Darling, Are You Disgusted by Me?

Disgust is often based upon prejudices.

Posted Dec 18, 2010

"I do not like broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli." —George Bush

"The first kiss I had was the most disgusting thing in my life. The girl injected about a pound of saliva into my mouth, and when I walked away, I had to spit it all out." —Leonardo DiCaprio

Disgust is a strong sense of aversion to something that we perceive as capable of contaminating us: either in physical terms, referring to bodily infection, or in more symbolic terms, referring to violating the boundaries of the self. In light of its intense negativity, disgust cannot be part of love.

The original function of disgust has to do with actual, physical contamination and in particular with food contamination; hence, eating and taste are at the core of disgust. In the course of its development in human settings, it has become a reaction not only to possible food contamination but to all kinds of contamination, including mental and moral contamination.

The idea of contamination, as associated with disgust, is quite sophisticated in that it requires the separation of appearance and reality, as well as an implicit knowledge of the history of the contact. Fear of contamination is enhanced by similarity or, more precisely, the belief that if things are superficially similar, then they resemble each other in a deeper sense as well.

Accordingly, things that look like something disgusting, but are known not to be, are often treated as disgusting. Thus, in a survey conducted among North American college students, many respondents were reluctant to consume imitation dog feces that they knew were made from chocolate fudge.

The symbolic type of disgust, which many people experience, is illustrated in disgust at certain types of taboo sexual behavior, such as pornography, incest, or pedophilia—and even, among certain sectors of the population, at sexual infidelity, homosexuality, or sexual experimentation. We find here an extension of human disgust from protection against bodily disease to protection against perceived symbolic contamination of the self.

Deviance from the narrow class of "normal" heterosexuality is seen by some people as unnatural, inhuman, and therefore disgusting. A person can feel disgusted that her spouse has betrayed her because she perceives his behavior as violating the boundaries of their union. Sexual disgust is the most basic kind of disgust, and it usually is a response to what is perceived as a moral offense. Other examples that evoke moral disgust are Nazis, people who steal from beggars, and lawyers who chase ambulances in order to acquire new clients.

It should be noted that the generation of disgust is often based upon prejudices that can be rebutted. This is more evident in the case of symbolic disgust. Although disgust has an important evolutionary value concerning, for example, contaminated food, it can be harmful in the case of symbolic disgust, and by overcoming many types of it, social tolerance might be increased. The response of disgust is prominent in racist and other discriminatory attitudes.

Not all immoral behavior evokes disgust-only behavior that is considered to be clearly abnormal. Thus, criminal acts with "normal" human motivations, such as robbing banks, are seen as immoral but not disgusting. Sexual disgust is the most typical example of this group since the idea of actual contamination is most vivid here. Accordingly, the nonsexual examples evoke a less intense disgust and are associated to a lesser degree with other types of disgust; these examples are more dependent on symbolic presentation and cultural norms.

When the symbolic type of disgust is concerned with immoral deeds, such as rape, child abuse, torture, genocide, sadism, and masochism, the disgust that is generated shares many of the attributes of hate, since it also involves a profoundly negative attitude. In these cases, the object is not merely repulsive, but dangerous as well. It does not merely sicken us as in disgust, but is quite harmful to our well-being, as is the case in hate.

It should be noticed that whereas romantic love can be associated with hate (see here), disgust cannot be associated with love. The negativity in disgust is so strong that it prevents any possibility of attraction, which is an essential part of romantic love.

Ian Miller suggests that if disgust protects us from contamination, then the relaxation or suspension of the rules of disgust in relation to a specific person indicates the intimacy we feel with this person. The more we are ready to relax or suspend some of these rules, the more intimate we are with this person. Changing diapers and caring for a sick family member are examples of such intimacy. In overcoming the disgust inherent in contaminating substances, we express our unconditional love and care for our intimates.

Similarly, allowing another person to see us in a disgusting, shameful, or humiliating situation is an indication that we consider this person to be our intimate. Miller notes that disgust barriers can be thrown to the winds for reasons other than intimacy; ignoring some barriers might indicate contemptuous indifference toward the other, rather than intimate care. Miller further distinguishes between overcoming disgusting situations because of intimacy and overcoming them because of familiarity. The second case is typical of doctors and nurses and is not a sign of a privileged intimacy; on the contrary, it can breed contempt.

Our negative evaluation of other people when we are angry or experiencing hate or fear stems from the fact that in some sense these people are dangerous to us: They may hurt us even if we remain quite passive; hence, we wish to punish them (as in anger), eliminate them (as in hate), or run away from them (as in fear). In contrast, something may disgust us even if it poses no danger to us. Accordingly, escape mechanisms for regulating the emotions, such as avoiding looking at or thinking about the object, are much more useful in disgust than in hate, anger, or fear.

In light of its great intensity and the obvious facial expressions and bodily behavior associated with it, disgust clearly communicates our attitude of aversion. Such clear communication is extremely important as the stakes are undoubtedly high: The risk of contamination poses a serious danger to our existence. Because of the clarity of the message and the gravity of the situation, disgust is easily infectious: When we see someone who is disgusted, we quite often experience disgust as well.

In human society, disgust seems to acquire another, somewhat surprising function: It reminds us of our basic equality. Disgust focuses our attention on those base bodily functions, such as earwax, phlegm, vomit, and excrement, which we must all equally excrete. Bodily functions are a stark reminder that at the baseline, we are all equally disgusting.

The way to overcome such disgust is not to consider ourselves or other people superior, but to seek intimacy so that social gaps are reduced to the point where we can consider the other to belong to an almost similar self. Contempt is an attempt to emphasize some measures of inequality, and by doing so, it helps to maintain the existence of different reference and social groups.

Some of the activities that currently evoke disgust were not considered disgusting in other periods or in other societies. For example, from the prohibitions mentioned in books of etiquette dating from the 15th century, it can be concluded that people regularly engaged in activities that we now consider disgusting. Readers were entreated not to blow their noses with the same hand that they used to hold the meat, not to greet a person while urinating, and not to return tasted morsels to the general dish.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that you read somewhere that suspension of disgust is an expression of intimacy, but nevertheless, I really wish you would close the door to the toilet while you are there. Our intimacy might be better expressed if you would sometimes wash the dishes."

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions, and Die Logik der Gefühle: Kritik der emotionalen Intelligenz