The Politics of Revulsion

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the  politics of revulsion, because I think that they lie at the root of a lot of problems we experience as a society, especially problems related to inclusion and acceptance. The very idea that inclusion is often called ‘tolerance’ speaks to the way social attitudes entangle the mind and bewitch the senses; ‘tolerance’ is not inclusion, it’s just ‘tolerance.’ It’s predicated on the idea that something needs to be tolerated and this suggests, then, that there is something bad or unpleasant or squicky or simply icky about something. When that ‘something’ is a body, an identity, a way of being, it’s easy to see how harmful social attitudes persist, because people are being taught not to love, to embrace, but to tolerate.

The politics of revulsion.

There are a lot of things in this world that revolt me. I’d give you a short list, except that the point is that I don’t feel the need to share my views about what revolts me, let alone impose them on others. There are some food products that I find deeply suspect and are things that I, personally, would never eat. It’s important to me to recognise that, to say ‘yes, I know my own tastes, and this is not to be my preference.’ But I don’t really think that it’s necessary for me to tell other people how to think, to impose my beliefs about tastes on to others, to tell people that they are somehow bad or failing if they do not agree with me on the relative disgustingness of a given food item.

It’s fine to think that some things are revolting. Really. It is. I think that we should all make a good faith effort to explore the roots of our revulsion, to examine it, to see if it is perhaps possible to overcome. But some things just aren’t going to happen, no matter how much they are forced. There are some foods that will always make me gag, and I know why I don’t like them, and I know how I don’t like them, and I have explored them, and I have tried to overcome my dislike, and it’s just never going to happen. Ever. So I move on. Maybe in 10 years I will have grown as a person and I will feel differently.

I certainly think that classifying people in contrast with things as revolting is extremely problematic. If you’re doing it, I certainly don’t want to hear about it, and I seriously hope you are questioning why you think that. Unfortunately, a lot of people do consider groups of people revolting and are outspoken about it, and this creates the politics of revulsion.

I don’t think it’s really necessary for me to know what revolts you, for you to know what revolts me. If I’m having you over for dinner, sure. That’s a good time to mention ‘hey, I didn’t know if you were aware, but I really don’t like oysters’ so that I know not to prepare something with oysters. There are places and times where it is entirely appropriate to voice preferences, where refraining from doing so could result in being exposed to something that revolts you, upsets you. Where a well meaning host might be thinking that ou is doing the right thing and end up doing the exact opposite. We wouldn’t want that.

And when those preferences are voiced, to couch them in a neutral way. ‘Pigs’ feet are not to my preference’ as opposed to ‘EW! Pigs’ feet are SO disgusting! I can’t believe anyone would eat those! YUCK!’

But, you know, when it comes to people? Bodies? Identities? I can’t really think of any setting where it would be appropriate to tell me that an entire class of people revolts you, let alone for you to try to impose that on me. Yet this is the fundamental underpinning of so many social attitudes. Look at the furor of anti-immigration sentiment being whipped up in this country right now. That’s based in the politics of revulsion. Them, they, those people. That’s what it’s based in, is the idea that groups of people can be undesirable, and that one can and should speak up about one’s revulsion, and that, additionally, steps should be taken.

Steps like barring people from entering the country because you don’t like them. Sterilising people you think shouldn’t have children. Excluding people from public events because they’re not ‘the right kind.’ This is all based in the politics of revulsion. It is all predicated on the idea that we have a right, nay, an obligation, to share our opinions and to force others to conform to them. An act of public service, as it were, to ensure that everyone is on board with being revolted about something. About a group of someones, even.

I see this coming up again and again with gay rights. The denial of full civil rights to those of us who identify as gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual…this is based on the idea that we are revolting. We should be tolerated, sure, because that is the nice and socially responsible thing to do. It is important, even, for the people who oppress us to let us know just how much they tolerate us. They really care, they do, they just don’t want us in public. They don’t want us acting all gay, you know, where people could see us and be exposed.

This is based on the assumption that most people agree that we are disgusting. And that those who do not will shortly be convinced because the arguments are just so damn compelling. I see these arguments trotted out all the time. I know that people think we don’t notice, or that we rise above it, but we see what is said about us. We interact with what is said about us. We know that there are people who want to make sure that everyone understands exactly how disgusting and reprehensible we are. Our own President, a man many of us voted for, approved a briefing comparing homosexuality to child rape.

The politics of revulsion. This is where we end up, when we say that it is somehow an act of goodness to ‘tolerate’ and when we say that it is ok to force values on others.