On Disgust
July 19, 2019 6:33 AM   Subscribe

"Disgust left unexamined serves to reinforce prejudices, but to sit with disgust, to hold it close and try to feel the contours of its reason for being, is to open one's self up to radical new experiences of empathy." On Disgust: How Revulsion Shapes Popular Art, an essay by Gretchen Felker-Martin
posted by Greg Nog (22 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by Greg Nog at 6:37 AM on July 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Disgust left unexamined serves to reinforce prejudices, but to sit with disgust, to hold it close and try to feel the contours of its reason for being, is to open one's self up to radical new experiences of empathy.

Indeed.
posted by pilot pirx at 7:19 AM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Disgust left unexamined serves to reinforce prejudices, but to sit with disgust, to hold it close and try to feel the contours of its reason for being, is to open one's self up to radical new experiences of empathy.

Sorta, but disgust doesn't hold to a single standard, even as it does have some strong social biases built in. Disgust is exactly what I felt when I saw the footage of the Trump rally where people were chanting "Send her back."

The very lack of empathy and human decency on exhibit created a visceral sense of revulsion at those on screen, not least of all Trump himself, but that's nothing new, just given continual reinforcement. Suggesting that embracing that disgust will modify it towards empathy for those lacking the same doesn't work as it is already processed with an understanding of shared values or expectations in human behavior that is absent in the exhibited embrace of ignorance and hate.

The relationship of disgust to morality is more complicated than the article allows, framing it as it does around a particularly obnoxious and common cultural standard. The question of whether all disgust is therefore equally subject to criticism and/or modification through attention is something that needs a bit deeper thought as one can both argue that there is useful disgust, as I think my example above holds, and that gained empathy towards some people/things/behaviors is no benefit when mass media so commonly shows things that would be better left as objectionable rather than accepted.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:08 AM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


when I saw the footage of the Trump rally

I would posit that making one's way to empathy from the initial described feeling of righteous disgust would in fact be radical, and not impossible. But to the larger point, yes, perhaps not useful.
posted by pilot pirx at 8:52 AM on July 19, 2019


Let's assume empathy, then. How do you use it to bring millions of people back from the brink of violent hate, goaded by trillions of dollars of money spent to froth them up, before they conspire to destroy you and everything you love?

I think we'd all like some answers to that, but I do not believe history has shown us any that have worked.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:08 AM on July 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


I instantly become suspicious when people use"disgust" outside the context of rot, disease, or decay because conservatives tend to be especially sensitive to disgust. Typically they'll follow up with how their disgust justifies their bigotry. I don't know if it's possible to teach empathy to those for whom its absence seems to be a fundamental aspect of their personalities. "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people."
posted by Bodechack at 9:13 AM on July 19, 2019 [14 favorites]


I know the quoted part is easily applicable to the current US political climate, but I'd really like to talk about what the article is trying to focus on: fatness. I am fat. In fact, to most people, I'm probably very fat. I am not ashamed of this fact. I wear clothes that show my fat arms, fat thighs, back fat. I eat in public. I go to beaches. I'd really like to say that I don't care about being fat, but I don't have the privilege of not constantly thinking about my body. My fatness is always made apparent to me. I went to a show with a (also fat) friend on Wednesday. On the greyhound ride up, the aisle was narrow and even walking sideways I still found myself bumping into things. When we grabbed dinner at this small dive, we had to sit on the same side of the table to fit comfortably. the merch booth didn't have a hoodie in my size. I was the only fat girl in the room, until the opening act came on stage.

People are disgusted by my existence. There's a weird phenomenon in that when you're large, society demands you shrink yourself in other ways. My childhood is a laundry list of stunted occasions and opportunities. Of course society then uses the idea of the underachieving fat person to double down and justify themselves in a recursive spiral of suffocation.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:40 AM on July 19, 2019 [23 favorites]


It's been...interesting...watching the rise of disgust-based purity politics among some younger professed progressives. Like they think calling something "gross" is a sufficient explanation for moral condemnation. These kids are so amazingly coddled that they don't even realize that this is the exact rhetorical move deployed against, e.g., LGBT people and content within their own lifespans.
posted by praemunire at 9:41 AM on July 19, 2019 [10 favorites]


Yes, can we try to keep US politics out of every other thread including this one? It is very alienating for us non American people.

