Saturday, December 10, 2016

Polemical disgust

There is a guy named Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who has been nicknamed "Dr. Disgust."

Rozin has built a kind of career around something called 'disgust psychology.' He is a social psychologist, after all. But he became interested in something Darwin described about a research journey to Tierra del Fuego in the nineteenth century. Darwin was dining as he spoke with an indigenous person from the area:

In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.

Rozin studied some of Darwin's other notes on facial and bodily expressions across ethnic boundaries in response to objects of disgust, in which Darwin noted that while the range of expressions were the same (like lip curling and shielding and so forth), the objects that elicited the disgust reactions were quite diverse. After Darwin, no one paid these observations much attention (they seemed more interested in constructing racial 'anthropologies'); but Rozin picked this up again and stayed with it until he became arguably the world's foremost authority on 'disgust psychology.'

One thought experiment that can head us down the road on disgust psychology is called the "Dixie cup exercise." If you have a group or a class, you can try it out. Give everyone a little Dixie cup - those waxy throwaway paper cups the size of a hypertrophied shot glass - and ask all your participants to simply spit a bit of saliva into it. So far so good. Then ask then to drink it.

You are right now experiencing a disgust reaction.

And your reaction is not directly caused by the imaginary saliva. You still have saliva in your mouth, and you swallow it all day long without a second thought. And if you spit in the cup and give it to a six-month old infant, she will chug it right down (She will also play in her own feces and try to gnaw on the sole of your running shoe.)

What converts the saliva in your mouth into something different after it is in the cup is a boundary. Once that substance crosses from the inside of the body's boundary to the outside, it becomes unclean.

So what does all this tell us, apart from the fact that saliva is not in itself the provoking agent for the disgust response? It tells us that we learn disgust. Darwin's conversation partner found the cold meat nasty; and Darwin found the brown-man 'cooties' problematic. In other words, disgust is learned. Culturally.

If you ever want to have an interesting cross-cultural experience, head down to the Peruvian countryside, and ask some of the campesinos if you might share a bit of masato. It's homemade alcohol, and being hospitable folks, if it is harvest time when they have enough of it ready, they will likely offer you some. It is made with yucca. But the fermentation process begins with the village women all hanging out together around a big vat, where they chew the yucca until it's good and mushy, then spit it into the vat. The saliva interacts with the starch and converts it into sugars, which then ferment and do that fermentation thing that makes booze.

You won't find masato on the shelves of your local ABC store. We norteƱos are kind of funny about spit. . . unless we are being sexual with someone, whereupon we gladly engage in some nice, sloppy tongue-joisting - ever more urgently, in fact, as we build up toward la petite mort.

And what does this tell us? That boundaries alone are not determinative. On the one hand, you don't want that other's saliva - ever after a protracted period of transformation via fermentation - in your mouth, but on the other hand, when you feel that erotic attraction, you find yourself urgently trying to efface the boundary altogether.

In his book Unclean, Richard Beck - a Christian psychologist whose book introduced me to disgust psychology and who I quoted in my own book on 'boundaries,' Borderline - calls disgust a 'boundary psychology.' His own work incorporates the late Mary Douglas's canonical anthropological treatise, Purity and Danger, which explores how concepts of purity and pollution serve to define the boundaries of communities as well as consolidate and police cultural identities. It is no surprise that Beck integrates these boundary studies, as well as disgust psychology, into his work as a Christian, because the most provocative actions of Jesus of Nazareth, which would eventually lead to his execution, were blatant and serial violations of purity codes.

What Beck says, that sheds light on how we are repulsed by the making of masato and yet more than willing to swap spit with a sexual partner, is  that love and disgust exist reciprocally in relation to boundaries, which serve as a kind of policed military perimeter: “As the self gets symbolically extended so does . . . the primal psychology that monitors the boundary of the body. . . . The boundary of the body is extended to include the other.” French kissing.

"Love," says Beck, "is on the inside of the symbolic self."

