Jump to content

The Yuk-factor


Recommended Posts

The Yuk-Factor


Ophelia Benson


There is a famous morality tale in Herodotus. 'Darius...called together some of the Greeks...and asked them what they would take to eat their dead fathers. They said that no price in the world would make them do so. After that Darius summoned those of the Indians who are called Callatians, who do eat their parents, and, in the presence of the Greeks..., asked them what price would make them burn their dead fathers with fire. They shouted aloud, "Don't mention such horrors!" These are matters of settled custom, and I think Pindar is right when he says, "Custom is king of all."' [3, 38. David Grene translation] Herodotus noticed twenty-five centuries ago what people go on noticing today: customs and taboos differ from one society to another, one town to another, one household to another. Some people think circumcision is disgusting, some think its absence is; some think female genital mutilation is repugnant, others think female genitals in their pre-mutilation state are. Chinese women used to find unbound feet just as ugly and crude and silly-looking as men did; they endured the pain and crippling of binding, and forced it on their daughters and grandaughters. The result was generations of women who could barely walk and couldn't possibly run, but were proud owners of the lotus foot - a foot which, by being folded in half, created a new orifice just the right size for an erect penis. Custom is king of all.


Such customs and taboos, however arbitrary and even harmful they may be, have their uses. They help create and reinforce group solidarity and loyalty. They're yet another way of demarcating and emphasizing that highly prized difference between Us and Them, Our People and Those Other People, Self and Other. Like many animals, humans organize their lives around what Freud in one of his moments of lucidity called the narcissism of minor differences: Friend and Stranger, Greek and Barbarian, Home and Away, Blue and Green, Man United and Liverpool, Big Endian and Little Endian, Native and Alien. Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew, believer and infidel - it's all too obvious where this goes. People in 16th Century France slaughtered each other in wholesale lots over a drop of wine and a bit of bread. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 is said to have been triggered partly by the use of beef tallow to lubricate guns. The issues involved can seem staggeringly trivial, but to some at least the payoff in arousing and engorging the sensation of loyalty and Hurrah for our team is worth it.


Desire for that invidious thrill of belonging is no doubt what motivates the relentless nagging about Family Values in the US over the past twenty years or so. Forget all that Wider Community stuff, forget going down to Mississippi to try to help undo some of their more vicious and destructive taboos and group loyalties and untraversable borders, forget famines in Ethiopia or little wars in Asia, just stick to your own clan and let other people stick to theirs. Nobody really gives a damn about anybody but relatives, after all, so let's just all hunker down in our own tiny group. I had an uncle who used to rebuke my misbehavior when I was a child by saying sternly 'We don't do that in this house,' which always made me dislike him quite a lot, but no doubt gave him a thrill.


It's a popular thrill, saying 'We don't do that here.' Leon Kass, chair of the Council on Bioethics in the Bush administration, wrote a famous article for The New Republic in 1997, entitled 'The Wisdom of Repugnance.' 'Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power to express it,' he said. But this business of repugnance we can't quite articulate should give us pause - should make us come to a screeching halt, in fact. Why can't we articulate it? Could it be because there is nothing to articulate? If we have good reasons for doing or not doing a thing, aren't we normally able to put them in words? 'Because I said so' is all right when telling children what to do, because who has time to explain every single thing to a five-year-old, but for an actual official indeed presidential council, one expects a little more. Arm-waving and saying 'I can't explain' don't really match the job description.


Especially since people have always 'just somehow known' in their guts or their hearts or their gluteus maximus, without being able to say why, all sorts of things that the world would be better off if they hadn't just known. That Africans should be slaves, that Jews were polluting Germany, that women should be kept under house arrest at all times, that witches should be burnt, that the races must never mix. We're all too adept at thinking what we're not used to is inherently disgusting. John Ruskin never consummated his marriage because he thought his wife's pubic hair was disgusting. He'd never seen a living naked woman before, only paintings and statues, and he wasn't used to it. No doubt he thought it was very wrong of Effie to have it. All sorts of things are disgusting. Slimy wet rotting vegetation is disgusting, pus is disgusting, a swollen decomposing squirrel in the woods is disgusting. But is there any moral content to this disgust? Should the squirrel pull itself together and stop decaying in that nasty way? Should pus take thought and transform itself into peach ice cream?