Thanks for posting this. As someone else with a disgusting body it has given me lots to think about.
posted by kanata at 9:54 AM on July 19, 2019 [9 favorites]


Let's assume empathy, then. How do you use it to bring millions of people back from the brink of violent hate, goaded by trillions of dollars of money spent to froth them up, before they conspire to destroy you and everything you love?

one at a time?

As a mob, I'm with Kurtz at the end of Heart of Darkness -- exterminate the brutes. At least, that's my gut response. But where does that get us in a world overflowing with weapons of mass destruction? The last time America had a civil war, it broke all the records, delivered horrors that the nation is still trying to reconcile. So ... how to neutralize without resorting to violence? The only thing I can think of is to stop seeing the mob, start seeing its constituent pieces -- the individuals who've no doubt all got their own stories, their own reasons.

Or as a wiser man than me put it a while back -- when you're in conflict with someone and convinced you're right but you're looking for a non-violent way to resolve that conflict, start by getting curious. Ask questions.
posted by philip-random at 10:09 AM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


These comments have made me think of the old saw "empathize without sympathizing." Wherein you can be disgusted at the same time as working your way into the felt state of those you are disgusted by, especially if the root of your disgust is colored by "morality." I think there is a certain amount of semantic confusion around the use of the word empathy wherein it seems to often be a stand in for acceptance or legitimization whereas I understand it to be much more narrowly defined as the ability to vicariously experience the feelings of others without regard to the appropriateness, rationality, kindness or cruelness etc. of those feelings. Essentially to understand those feelings and the person containing them.

This article is notionally about the advantage of sitting with your feelings of disgust as opposed to fleeing from them and whatever is causing them. Specifically it is about feelings of disgust with regard to the superficial appearance of people and the moral judgement that rationalizes those feelings. For argument it depends upon the unfairness and inhumanity of those things in this case. I am not sure if her argument would hold up if it were about disgust with something less controversial though I am sure you could make a case for that. I personally feel like doubt and introspection about belief and certainty might make the world work better and I think you could throw disgust, it's validity and effects in there as well.
posted by Pembquist at 10:23 AM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


For my part, the point wasn't about politics but the variability of a disgust reaction, making generalizing about the reaction difficult. On the other side of familiarity breeding empathy is normalization and comfort with things that can be argued as deserving no such ease of response.

There's no question that disgust is wielded against those visibly outside accepted norms of the status quo and thus acts against those without power, but it isn't limited to alone that as it also can arise when faced with things like abuse of power or signals of socially destructive values.

Asking for empathy is fine if that request would be heeded by all, but we know it won't work that way, leaving the power imbalance intact by the powerful abusing the empathy of others for gain or sick thrills. That isn't to say trying to gain the empathy of others is any way wrong as a goal, but it won't be followed by those uninterested in others, who because of that deserve little empathy of their own.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:27 AM on July 19, 2019


Sorry to be respondy but gusottertrout when you say "deserve little empathy of their own" I do not understand you. I can understand if you mean tolerance, kindness, forgiveness or some such but I really do not understand the concept of "deserving" empathy. The argument for "sitting with disgust" is not based on an apriori inkling that one's disgust is wrong it is the obverse and such contemplation of it does not need nor should result in that disgust's abrogation as a rule.
posted by Pembquist at 11:40 AM on July 19, 2019


It's been...interesting...watching the rise of disgust-based purity politics among some younger professed progressives. Like they think calling something "gross" is a sufficient explanation for moral condemnation. These kids are so amazingly coddled that they don't even realize that this is the exact rhetorical move deployed against, e.g., LGBT people and content within their own lifespans.

