The Sheer Limits of Disgust

It’s remarkable to reflect on how much disgust completely permeates our lives, from the lowest form — yuckiness — all the way up to moral disgust. It is especially remarkable considering the only innately disgusting artifact appears to be spoiled meat. Everything else, from piles of dead bodies to handling human feces to eating the brains from a live monkey (which happens in China), is learned and therefore highly variable between cultures.

Being in Japan, I can definitely see the differences, at the 30,000-foot level, between East and West — the sensitivity to bowel movements, for example, which Rachel Herz notes in her book That’s Disgusting (which I’m reading now) is particularly anathema in the western world to a degree not often encountered elsewhere. A Japanese man, Taro Gomi, can write Everybody Poops, and a major museum in Tokyo can have a whole interactive exhibit on poop and it’s no big deal.

But that’s mere ickiness. More interesting to me is moral disgust, which Ms. Herz notes is probably something closer to anger justified as disgust — at the breaking of a tabu, for example, which exist in every culture and are usually handed down from God (or liberal elite thought-leaders) and are therefore more sacrosanct than natural law.

Orine and I watched part of a sketch comedy show the other day the gist of which involved a 45 year-old man interviewing and then hitting on three women aged 23, 25, and 21, something that I know would “disgust” a fair number of people back home, which is to say anger them.

I even looked at the show sideways at first until I realized it was basically a set up to make fun of the man, who is a professional comedian. All three women shot him down.

Orine and I are 16.5 years apart, so it’s something I’m very sensitive to. In fact, I expressed a great deal of reservation at the start of our relationship. When I met her two years ago, I wouldn’t even consider it. Not that I haven’t gone out with women her age before. I have. But it was never serious (for either party), and that to me is a big difference.

She explained a number of times that, while not exactly common here, such an age difference wasn’t necessarily that big of a deal either, and that I was making it weird (basically — my word, not hers) by bringing it up all the time. I have since stopped.

In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all until we saw that show about the same time I started this book and the intersection led me to some lengthy cafe ruminations today on disgust and tabu and how they define their reciprocal entities: norms/mores and, subsequently, social approval.

I’m no stranger to this topic. I started researching disgust in earnest while working on my first novel, FANTASMAGORIA, which uses the grotesque to advance the plot and underscore the action, and while I was writing it I also curated a collection of the most disgusting and offensive images on the Internet and posted them every Friday at midnight — medical abnormalities, deranged corpses, crime scenes, deviant sexual practices, “transgressive” art, insults, sacrilege, and so on. I would then count the number of people who stopped following me and post it for all to see the next morning.

There was never a mass exodus. In fact, I think the record was a mere eight people. That was the point and the lesson (besides the obvious entertainment value): there is no common sense, as there would have been a century or two ago, despite everyone’s repeated admonishment that they are its sole remaining possessor.

The fact is, we all draw the line in a slightly different place, and most weeks my efforts saw a very mixed bag of reactions. People who cheered me on at first would later be unmoved and then either tune out or find that I finally crossed a line — such as a woman drinking horse semen (right from the source!) or a cartoon making fun of soldiers with PTSD. They would usually persevere until I crossed a second line, at which point they felt “icky,” almost as if they were contributing in some small measure to the activities presented, many of which were not consensual.

(I never posted the outright abuse of animals or children for the simple reason that I can’t handle that myself. I did however depict some art that represented underage girls, some of the more thoughtful of which can be seen in major galleries and some of the baser of which took me to some very dark places on some very dark networks.)

But despite the death of common sense, some general themes emerged. For example, English-speakers, which comprised the vast majority of my audience, generally reacted more to rape than to murder, even when the latter clearly involved rather lengthy pre-mortem torture, such as being skinned alive (which Mexican cartels still do, continuing a long tradition in that country). Culturally, English speakers are descended from Protestant — particularly Puritan — stock, and since disgust is learned, not innate, therefore the forceful insertion of a foreign object into a vagina (or anus, in the case of a man) generally evoked greater disgust than the forceful insertion of a blade or hangar wire into an open eyeball. It’s apparently worse to take someone’s “purity” than their sight, or even their entire life. I’ll admit to not understanding that one.

For the record, my own personal view is that I’m not sure such things can — or should — be ranked, and that those who try tend to be projecting their own unresolved trauma on the rest of us, a topic I have written on before.

As with my Friday night tests, I don’t have a conclusion to this. I’m not trying to bring you around to some particular point of view as much as poke you in a sensitive spot you might not have realized you had, and therefore to stimulate — in the reflective among you anyway; there’s no reaching some people — a wider appreciation of a world which admits of a great many more points of view than yours.

Reconciling them remains the significant unfinished legacy of modernity.

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