Habit and familiarity have a great deal (though not everything) to do with what people find disgusting but very little to do with ethics. Cruelty, exploitation, injustice, violence don't become better with repetition, they only become easier for the perpetrators, such as the regular guys turned obedient Jew-killers of Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men. Disgust is good clean fun and provides endless amusement for children, but it's worthless as a moral compass. Saying 'Ew, ick, yuk, gross,' and saying 'That's wrong' are two different things. It's a long-standing confusion, going back to Plato if not farther, to think the beautiful is the good and the good is the beautiful, but it's not necessarily so.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think that if one wishes to pin down morality and where it came from it would be wise to try to define morality as narrowly as possible. For example I think most of what was taken as law in the OT was really about banning what a particular group found disgusting in a broader population.


I wouldn't condemn them for the attempt. Since one needs one's gut to make a final determination of what is moral and because one's gut reacts to the disgusting in pretty much the same way it reacts to the immoral the determination isn't the easiest to make. If I feel disgust at boiling a kid in its mother's milk, or eating a horse, or a dog, I will be more comfortable if I can forbid my neighbor from doing the same. But I can't really say that eating a horse is immoral.


Consider the reaction in the States to Janice Jackson's tit and the general non-reaction to the homeless. Which of these is really an issue of morality? How would you decide?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The issue of morality always leaves me with a blank stare because of the implications. I would have to agree that they are two different issues. I think morality should deal more with what causes suffering rather that what is disgusting. Then I think to myself, what can one do that won't cause suffering to someone else? If I choose to eat a horse, I would only do so if the suffering of the horse's death would be minimized. But, what if this horse had offspring that relied on it? What if there were people that would suffer due to the death of this horse?


How do we eliminate suffering for all involved. I don't think we can, but I do think it can be minimized.


How can I stand up for my country when I would rather stand up for the world? How can I not say that we should stand against others when others attack? How can I say I should?


If we have a global community, by who's morals do we abide?


This is what drives me nuts, but maybe it comes down to a matter of respect for other people's right to live the way they find morally right, if it doesn't harm others (or too many others?) Man, this drives me insane!


I do like this song by Rush though:




I see the Middle Kingdom between Heaven and Earth

Like the Chinese call the country of their birth

We all figure that our homes are set above

Other people than the ones we know and love

In every place with a name

They play the same territorial game

Hiding behind the lines

Sending up warning signs


The whole wide world

An endless universe

Yet we keep looking through

The eyeglass in reverse

Don't feed the people

But we feed the machines

Can't really feel

What international means

In different circles, we keep holding our ground

In different circles, we keep spinning round and round


We see so many tribes overrun and undermined

While their invaders dream of lands they've left behind

Better people...better food...and better beer...

Why move around the world when Eden was so near?

The bosses get talking so tough

And if that wasn't evil enough

We get the drunken and passionate pride

Of the citizens along for the ride


They shoot without shame

In the name of a piece of dirt

For a change of accent

Or the color of your shirt

Better the pride that resides

In a citizen of the world

Than the pride that divides

When a colorful rag is unfurled

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Life does not work on morality. Life runs on the concept of what works and what doesn't work. Morality, defined as "The sense of right and wrong" is a human concept. It really doesn't matter if eating a horse is right or wrong, it's more of a matter of is it really necessary? Is there no other meat available? Is horse meat something you want? Is this a healthful or hazardous option? Are you emotionally attached to horses and are disgusted at the idea of slaughtering one?


It's really more of practicality. I could not eat a cat or a dog because I find the idea of slaughtering one morally repugnant and eating the meat disgusting...but brought down between eating dog or cat meat and starving to death, I could very well put aside my revulsion for that. Life can make any moral you have completely frivolous and rediculous with the right circumstance.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

From the anthropological perspective, morals are culturally defined. That is why I have a problem with Western societies imposing their own values on other peoples in the name of social justice.


On the other hand, I see genuine suffering caused by some religion-based morals, esp. religions that promote hell for unbelievers.


However, for those religions, the suffering in this life does not count. It is the price one pays to get to heaven.


Thus, here in North American we have two opposing value systems: 1. Suffering in this life should be alleviated. 2. Suffering in this life is preparation for the afterlife.


Morals based on the first (suffering is bad; should be alleviated) are very different from morals based on the latter (suffering is good).


In the first case, people are horrified when a ten-year-old is not severely chastized for mouthing off a parent. In the second case, people are horrified when a ten-year-old is punished for being assertive with a parent.


Who is right? My own answer is: Allow the child to find and be his or her real self and all other issues will resolve themselves.


Some people mistake "being oneself" with "being nasty." Observation over time indicates that humans are inherently good. Thus, a person being his or her true self will uphold the standards of the society. I believe, and live by the belief, that people are nasty only when they don't know better. In most cases, the reason they don't know better is because they have never been treated with love. Young people may need some time to explore in order to find their real selves.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This topic is now closed to further replies.
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Guidelines.