That’s Disgusting!

Would you eat a bowl of your favorite soup that was stirred with a used flyswatter that had been thoroughly soaked and washed?

Would you drink a cup of water five minutes after you had spit your own saliva into it?

Take the disgust quiz HERE:

Disgust is one of the general human emotions identified by Paul Ekman, a psychologist who studies universal facial displays. He found happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, anger, fear, and contempt are identifiable in many different world cultures. Pixar’s Inside Out only used five of them, but I think they missed an opportunity to let Kathy Griffin be the shocked voice of OMG surprise and Bill Burr contemptuously critiquing everything little Riley encounters, especially broccoli pizza.

Reading facial expressions of emotion

You can be disgusted by information from all five senses, a horrible/immoral action, people’s appearance or by changes in your society. Naturally, those feelings are all subjective. Some things like feces, bloody injuries, semen, rot, vomit or mucus are more generally repulsive. (Those words have such expressive sounds. I really like/hate the sound of “rot.”) There are real-world implications of feeling revolted. Self-identified conservatives show more propensity and variety of disgust as well as superior bitter taste receptors. Liberal people will express more conservative views regarding homosexuality, pornography and premarital sex if in the presence of a disgusting smell. Antipathy to immigration is tied up in this deep-rooted aversion to those who look different and therefore may be carrying diseases alien to your immune system.

The history of the world is a history of cultural clashes. Often, those cultures viewed the others’ food or behavior as disgusting and possibly dangerous to their own survival. Disgust’s evolutionary purpose is quite easy to identify and understand. In order to make sure humans didn’t ingest harmful bacteria, we were programmed to avoid things that elicit the revulsion face: scrunched up nose and raised upper lip. What happens when you’re disgusted by the neighbors who just moved in and their cooking smells <gasp> different than yours!? It’s important to recognize those arcane feelings that repel are not strictly limited to food or wounds.

Yet, it’s rationally important to feel disgust. If you’re the kind of caveman who likes to massage your feet with poo or eat a nice steamy pile of vomit, it’s highly doubtful you’ll be a very successful caveman regarding finding a mate at the water hole. If you’re the kind of cavemom who likes to feed her kids rotten fish or doesn’t clean the babies’ wounds, those babies will likely die from infection taking with them the preference for moldy fish stew. The compulsion to avoid offensive things would have been a decisive factor of your genes propagating.

What about the current pandemic? Covid-19 carriers are often asymptomatic making it impossible to find disgust markers to avoid. Smallpox and bubonic plague victims were covered with horrible pus-filled boils and lesions. Do you feel disgust seeing strangers without a mask? What if they are coughing or sneezing without a mask or even with a mask? How can we avoid the virus if we can’t be disgusted by it?

As we were watching Friends during dinner one night, Monica was trying to change the mood from Phoebe’s nostalgic love for Mike (Paul Rudd) into something gross. Monica said, “Today walking home from work, I saw a homeless guy throw up (canned laughter) …and then a pigeon ate it” (even MORE canned laughter). {Let’s just ignore how stupid fake laughs are and how much better the world is since we’ve left them behind.} The fact remains that was a pretty disgusting anecdote. I had ramen noodles hanging out of my mouth as I started laughing. Jordyn had to put her food down and look at me to say (wearing the universal disgust face), “How can you still eat?” “It’s funny,” I replied still giggling at the horrible idea of a dirty city bird munching god knows what chow a homeless guy could get his hands on before drinking what must have been a heroic amount of gutter wine or back alley hooch to make him, a seasoned al fresco drinker, lose his guts on the streets in midday.

I find myself to be fairly unaffected by disgust. More accurately, I feel it, but try to disregard it. I mean, I pick up dog poop at least twice a day! Open wounds are pretty gross and just writing the words gaping mouth sores made my nose crinkle up. Kids begin to learn disgust around kindergarten age. But they still love talking about or making jokes involving poo. Children’s book Fly Guy always has stinky, oozy, gooey, nasty, smelly things and the kids love it! Mostly because they know it’s just a story. They probably won’t touch poop for real (except for that one kid, you know who it is). Even dung beetles only touch herbivore droppings because carnivore poo can have nasty bacteria. “Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it.” –Leon Kass (Bioethicist) You can use that quote the next time someone is asking you to try something you know you don’t want to put in your mouth.

Emotion is subjective and what is disgusting to you is dinner to another. I’ve eaten squid in Italy, baby octopus, raw beef, and jellyfish in Korea, crickets in Thailand, sea urchin in Japan, and burgers in America. Vegetarians would be disgusted by them all and I imagine most Americans wouldn’t try anything besides the burger! Culture and preference play a major part in your individual disgust standard.

I’ve written about disgusting things before here and here. A new story I heard recently was a friend who needed to bring a stool sample to the doctor. Well, he filled up a Ziploc bag (they only needed a thimble-sized amount but failed to tell him), popped it in his backpack and got on the subway wrinkling noses behind him like a vile wave. Yuck is a proto word in many languages in that it barely changes. Seeing some barf or smelling a backpack full of fresh poo prompts a “yuck” in Finland, Philippines, and Uzbekistan.

I read on my computer when I eat lunch. Can you guess where this is going? While reading articles about disgust and ignoring the horrible pictures, lost in thought as I ate my school lunch, sure enough I felt that familiar feeling of a non-chewable string, a thick thread of distraction from the food, something that you know what it is and you hope it isn’t but it was: a comically long, black hair. This hair was noticeably thick and black as I slowly pulled it out of my pursed mouth still full of black beans. Can you guess how I reacted, dear reader? I giggled at the irony, cursed my bad luck, wondered if thinking about disgust manifested this event, grabbed a tissue then spit out the hairy bite and kept on eating. I mean, what are the chances of having two hairs in the beans?

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