The Politics of Disgust

It was an unusually warm day in the spring of 1997. The Labour Party had just won the election, ending 18 interminable years of Conservative rule. The new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was young, articulate, and seemed vaguely sincere. I remember feeling a real sense of hope as I left my house and latched my gate that things would, as the horrible slogan put it, “get better”. Even the usually grim surroundings of Finsbury Park seemed brighter, cheerier. There was a celebratory mood in the air. Several strangers smiled at me.

B and I celebrated that evening with a bottle of (cheap) whiskey. But B almost never drank and she knocked it back too quickly, glug, glug, glug. She vomited. Violently… Copiously… I put her to bed and then set about cleaning up the puddle of vomit with some warm soapy water and a cheap sponge that wasn’t very absorbent. I was surprised by how much I got into it, as I knelt down on the old carpet, examining the various chunks of semi-digested matter to see what they might be. The warm soapy water was a mistake: the washing-up liquid strongly reacted with the whiskey-infused vomit, in some chemical reaction I did not understand, and made it smell even more pungent. Nevertheless, when B woke up the next day with a murderous hangover, she was grateful to find the vomit gone: a pale blotch in the grime-grey carpet was all that remained of it.

Perhaps my imperviousness to vomit was partly because my mum had made me clean my own sick when I was a kid. She didn’t do it out of cruelty but because she physically could not bear the sight and smell of vomit: she would certainly have thrown up herself had she attempted to clean it. Vomit inducing vomit: a good definition of a vicious cycle (though useful from an evolutionary perspective). Perhaps my early experiences of vomit-cleaning are why I have such a low disgust sensitivity. When it comes to bodily fluids, disease, physical deformities and death, not much can disgust me. But when it comes to human behaviour, on the other hand, I am a spouting fount of indignation and outrage.

During our daily walk in Vingis Park, I told J that I wanted to better understand how moral disgust is possible. Is it rooted, neurologically, in the physical disgust that was originally intended to protect us against pathogens? If so, how? That is a hell of a leap for the brain to make: from revulsion at something physical that could pose a danger (rotten food, signs of disease, exposed faeces) to revulsion at an abstract and intangible idea (corrupt politicians, bestiality, immigrants). I read an interesting book about disgust but the author skimmed right over the question I was most interested in. Moral disgust, according to her, is merely anger by another name.

It is true that many people conflate anger with disgust. Research has also shown that moral judgements are harsher when a dollop of disgust is added to the mix. The Daily Mail knows this and CAPITALIZES on it by making its EU and immigrant-hating headlines as PROVOCATIVE as legally possible. Indeed, I have always said that the strongest insult I could give someone is not “I-hate-you” (which contains the promise of its opposite) but, rather, “You disgust me.” The words should be wrenched, phlegm-like, from the depths of the throat and then dramatically expelled in the act of expectoration.

A quick digression: I visit The Daily Mail website a couple of times per month to give my disgust with the world a booster. I have noticed they often carry stories that would be flagrantly disgusting for many people (people suffering from grotesque physical deformities but heroically living with them, or some other exotic form of freak show). Do they do this to unconsciously boost the political and social disgust they daily peddle? That would imply an intelligence beyond their means. Perhaps they consulted a psychologist on how to ensure maximum moral outrage among their readers.

I found an extremely long and tediously written academic paper by a Scandinavian psychologist who convincingly argues that moral disgust is, in fact, an evolutionary adaptation (exaptation). The brain is merely converting core physical disgust into abstract moral disgust. The respectably comprehensive paper concludes that moral disgust can indeed be pure disgust. This makes sense to me. The disgust I feel, for example, when I see a picture of Tony Blair is almost emetic. I wretch, I gag, I look away. Sure, I feel anger too, crouching in fury, but the dominant sensation is the unmistakable wrench of disgust.

In our hyper-sterile age there is far less need for the body to rely on physical disgust. But people’s precious sense of identity is experiencing a pandemic of doubt, confusion and disbelief. It makes sense that the brain goes into emergency mode. Disgust is the most powerful core emotion: it twists the face into a pained rictus in contortions of self-preservation. Just look at the almost violent revulsion so many Eastern European men feel towards homosexuals, or the visceral disgust so many Europeans feel towards the Muslim veil. Their besieged sense of identity is rallying. Their outrage is unifying them. Their moral disgust is saving them from personal and social infection.

I said before that not much physically disgusts me. A stranger’s hair in my food. Milk gone bad. Um, a dead cat on my doorstep.

But like the average Daily Mail reader or Trump supporter, I am morally incandescent with indignation, albeit hopefully for slightly more worthy reasons.

Tony Blair looks older now. Even madder, more amorphous. Why does he disgust me so much, along with many other politicians and public figures (such as the axis of evil that is George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld)? That is a question, I’m afraid, that requires a book-sized answer. It literally touches on everything. But I can say that they, the above, committed the ultimate transgression in my book: they rendered language meaningless. Post-truth, if it means anything, begins with them. The difference between their mendacity and the time-honoured lying, equivocation and evasiveness of previous politicians, is that their words turned out to be the real weapons of mass destruction.

B was the first person to describe Blair’s characteristic grin as a rictus. I like to believe that his progressively repulsive countenance resulted from a profound dislocation of reality. It is well documented that the strain of being a prime minister or president can lead to premature greying and balding. In Blair’s case, his face visibly altered – unravelled, one might say – as his relationship with reality and perception became distorted to the point of madness. It must have felt as disorientating as entering, slightly tipsy, one of those supposedly sophisticated toilets that are entirely covered in mirrors (I’ve been in a few myself; one led to an epic vomit in Covent Garden). Blair’s language spiralled into insincerity, then entrenched itself in it out of personal and political necessity. He always sought out the most flattering angle but ended up reflecting the splintered, fragmented person he had become.

Even towards the end, Blair could, on rare occasion, impress me with a flicker of heartfelt honesty. But he put history and his place in it over everything else. He put popularity over principle. He put the imaginary glory of the world stage over the nitty-gritty of domestic problems. Worst of all, he seemed to actually believe in his hyperbolic sub-Churchillian rhetoric. Blair: “A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.”

B felt my hand upon her shoulder when she was vomiting up the whiskey we drank to celebrate Blair’s victory in 1997. The naivety of it, in retrospect, is unbelievable: downright embarrassing. That we once dared to put our hope in elected officials. That we believed politics was a progressive force for the good. That political discourse was still rooted in fact and not feeling. All that is left of that hope is a pale blotch on an old, threadbare carpet where B spewed and I mopped up the puke.



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