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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.
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.
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