I kind of get it in so far as marginalized people have been gaslit into doubting their own instincts for do long but, yeah, _everyone_ feels like their disgust is real and righteous.
posted by Reyturner at 11:57 AM on July 19, 2019


I've been thinking about the adage "don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes." I don't believe it truly manages to get across the message of empathy. Other people's shoes, even if they're the same size, will have worn down differently, rub or be tight in other places. And that's if they fit enough to put on! Perhaps it would more effectively communicate the intended message if the saying asked us to walk a mile in the other person's feet.

People do often try to walk in other people's shoes, and it fuels their bigotry. There's nothing that physically harms, say, a slender bigot when they see a person of heft. There's nothing physically hurtful happening to a cis bigot when they see queers kissing.

So why do they get frothy when it's no skin off of their back? I hypothesize that they actually do imaginatively insert themselves in the other's place -- what they would feel like being large, what they would feel if they were kissed by a gender or orientation to which they were not attracted. They feel disgust. The bigot doesn't realize that if they were really walking in the other peoples' shoes, they'd have those peoples' feet to wear them with. Not that it isn't often be painful to be large in a fat-phobic world or queer in a trans- and homo- phobic world. But whatever the bigot is feeling is intrinsic to their own bigoted selves. The person they're so afraid of i one that they are afraid of being. They forget that other people can have a very different inner experience.

If a bigot is terrified of being fat themselves, and would feel terrible self-loathing if they were larger (spoiler alert, they already are self-loathing), they imagine that the person they're hating feels the same self loathing that they themselves would feel. "But that large person is saying to love yourself?" they ask. "They feel disgusted inside (just like I would)," the bigot imagines, "but they're flaunting it? They're celebrating it! Promoting it!"

The bigot tries to mentally distance themselves from their own self loathing by loathing the people they're afraid of being. They would hate to be kissed by a queer (setting aside the fact that unwanted kissing is sexual assault just for the analogy), and the bigot thinks: "Queers must feel that inner disgust about queer kissing that I feel, but they say being gay is OK!!? They like feeling disgusting??!"

Bigots don't just do this othering in the privacy of their own head, they make sure people around them would never confuse them as being body positive people, with the trans and gay folks. They strenuously work to prevent any confusion as to whether or not they're phobic. This is all despite the fact that what they hate and fear does not affect them in any way whatsoever (except their own disordered, phobic thinking projects it).

I feel that I might not be expressing this well.

There was a Calvin and Hobbs strip where they were watching a housefly zoom around in loops and swirls and other acrobatic maneuvers. Hobbs asks "don't they get sick doing that?" Calvin replies: "Maybe they like getting sick! Maybe they like barfing, ha ha ha!" My take is that bigots make a similar error that Calvin does. Only Calvin is a seven year old, joking around. Bigots are definitely not joking.
posted by wires at 1:53 PM on July 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sorta, but disgust doesn't hold to a single standard, even as it does have some strong social biases built in. Disgust is exactly what I felt when I saw the footage of the Trump rally where people were chanting "Send her back."

The article seems to be assuming that everything we call "disgust" is an example of the same feeling or emotion. I don't think that's necessarily the case. I don't think we have to assume that what you feel when you see moral evil is "exactly" what some people feel when they look at someone they find physically unattractive.
posted by straight at 4:31 PM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Sorry to be respondy but gusottertrout when you say "deserve little empathy of their own" I do not understand you. I can understand if you mean tolerance, kindness, forgiveness or some such but I really do not understand the concept of "deserving" empathy.

No, it's fine. I get what you and some of the others are saying, I just think there is a problem with asymmetry involved that can be self-defeating in a sense for trying to adhere to the logic of the argument or ideal of empathy without enough note of the actuality of it. Much like the idea of "free speech", empathy as a universal allows those who will abuse it by denial of an exchange to gain for relying on others to grant them what they do not grant in return.

