Disgust and Contempt – when they are good – and when bad

We have emotions that make us look negatively at people, including disgust and contempt. The book “The Anatomy Of Disgust” by William Ian Miller tells us that contempt helps keep ranks and distinctions in society. He also says that when the rank is threatened, then hate and loathing to the inferior ranks start appearing. He says indifference is replaced by loathing, horror, disgust, hatred and cruelty.

But contempt is not bad per se.

Icelandic Warrior
Icelandic Warrior
“heroic society…knows of contempt; it depends upon it. Contempt is the correlative of shame and humiliation. Contempt is what the honorable have the right to show for the less honorable; it is part of the give and take of the acquisition and maintenance of honor.. Fear of contempt or shame is what fuels the engine of honor…. In Iceland the thoughts of the wives, mothers, and daughters of warrior men do count, and they are expert at subjecting their men to blistering contempt for their failings. They are masterly at shaming and humiliating…The women are charged with voicing the norms of honor.” (I think he is referring to Iceland of the Sagas, not today’s Iceland).

William Miller gives the following extract from a letter a young New Yorker wrote home to his sister in 1852 about his travels in the Caribbean. This letter shows something about contempt and its relation to rank:

“Here a black man is as good as a white one… They do not hesitate to offer their hands to be shaken. Our washerwoman sits upon the sofa in the cabin and talks as bold and loud as tho’ the ship was hers. A washerwoman in NY, a white one too, would not open her lips or think of sitting down. Nor would she offer to shake hands, as our Antiguan lady washerwoman did, which I politely refused to accept. The English say much against what they call equality in the states. They call it the most disagreeable part of their travels in our country that any man can ride who pays. If they think our equality disagreeable, I think theirs disgusting–for certainly our servants would not offer to shake hands with us, a thing often occurring in Antigua.”

William wonders how you can “politely” refuse a handshake, but the main point is that even the American notion of equality had plenty of room for rank and status, not only for race and gender, but he suspects among white men too, even on the egalitarian western frontier.

And what makes the equality appalling is the impudence of people clearly designated as inferior.

Says William “Clownish or invisible is what the contemptible are when they do not constitute a threat; disgusting is what they are when they do…. Jews, for instance, by their very existence were considered threatening by Christians” (I guess he means in early Europe).

George Orwell
George Orwell
George Orwell, the English writer, was a socialist who tried to live among the lower classes. When gathering materials for his book Wigan Pier he lived in a lodging house of incredible squalor. The images of disgust were indelibly imprinted on his consciousness. His sleeping quarters, which he shared, “stank like a ferret’s cage”. Nothing in the main living quarters was ever cleaned. The owners sold black tripe (a food) crawling with black beetles. The man of the house would hand buttered bread to the lodgers with an imprint of the black mark of his filthy thumb. This was no ordinary dirty thumb: it was usual to see him carrying a full chamber-pot which he gripped with his thumb well over the rim. The wife would lie around, “a soft mound of fat and self-pity,” and complain endlessly about no one coming to the shop. Orwell was dismayed that they could not understand that last year’s flies dead on their back in the shop window were not good for business. The wife ate constantly and would wipe her mouth on her blankets or on strips of newspaper which she would then crumple and throw on the floor.”

Here you can see disgust getting in the way of egalitarian ideologies and fellow-feeling.

Christians, whites, the upper classes, and men have all complained through the centuries, often obsessively, about the smells of Jews, nonwhites, workers, and women. For instance, Felix Fabri, a fifteenth-century friar on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, wonders why the Saracens would allow Christians admittance to the public baths. The reason, he tells us,

is said to be that the Saracens emit a certain horrible stench, on account of which they use continual ablution… and since we have no stench, they do not mind our bathing with them. This indulgence they do not extend to Jews, who stink even worse.”

William points out that Friar Fabri also described his companions throwing chamber pots at each other on shipboard. That is not exactly a clean, hygienic, smell-less practice.

But the more danger perceived from a group, the more it smells.

Jews smelled to Christians before Christians used forks and handkerchiefs, before the notion of good and bad taste had become current.

Disgust (not plain contempt) says that the low are polluting and so constitute a danger; a policy of live and let live is not adequate.

I (the writer of this blog) have plenty of contempt and disgust. I have disgust for politicians who spend us into trillions of dollars of debt. I have disgust for sadists, and contempt for the silent audience who will not get involved to save the victims of the sadists. I have a horror of people who do not even want to know the truth, but rather believe lies. I have a loathing of those who lie to further their agendas. But there is a downside to disgust, and it can be made the servant of the darker aspects of human personality, as William’s book makes clear.
If we want to look at what Brain science says on the subject, it was found that the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain is active in social encounters, even ones that cause envy, or pity, or pride. But when a person views a class of people that disgusts him (such as drug addicts), the area is silent, or at least as silent as when the person views a rock.
This could imply that dehumanization goes along with disgust. (That research was done by Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske).


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