It puts on priestly garb and busies itself with ritual purity, Levitical preoccupations, and separating the wheat from the tares and the sheep from the goats.
You don’t have to listen to anyone talk about right and wrong for long before you hear lots of words and images imported from the experience of disgust. Some behavior is said to be disgusting, even though no contaminates are ever introduced to the body. Good behavior is clean living. Innocence is pure. Evil is repulsive. When your husband comes home drunk for the hundredth time, you turn up your nose even before he pukes all over the living room carpet. If you find out that your wife has been lying to you, you may well be disgusted with her, but it’s one step removed from the type of disgust you feel when you eat her cooking. Contempt is a metaphorical disgust that, from early indoctrination and frequent repetition seems very real; but, like any other metaphor, breaks down at some point.
Once disgust is imported into morality, it’s easy for jingoistic leaders to use the language of disgust for whomever they single out for their hate. For example, Hitler, and many others, called Jews disgusting because of their vaunted control over the economy, making it an easy matter to deny them full human rights. History is full of examples of people having their stomachs turned by the mere mention of other, perfectly harmless, ethnic groups.
Morality shaped by disgust not only facilitates the division of people into those said to be clean and unclean; but it also unites sinners with their sins. When you find a hair in your salad, you reject the whole salad. The entire dish becomes tainted. A perfectly fine piece of lettuce, at the far edge of the dish from the offending strand may turn your stomach. Indeed, the whole restaurant may fall under censure and you may never want to eat there again. Similarly, when you catch your wife in a lie, if you listen to disgust, she becomes a liar; any truth she tells may be questioned. If disgust has its way, you may never be able to trust her again.
Disgust is the driving force behind many an over-reaction. It provides a script that, when used to protect you from bad food, works reasonably well, but when made to apply to morality, often throws the baby out with the disgusting bathwater.
It’s disgust that gets in the way when you try to love the sinner, while hating the sin. Disgust, and the related emotion of contempt, join the two. Disgust makes you say that the person is the problem and forget that the problem is the problem.
Is there anything you can do to overcome disgust? Of course there is, people do it all the time. There’s even a word for it. The word is love.
Disgust is the border agent of the emotions, protecting you from invasion. Love is an invasion. It’s probably no accident that the basic symbol of love is the kiss. The willingness to swap spit is a sure sign that disgust, and the need to patrol the boundaries of the body, has been suspended. Kissing paves the way for the sharing of other body fluids, but it doesn’t stop there; it’s also a symbol of trust, an agreement to regard the other person, his actions, as well as his body, as a kind of extension of yourself.
No trip down the road to reconciliation is complete until you confront disgust, honor it for its services, and dismiss it. You don’t need its services any longer; not for this issue you don’t. Disgust can still rise up when you find a hair in your food, but it has no place in a loving relationship. It’s not the right tool for the task at hand. Disgust is incompatible with reconciliation.