The beetroot lesson – the politics of disgust


Martha Nussbaum has recently written a second book on the connections between visceral feelings of disgust and more abstract responses of indignation. As one commentator put it:

‘disgust can’t be reasoned with. Logical arguments do not make spoiled milk smell better.’

[Image: Darwin Bell]

I think this is precisely wrong. As a child I hated beetroot with a passion. But I convinced myself that if someone in the world liked it there must be something to like. After persisting, I found I not only liked beetroot – I loved it, and still do to this day. Happily the first time I tasted an olive I remembered the beetroot lesson and all was well. As it turns out, disgust can be reasoned with. And further, logical arguments do in fact make spoiled milk smell better. Here’s my logical argument: it’s sour cream.

The great malleability of emotions such as disgust is of tremendous benefit to the fishing industry. When palatable fish stocks decline, it is possible to persuade people to eat formerly disgusting fish just by re-branding them as newly tasty fish. People who believe disgust is natural and unchanging are wrong. They might well be eating Slimehead right now and loving it.

Attempts at characterising the relationship between disgust and political opinions have been made, and they seem to reveal a distinction between liberals and conservatives regarding the impact of the disgust category (or categories, depending on how it is measured). In short, conservative political views are more closely connected to feelings of disgust than are liberal views. In other words we can gloss this by saying that for conservatives, disgust is a more potent political motivator or trigger than it is for liberals.

David Pizzaro and Jonathan Haidt, to name but two, have done work that points in this direction.

But it’s possible that such a characterisation is missing something: couldn’t disgust be categorised in relation to the four cultures of Grid-Group Cultural Theory? That is to say, couldn’t we hypothesise that just as each of these four cultural biases condition our organisation of all manner of social relationships, they might also be conditioning our experience of disgust? The four cultures have been linked to four ‘myths of nature’, and a significant component of disgust is the question of what is natural.

The un-natural and the disgusting go hand in hand (there’s a gruesome picture for you – try not to visualise it….).

Certainly Haidt and others depict the political arena as bipolar – conservatives and liberals. The grid-group scales of Cultural Theory suggest there is more to politics than that, and that it is useful to consider four styles of political affiliation, not two only. In particular, the conservative-liberal characterisation given seems to match a contrast between Hierarchy and Egalitarianism. In other words it is a distinction on the grid scale between highly regulated hierarchical institutions and less highly regulated Egalitarian institutions. But this leaves out the group scale entirely, and doesn’t account for either Fatalists or Individualists.

Martha Nussbaum used just such terms when she said in a 2004  interview:

“Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct. For both of these reasons, I believe, anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in the context of law and public policy.”

This polarisation of politics around whether or not disgust is a good thing to air in public policy deliberation is unhelpful. Recognising that there may actually be four major different responses to disgust might help to make the debate more positive. Conservatives are not all Hierarchical and Liberals are not all Egalitarian, so their responses to disgust need to be a bit more nuanced than allowed in public policy/not allowed in public policy.

While I think Nussbaum is on to something, I don’t think her essentialism is helpful. It’s not that disgust goes with Hierarchy and only with Hierarchy. It’s rather that there may be different types of disgust, so each of the four cultural biases identified by Cultural Theory may have their own versions of disgust, which may not be recognised by the others.

But this doesn’t get us any closer to what Fatalism and Individualism might construct disgust. I can feel a research project coming on…

Meanwhile you can listen to an interview with Martha Nussbaum, or check out the book, From Disgust to Humanity.

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