#6. A Summary of ‘That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion’ by Rachel Herz

‘That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion’ by Rachel Herz (W.W. Norton, 01/23/12)

Table of Contents

i. Introduction/Synopsis

1. The Disgustingness of (Other People’s) Food

2. Disgust Universals and the Evolution of Disgust

3. Disgust Sensitivity as a Personality Trait

4. Disgust and Cultural Relativism

5. The Attraction of the Disgusting

6. Disgust and Arousal

7. The Extremes of Disgust

8. Moral Disgust and Cultural Relativism

9. Universals of Moral Disgust

10. Explaining Moral Disgust & Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

At first glance it may seem like our sense of disgust is a fairly marginal and narrow aspect of our everyday experience (not to mention being a little icky), and therefore, not the most appetizing candidate for deep exploration. Nevertheless, in her new book ‘That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion’, psychologist Rachel Herz demonstrates that there are in fact several aspects of disgust that make it unique among the basic human emotions (which include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust), and worthy of closer attention.

To begin with, it is clear that what disgusts us is culturally relative to a degree. For instance, while many of us enjoy the foods of other cultures (no matter what culture we are from), there are normally at least some dishes that people of other cultures eat with relish that we would not want to come anywhere near—and even the most culinarily adventurous among you have probably come across at least a few culturally specific comestibles that at least initially made you think twice.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that disgust is clearly culturally relative to a degree, there are also aspects of disgust that are universal to all human beings. To begin with, it is universal among human beings to find diseased and festering bodies disgusting, and bodily fluids such as urine, feces, vomit, mucous, phlegm, pus and blood also tend to be universally repulsive (the one notable exception here are tears—which universally elicit empathy rather than disgust).

Paradoxically, no matter what we find disgusting, there is occasionally (or at least in some of us) the inclination to expose ourselves and even indulge in what we find repulsive; such as when we slow our cars and crane our necks to catch a glimpse of any possible carnage in an automobile accident, or when we go out to enjoy a gory movie, or one that features more than its fair share of potty homour. Beyond these examples, the phenomenon of indulging in what is disgusting is taken to a whole other level with sado-masochistic sex and pornography (and particularly the variety that [bafflingly] features the presence and playful use of excrement). Even further at the extreme in this regard are serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer who indulge in acts that most of us are likely to think of as representing the very epitome of what is disgusting (such as mutilating a dead body, and then having sex with and eating it).

Interestingly, even aside from the physically disgusting things that Dahmer did, we are likely to think of his confining and killing his victims itself as being a disgusting act. That is, aside from experiencing physical disgust, it is also universal for humans to think of certain acts as being morally disgusting. And again, while different cultures may differ to some degree in what they consider to be morally disgusting, there are also some practices that are universal in inspiring disgust, such as incest.

How and why is it that some things are universal in inspiring disgust among us, while others are dependent on the culture in which we happened to be raised? Why is that sometimes we are drawn to what we find disgusting (and why is it that some people are more drawn to this than others)? How and why is it that disgust has both a physical and a moral dimension? These are just some of the questions that Herz explores in her new book. In answering these questions, Herz not only gives us a new understanding of our sense of disgust, but of our human nature as well.

What follows is a full executive summary of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz.

1. The Disgustingness of (Other People’s) Food

The fact that our sense of disgust is influenced by our culture is most apparent when it comes to food; and most apparent to each of us personally when we think of the dishes of other cultures that they eat with gusto, but that we find repulsive. In my case, I once thought of haggis (a dish of sheep’s innards, encased in sheep’s gut, that is relished by the Scottish) as being at the height of disgusting cuisine. But Herz’ book has since enlightened me there is in fact far more repulsive fare to be had. Tops on my list now is Chicha. Chicha is a traditional dish enjoyed in parts of Ecuador. The cook prepares the dish by way of first taking a measure of boiled maize (or yucca root) into their mouth, chewing it up, and then spitting the mixture, saliva and all, into a receptacle. The concoction is then fermented (for additional flavour, apparently) and served to all with much fanfare (except the odd anthropologist who becomes embroiled with this culture, and is expected to partake of the traditional dish as a sign of acceptance [p. 4]).

Equally unappetizing to me is the Sardinian cheese called casa marzu. I am normally a big fan of cheese, even very strong cheese, but I think I’ll pass on casu marzu. Casu marzu literally means rotten cheese, or maggot cheese, because that’s what it is. Specifically, the final product is made by way of introducing insect larvae to uber-fermented sheep cheese (p. 6). The acid from the digestive system of the maggots breaks down the cheese’s fats to the point where the final substance is very soft and liquidy. By the time the product is ready for consumption the cheese contains thousands of larvae. Though some choose to brush away the critters that coat the surface of the cheese before popping it into their mouths, others forego this procedure and slide it into their mouths directly, maggots and all. Those who opt for the latter alternative need to be sure to cover the cheese with their hands as they transfer it to their mouths, though, for the maggots possess the remarkable ability to jump distances of up to 6 inches, and will hop onto your nose, or your shoulder, or your lap, if you are not careful (p. 6).