There is no great need to try to understand or put oneself in the place of someone who does not show any empathy for others. They are, essentially, breaking the contract of a shared society by placing self interest as their premium concern. Whatever their "reasons" for doing so might be, their threat is to the community as a whole by their disinterest in the values of shared community and the empathy that requires. The desire to see the world through their eyes doesn't add to the social good as they deny that good exists save for the select few they deem worthy of their attentions. They are owed only the laws and rules that we hold for all people, not deeper understanding or even lessened disgust for their behavior.

The "problem" that comes of this is a logical/semantic one of how you can stand for empathy and yet also deny it to some and how does one make sense of an argument that, in its logical construction, has it both ways? It really can't be defended in that kind of absolute sense, but then that is why the asymmetry of power works so well in reality. What we grant to those with power is not given back to us in return as that is at the heart of why there's a struggle in the first place. If empathy worked as readily as that, then we'd all be a lot better off than we are. As an ideal we want to believe in empathy's radical capacity to change behavior but experience shows that ideal hasn't been taken up by all and is gamed by those who feel no shame or connection to those they see as beneath them.

Disgust for abuse without regard for the why of it can be more powerful than seeking to know why the abusers felt they needed to act as they did, while at the same time still trying to communicate how the world is experienced through the eyes of others to those willing to listen as that is the basis of a healthy society. The sad thing is that the tendency is to seek to better understand the worldview of those who oppose society than those who seek to preserve and better it. Endless articles and discussions about why someone did some bad thing, digging into their pasts to find reason, motivation and understanding for something indefensible that has no profound deep meaning, which adds to the fascination over these figures and celebration of their values which ultimately can work against the shared social welfare even more.

There is also the risk that seeking to understand those who lack empathy can erode empathy by making the trade off the person made seem reasonable or attractive for what they gained. Empathy isn't so much valued for its own sake, but as a tool to facilitate some greater social good. Empathy that doesn't provide social betterment is essentially pointless outside of dealing with fiction, so much so that it might even be the case that any failure of deeper social awareness may not be seen as "counting" as empathy at all. That makes empathy a primarily utilitarian good, one in the service of social justice. The importance of empathy then is in how it serves that greater good, with the risk being in extending an understanding towards those who abuse social justice in making that abuse more acceptable by being "understood".
posted by gusottertrout at 2:55 AM on July 20, 2019


Empathy is an imaginative act, and as such it can be corrupted by fictions, in framing, analogy and direction. The extension of empathy is one directional, it is something an individual can provide another but does not come back to them. It is easier to imagine reasons that align with one's own perspective and desires and extend those to individuals who may not have the same base values in their considerations. We tend to project upwards, to aspire, from our own position, making projection from us to those of greater social importance easier than to those of lesser importance.

It can give excuse to those in power by providing an understanding that makes their positions seem deceptively reasonable for our placing ourselves in their shoes, as if our position and theirs were the same, while doing nothing to provoke better understanding of our own lives and needs to them, if they even care. There seems to be an unstated notion that empathy extended remains rooted to the belief in social justice when there is little evidence that holds true and doesn't also lend itself to taking on the positions of those who abuse power instead by dint of desire for their association. If you don't put the primary focus on the root need of social justice, empathy can be a limited path away from the greater good just as much as a way towards it, depending on the limitations of those extending it.

This is enabled by the fictions we indulge in, the hero stories, the genre films that so frequently show moral good as aligned with physical fitness and moral weakness with physical imperfection. Hollywood has long used a kind of physiognomic shorthand for linking who a person is to what they look like and the value they hold. Aesthetic disgust is often converted to moral disgust by that kind of linkage.

Disgust is self interested, in a sense, it can signal the awareness of socially acceptable states by recognition of deviance from them. Fatness, for example, is often linked to greed, sloth, selfishness, or weakness of moral character in dramas, while in comedies its use can be in signalling the discrepancy between character desire and character state. In popular movies, heroes tend to be embodied by people who exhibit exceptional physical fitness and thus link look to action to moral value while physical imperfection is linked to secondary characters and moral imperfection. That fictional association creates a framing that can bleed over into how people frame the reality just like any number of other fictions we imagine can provide excuse or reason for behavior that may not have any true basis beyond their empathetic invention and the desire to give good reason to something that may have none.