This is a key observation, because it shows how one's in-group - however defined - is defined, and it gives us a location, instance by instance, for the intentional employment of disgust as a policing mechanism. This is what I'll call 'polemical disgust.'

I recently saw a YouTube video put out by militant vegans, in which they gathered a 'focus group' (who were actually unwitting participants in polemical disgust), and gave them all a taste of milk. Each of the victims sampled and made remarks, "not too bad," "kind of sweetish," and so on. They then informed them all as a group that they'd been drinking dog's milk. Of course, the unwitting participants all made scrunchy-faces and got big-eyed. I have no clue if it was real; they may have fed those folks baby formula for all I know, but the point of the video was still to be hammered home. After telling their milk-tasters they were drinking dog milk, and getting their disgust juices flowing (same for the video viewers), they then went on to claim that all cow's milk had pus in it. "You know," said one of our milk-hating video designers, "the same stuff that comes out of boils." She had to drive that home with disgust (dog milk), more disgust (pus), and more disgust (boils). For the record, this is nonsense. I drink commercial and raw milk, and have been doing so for decades, and by some miracle I am still alive; but commercial milk as well as raw milk that is properly harvested is perfectly clean, and commercial milk is pasteurized. What they are very loosely calling 'pus' are somatic cells that are part and parcel of any milk (including the milk you got from your mom if you were breastfed).

They had an agenda, and they mobilized disgust to further that agenda. Now, this may not seem a big deal, and it is not a common example, but polemical disgust is actually quite common. And it is extremely effective. Once I tell you your white milk has white pus in it, you are apt to start imagining pus in the milk so vividly that you never want another sip for the rest of your life.

Beck’s focus on disgust psychology aims at overcoming wrongs that pose as rights because they are felt as right based on learned feelings of disgust in politics or personal relationships or just common sense: feeling that something is wrong (or right) does not necessarily make it so. And disgust, more than any other emotion, can make something feel powerfully wrong.

The danger of refusing to reflect upon the psychological dynamics of . . . belief is that what we feel to be self-evidently true, for psychological reasons, might be, upon inspection, highly questionable, intellectually or morally. Too often, as we all know, the “feeling of rightness” trumps sober reflection and moral discernment. (Beck, p. 2)

Beck is asking us to review our personal convictions with this fallacy in mind, beginning with a self-evaluation of what elicits the disgust reaction. But this actually applies to us all. Disgust is accompanied by magical thinking - ideas that are not consistent with logical or rational analysis. One of Beck’s concerns “when disgust regulates moral, social, or religious experience, irrational thinking is unwittingly imported into the life of the church.” We also unwittingly import it, churched or un-churched, into our social lives and even our politics.

Polemical disgust is what demagogues use to convert people into monstrosities, then scapegoats. Nazis relentlessly portrayed Jews as rats and roaches. Women are routinely portrayed by misogynistic men as disgusting, especially as it relates to 'animal-reminder' disgust, which is also 'mortality-reminder' disgust, that is, because women's bodies are supposedly not as firmly bounded as men's: women menstruate, lactate, make babies (by taking something 'foreign' [semen] into their bodies). The white person who has sex with the black one (especially a [receptive] white woman with a black man) is symbolically contaminated. There were instances during segregation after an African American swam in a public pool that whites demanded the entire pool be drained and scrubbed, then refilled, before they would allow their children to return.

This is why polemical disgust should be recognized, named, and condemned regardless of who aims it at whom. It is not okay to employ it against Donald Trump, because as long as it is effective against Donald Trump or cow's milk or yuppie hipsters or evangelicals or rednecks (I am kind of a redneck), it is also effective at immigrants, women, people of color, LGBT folk, Muslims, Jews, fat folks, and 'that family' that has been ostracized in your town.


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  2. I feel more than disgust or contempt for Drumpf. I am terrified of a misogynistic, malignant sociopath such as Drumpf having the power of the presidency. That overrides the disgust that I feel towards his predilection for raping and abusing very young prostituted teen girls among other outrages.