As a final example here, I will mention the custom, practiced in many cultures around the world, of eating the placenta of a new born baby (p. 10). This is another dish that I (and most people raised in western culture) would not be willing to try. Nevertheless, there are people within western culture that have begun to dabble in this custom (p. 10), demonstrating that our culturally conditioned sense of disgust can be overcome. Indeed, notions of what is disgusting can change within a culture over time. For instance, lobster is now considered an established part of gourmet cuisine, but not so long ago this was not the case. When the shellfish was first discovered by European colonists to America in the 1600’s it was considered to be ‘aquatic vermin’, and “used as fish bait and fertilizer and fed to the poor, orphans, slaves and prisoners” (p. 10). As you might expect, the less fortunate were not terribly happy about being treated with such incivility. Soon enough, crusaders were successful in introducing such reforms as a law that stipulated that slaves in Massachusetts could not be served lobster more than 3 times a week (p. 10), and another law that stipulated that prisoners could not be fed lobster more than twice a week (p. 10).

While we easily and intuitively determine which foods of other cultures we find repulsive, we are so accustomed to our own culinary habits that it does not even occur to us that some of our favourite foods might be considered disgusting by those of other cultures from our own. For instance, wintergreen mint is enjoyed by most of us here in North America, and the flavour has in fact been rated as among the most preferred in this corner of the world (p. 14). Most of us find wintergreen mint so pleasant that it difficult for us to see how anyone might find this flavour aversive. In Britain, however, the flavour is not only considered aversive but revolting (p. 14).

I am going to address why and how different cultures come to have different ideas about what is disgusting (both with regards to food and other things) below. However, before doing so I would like to make the point that though our sense of disgust is culturally relative to a degree, there are also certain things that are found to be disgusting among all cultures.

2. Disgust Universals and the Evolution of Disgust

The simplest and most straightforward example of a disgust universal is our repulsion of diseased and festering bodies. As Herz points out “appearing pale and sickly is at times in vogue—witness pale Victorian languor or the modern-day Goth look—but there is no evidence that any culture has ever found true illness fashionable or attractive. Instead,” Herz continues, “there is a long history, well before germ theory was ever known, of ostracizing the sick, as in the infamous leper colonies that were rampant during the Middle Ages” (p. 81). In addition to diseased bodies, bodily fluids such as “urine, vomit, phlegm, saliva, sweat, blood, pus [and] feces” are also universal in inspiring disgust, and especially when we think about taking these substances into our mouths (p. 37, 219).

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

2 thoughts on “#6. A Summary of ‘That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion’ by Rachel Herz

  1. Great summary/review. This sounds like an interesting book. It really helped me get a more in-depth sense of Herz’s points, which I couldn’t necessary get from Amazon book reviews (or even in the NY Times Book Review, which pointed me toward this book). I especially like the differentiation between the disgust factor in fans of S&M/fringe porn and serial killers, as the two groups are often conflated; it’s also interesting that disgust and empathy are related. This makes me wonder how much of disgust has to do not only with what is harmful to us, but harmful to others–exploring that could have potential for a book in and of itself.

    There are 2 points I take issue with, though. One is that, as a horror fan (of both literature and film), I think there can be much deeper reasoning behind appreciation of horror. Certainly, there is a superficial adrenaline-related delight in terror and gore, but it sounds like you and/or Herz are saying that the appeal of horror is solely atavistic and childish. I have found that for most books and movies, even in those we might consider some of the most exploitative and low-brow, more sophisticated readings can be made. Roger Salomon’s book “Mazes of the Serpent” makes a profound analysis of the existential dread behind horror literature, and Adam Lowenstein, a film professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has written about the layers of social commentary behind movies labeled “torture porn,” like “Hostel,” and B-movie exploitation, like “Last House on the Left.”

    Two, as far as your theory about connecting animals to moral disgust, I can see your point, but I think that you are simplifying too much. Animals are NOT only carriers of filth and disease, nor are they are always perceived as such. Much has been written on the numerous ways in which, throughout human history, we have in fact modeled ourselves after animals. Eg, Paul Shepard’s “The Others: How Animals Made us Human.” Perhaps both you and Herz are partially right, and moral disgust has multiple causes. It seems to me like something that is hard to pinpoint to a specific biological basis.

    • Hi staringatangels. Thanks for the compliment, and the thoughtful comments. First let me address your first point, about the appeal of terror and gore movies. In my article I focus mainly on the gore aspect in these films, rather than the terror, as only the former fits in directly with disgust (fear being an entirely separate emotion). However, Herz does get into the terror aspect in her book, and she does think that a big part of the draw here is the fear of death (which you seem to be getting at with your comment about existential dread). In any event, you may want to look at the actual book for more on that.

      When it comes to my point about connecting morally disgusting behaviour to the behaviour of animals, I agree with you that animals are not only carriers of filth and disease. However, I don’t think we can deny that this is one aspect that people and cultures have associated with them. We can well think that animals are perfectly respectable, and even admirable, in one sense, while also thinking that they carry disease, and are therefore dangerous, in another; and since we humans have a long history of catching diseases from them (since especially the neolithic revolution, with our domesticating them), it is perfectly natural that we would have this view. Hope that helps.


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