This hasn't been identical in all national cinemas though. There are different flavors to the aesthetic values promoted and the moral associations they hope to engender. Fascism relied on an even narrower ideal of physical perfection while communism was more embracing of age and physical imperfections in its casts, not the stars so much, but in the smaller parts that were given special emphasis in close up to show how untied all were under communism and how physical fitness alone didn't provide more benefit from the state.

Even in US movies the early years were far more accepting of a wider range of "types" than current films, partly that comes from the types of movies that were made, genre films so popular today having a much more limited palette of acceptable body types compared to the kinds of dramas made much of the last century. Audiences have come to prefer movies that indulge in fantasy, which can be as much a constraint on who is seen as in what is shown in ways that potentially carry over in to the real world in how people frame their understanding of others, how they analogize their empathy.

Both empathy and disgust then have their positive and negative uses when viewed from a standpoint that holds social welfare as its measure. Disgust wielded in use of aligning oneself to power and excluding others and disgust with that which harms the social fabric. The former is unfortunately common and carries deep negative effects, but the benefits of the latter can't be ignored as disgust has an effect empathy doesn't as it is understood on the receiving end and can help facilitate change by weight of its disapproval even in those one doesn't know. Which is obviously also why it's so terrible to have it wielded against those who've done nothing to deserve such a reaction. Empathy extended to those outside the boundaries of influence and power can better the society but extended towards those who abuse power it can weaken society by misguided association through imaginative failure.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:55 AM on July 20, 2019


Empathy extended to those outside the boundaries of influence and power can better the society but extended towards those who abuse power it can weaken society by misguided association through imaginative failure.
Makes me have a knee jerk reaction of "sure, if you're an idiot." I don't mean that in a fighty way, not that you are an idiot but that one would have to be an idiot to allow ones felt understanding of say a bully's feelings of pleasure at bullying to turn into some kind of Stockholm syndrome.

How do you know when your disgust or empathy is good or bad? How will you know if your disgust will discourage "bad" people unless you can empathize with them?

Maybe instead of empathize we should use the sales/negotiation word "read" as in "he is a difficult person to read." Read is uncontaminated by any sense that a person has to be worthy of being read. Reading sounds like something you do TO people where empathy has become this sickly thing that is synonymous with taking up the emotional burden of damaged people or some such drivel, a sign of weakness to the right and left.
posted by Pembquist at 11:00 AM on July 20, 2019


How do you know when your disgust or empathy is good or bad?

This is such a good question, and one I am going to have to sit with. I feel strong disgust responses sometimes, often thanks to this great big internet of ours. I will always be able to give a cogent argument as to why I am disgusted: because this thing is degrading, it is selfish, it is bad for everyone involved, including those of us who just saw it. But is that argument why I am disgusted? Or is it just something my cerebrum ginned up in the half-second after the fact so that I look wise instead of prudish?
posted by Countess Elena at 1:45 PM on July 20, 2019


But is that argument why I am disgusted? Or is it just something my cerebrum ginned up in the half-second after the fact so that I look wise instead of prudish?

But that's true of any emotion. The initial physiological feeling you have is only the beginning of it. The context and your thoughts and values determine what the emotion is and what it means.

"Disgust" at someone who you find unattractive and "disgust" at cruelty are maybe the same emotion in the sense that the queasiness in your stomach when you ride a roller-coaster is the same emotion as the queasiness you feel when someone betrays you.
posted by straight at 7:56 AM on July 22, 2019


And yes, I'm trying to imply that I think it's possible to process the feelings you have when you see someone shockingly different from your culturally-determined ideas of "beauty" or "normality" as positive feelings rather than negative ones.
posted by straight at 8:02 AM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


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