We’ve Got to Stop Depending Upon Disgust

Disgust is everywhere these days – have you noticed?

Without question, a number of despicable things have occurred in the past few weeks. To name a few: a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, complete with neo-Nazis; their unchecked organizing and violence, resulting in the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of many others; and the U.S. president’s miserably insufficient response, complicit with white supremacy and exempting white nationalists. And through it all, the dominant reaction from the media is widespread disgust.

Both of the late night Jimmys used this terminology while discussing these recent events in their opening monologues. Fallon (finally) stated that it was his “responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being” against the “disgusting” happenings in Charlottesville. Kimmel pointed to Germany as setting a more powerful example than the US and our president, because their chancellor denounced the rally as “evil and disgusting.” The Dave Matthews Band, native to Charlottesville and a nostalgic staple of suburban high school memories from the 90’s, issued a statement declaring how “disgusted” they are “by the acts of racist, hate-filled terrorism.” Even folks that are openly supportive of the president are getting on board. Gary Cohn, chief economic advisor to the president, is “disgusted” by his comments in relation to white nationalists. Betsy DeVos, while not known for her scintillating hot takes or compassionate insights, took to Twitter to exclaim how “disgusted” she was by the “behavior and hate-filled rhetoric” in Charlottesville. But maybe that’s because being disgusted isn’t exactly novel these days. Across the board, it’s become the go-to way to quickly denounce things we disagree with and want to quickly distance ourselves from.

If we – and I am talking about myself and other white folks here – truly want to participate in changing the system of white supremacy laid bare by what happened in Charlottesville, we need to interrogate our use of disgust, especially if only months ago we were playfully ruffling our current president’s hair or advising him on taxes and trade policy. Transformation – of self and system – can’t, and simply won’t, happen if we merely cling to disgust and parade it out every once in awhile.

Disgust isn’t a word that folks typically throw around willy-nilly. It carries with it a powerful, emotional punch when it’s used to describe someone, or something, conveying more horror and condemnation than other words one might use like “upset” or “furious.” It truly cuts. No one knows this better than our current president; it was, with little exaggeration, the platform that he ran on.

Everywhere he went, he was “disgusted” by something – or, more importantly, by someone. And most especially, by women. Way back when this presidency was a mere twinkle in his eye, he was labeling a whole host of women – from a range of occupations and realms of celebrity – “disgusting”: former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, regarding an alleged sex tape (and even her citizenship), Rosie O’Donnell, concerning her appearance, and Hillary Clinton, because she dared to use the bathroom. He was disgusted by women breastfeeding or pumping. Even after the election, he was disgusted by Madonna for speaking out at the women’s march. Women: their bodies and bodily functions, their thoughts, their living and breathing… all women were united by a single word: disgusting!

Unwarranted disgust at women’s bodies isn’t anything new. As just one example, the shame, disgust and secrecy around something as entirely ordinary as menstruation is a tired old trope that TV shows and movies have been trotting out for years. Repeatedly showing menstruation as disgusting – despite being a perfectly routine aspect of everyday life for some women – paints this bodily function as something abnormal and ultimately shameful. Take the scene from To Sir With Love (1967), when Sidney Poitier’s character scolds a group of “sluttish” young women while calling their feminine hygiene products “disgusting objects.” Or how about that part in Superbad (2007), when someone “periods on the leg” of Jonah Hill’s character, evoking his immediate disgust and dry-heaving, and the hilarious laughter of those around him. Or who could forget the scene when a presidential candidate shamed a female news anchor by insinuating that her demeanor was tied to having her period and the related, disgusting blood… Oh, wait. That last one’s not fiction.

If all we’re doing is calling racism out… and then moving on with our daily lives, that’s a problem.

Each of these scenes – of both fiction and reality – shows how this reaction works. The person that’s exclaiming their utter disgust is letting anyone and everyone listening know that they’re totally grossed out and horrified, the implication being that they are nothing like the person (or thing) they’re repulsed by. In the examples featuring our current president, disgust is easily hurled at anyone challenging his worldview or political stance, masculinity, or sense of entitlement; it’s used to shut down, silence, and ultimately, to discredit and ignore. These are useful to see together because as viewers (or voters), it’s easy enough to recognize the stigmatizing sexism and misogyny carried in these expressions. Disgust now, all over the media’s reactions to explicit, openly-expressed white supremacy, does something similar. While it allows people to quickly and rightfully call out hideous racism, at the same time it allows people to easily separate themselves from it. If all we’re doing is calling racism out, discrediting it and ignoring it, labeling it as something abnormally hateful, and then moving on with our daily lives, that’s a problem.

Each time the current White House implements something horrific (like banning or barring entire groups of people), or exposes the racist foundation of US institutions, there’s an eruption of disgust – just like the wave of tweets, public statements, and street protests following Charlottesville. As the parade of highly visible, egregious injustices continue to mount, it’s become increasingly difficult to digest the bold-faced realities of what we’re witnessing in the US. It’s not that we didn’t all already have a hunch (right?) that we were operating within a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy; rather, many of us have never been forced to see or to face what this means. Whiteness – perhaps coupled with geographic location and the safety net of an economically stable family, or with the security of a highly-esteemed education, and then some – acts as a pretty impenetrable shield. And so does disgust.

Yes, we need to forcefully call out racism when we see it in person, on the news, or while standing on stage in the late-night limelight. In order to help dismantle it, we also need to understand how white supremacy is perpetuated. We can’t do this if we’re busy denying its more mundane existence or ignoring our own accountability. Above and beyond expressing disgust at extreme factions like neo-Nazis and the KKK, this means facing the privilege whiteness has provided and how it continues to benefit us. Perhaps more than anything else, as outrage in response to Charlottesville fades over time, this means continuing to hold ourselves accountable in our daily lives.

For in-depth, excellent writing on how disgust and other affects operate in public settings and political contexts, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s work is a great starting point.


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