On December 27, the NYTimes (Molly Young) published an article–“How Disgust Explains Everything” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/27/magazine/disgust-science.html. The article looks at Paul Rozin’s early work on disgust as an emotion that helps us know what is safe to eat. The author examines as well the evolution of scholarship to explore disgust’s broader interpersonal and moral functioning.
Not much was said by Young about disgust in intergroup relations so I want to comment a bit on that subject. Disgust frequently operates powerfully and lethally in intergroup relations. Characterizations of the ‘other’ as disgusting have through the centuries been associated with acts of extreme violence—including genocide. Jean-Paul Sartre examined these ideas brilliantly in The Antisemite and the Jew, which he published in 1946, just after the European Holocaust. My recent novel—A Beautiful Land—looks at genocide and inter-group hatred. That hatred takes a number of forms. Disgust is one of its prominent guises. The language of disgusted denigration has been proliferating in our own country. Late in December, Marjorie Taylor Green referred to her political opponents in disgust terms, tweeting that “our foundation is infested with freedom killing termites…[her emphasis].” Green portrays those who don’t share her world view as subhuman. She is using the classic language of genocide. It is chilling to hear this language used in the present tense against political opponents in America.
One point I want to emphasize based on my writing on the subject (Disgust: the gatekeeper emotion; Emotions of Menace and Enchantment) is that disgust isn’t always spontaneously sparked as one group meets up with an outside group and finds its members repellent. Yes, that can occur but a common and malicious dynamic involves the active enlisting of disgust by those with influence, in order to fuel and justify intergroup violence. A termite, rodent, or—in Rwandan terms—a cockroach can be killed without remorse if it enters one’s house. A person may even feel obligated to kill a creature presumed to be dirty or disease-carrying lest their house become unhygienic. Leaders seed disgust—a form of hatred—in order to achieve their political goals. Disgust is easily sowed among people who feel insignificant and are struggling to find a sense of meaning in their life. These individuals often envy others’ material, physical, or psychological assets. They eagerly adopt an attitude of disgust toward those others. If you are disgusting, you are worthless and I am elevated, therefore I may find gratification in tagging you
Disgust is a way to erect a wall between a person and something out there that bothers them. That “something” may undermine self regard, roil a belief system, trouble a person by way of a smell, or shake a belief that the world is safe. Fiction writing, in contrast, can be a way of digesting. If I encounter something in the world that makes no sense to me—or perhaps it makes sense in a macabre or disturbing way–or if I confront an inner reality that is unsettling, fiction writing offers a way to make meaning from complex matters and it provides a means to digest them: to take them in, chew on them, swallow them down, and in some way make them—or one’s new relationship to them—part of oneself. An example from my own life followed from hearing on the news that five men who murdered the courageous South African dissident Steven Biko in prison came forward to a Truth and Reconciliation commission. The reality of these men—their emotions, their decisions, their actions—was disturbing to me. As part of digesting this unsettling evil—which the Commission had unearthed—I started to write about the group of men, not through research but through imagining who they might be. I tried to look closely at them rather than turn away. A literary agent who had represented earlier work of mine rejected this manuscript at lightning speed, opining that I had rendered “five of the most despicable characters” in literature. I wasn’t sure the comment was such an insult to my writing, but clearly the agent was disgusted by the undertaking and wanted no part of it. I remember an older woman—in theory a literary coach—who decades earlier asked me “Why would a young woman want to write about soldiers and their filthy talk?” I was speechless in response. But the fiction writing activity—representing matters these readers felt most comfortable repelling –were efforts to digest, to integrate, to accept as real even though far from attractive.