Discerning Disgust – Dignifying the Whole Person
September 13, 2018
A Disgust Compass?
Several years ago, an article published on the Gospel Coalition went viral. It submitted that a reaction of disgust to someone like me is a “moral” response. The article was written by Thabite Anyabwile and was called The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and “Gay Marriage”. Anyabwile’s thesis was this: In discussing the morality of homosexuality, Christians should “return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth” because “‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are polite terms for an ugly practice.”
When I read this article five years ago, my first response was actually gratitude. I saw it as a really honest articulation of a feeling I think a lot of people probably have, but conceal. But it also awakened in me a new form of discernment, and since then, I have not stopped weighing my feelings of disgust whenever they might come up.
This new discernment — one that is suspect of disgust in all forms — was elicited by a smart comment on that article mentioning something called negativity dominance and its connection with dehumanization. Negativity dominance is the tendency for evaluations of combinations of negative and positive things to skew negative, even when that doesn’t make sense. That’s a hard-to-read definition. In other words, it’s the opposite of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s: the whole is worse than the sum of its parts. It’s when a fly lands in your yogurt, and even after you remove the fly, you can’t stomach eating the rest of the yogurt.
Reactions of disgust towards parts of a person almost always lead to the dehumanization of that whole person. Disgust precludes respect, eliminates dignity, diminishes humanity. Choosing to lean in to a reaction of disgust towards part of a person will diminish your entire evaluation of that whole person. Like the fly tainted yogurt, the whole person is contaminated.
Disgust is part and parcel with dehumanization. Think of the disgust woven into racism, for example. The dehumanization of Black Americans has been tightly associated with disgust: fear of contamination, whether at the water fountain, the lunch counter, or in a potential romantic relationship. Or think of the moral judgment fat people experience, and the disgust woven into fatphobia: unchecked disgust is at the root of judgments that fat people are lazy, uneducated, or immoral.
Disgust and Embodiment
We’ve been considering embodiment lately on our blog and in our sermons, thinking about what a holistic approach to faith and living might look like: one that cares for the mind, spirit, and body. In particular, we’ve tried to hit on a main idea: we are one thing. We are not souls with bodies, or bodies with souls, or just bodies, or just souls — we are body and soul. And all of that is created and loved by God.
All of that is lovable.
All of that is beautiful.
All of that is good.
When we look at other people and we experience disgust when we see their body, or when we think about what they do with their body, we’re experiencing a knee-jerk dehumanization of that whole person, because they are one thing. Left unchecked, that disgust says that person is not lovable by God, is not beautiful, is not good. I say “left unchecked” because we are all products of our socialization — we all have baggage that might result in snap judgments, or knee-jerk disgust. But we also have grace to discern. All of us can answer our base instincts and take a beat to intentionally think:
Look at that child of God.
Look how beautiful that creation is.
Look how loved by God she is.
We have long been caught in a trap of disembodied faith — divorcing matter from spirit, and elevating spirit over matter, heavens over earth. When we’re reminded of the earthliness of a person or thing, we instinctively separate that person or thing from the love of God. Richard Beck talks about this disembodied “divinity ethic” in his book, Unclean:
Rituals of holiness and purification allow humans to approach the sacred… In short, the divinity ethic allows humans to approach the divine (allowing movement upward) while also protecting human dignity, the sacredness of the human person, and humane society (preventing movement downward). If we see a human person naked or urinating in public we are disgusted; the quarantine between the human and the bestial has been violated. And we see in our reaction the associations between disgust, social convention, dignity, and the sacred.
When we have a disgust reaction to a human being, we’re seeing that person as moving away from the divine. We’re seeing them as more animalistic. Typically our disgust reaction is closely associated with social convention. Our disgust is not some divine revelation of an intrinsic truth, but a trained loyalty to particular social conventions. A person’s disgust at pickled herring is no more a reliable moral compass than a person’s disgust at a Black person drinking from a White water fountain.
Check Your Disgust Before You Wreck Yourself
Being the object of disgust has opened my eyes to its pervasiveness. I notice it more when it pops up in my own heart. I’m starting to think it may be the very opposite of a clear word from God. Instinctive disgust (or dehumanizing) of another person reminds me of how much work I have to do. I have to be cautious about trusting my own instinctive moral judgments. When I forget the dignity of another person — body and soul — I am missing the mark. Examine disgust, whenever it pops up — its aim is dehumanization. No one is disgusting.
What God has made clean, you must not call profane