Tuesday, 6 June 2017


Richard Firth-Godbehere was at London Skeptics in the Pub to deliver his talk That's Disgusting! How Disgust Rules The World. As the second part of his double-barrelled surname, so he informed us, came from a Viking word meaning 'God of beer' a pub was the right place to be doing it. He'd even brought along a few insects to munch on while he spoke, though most of them ended up spilt on the pub carpet. Seeing the barmaid hoover them up once the talk was done was a bathetic sight - for her, me, and, not least, the insects.

Would you eat insects? Would you eat them if they were still wriggling around? Would you eat them if they'd been crunched up and put into an energy bar? I wouldn't - but that's because I'm a vegetarian - but I don't think the squeamish factor would stop me. It would a lot of people. We all have different thresholds as to what we find disgusting. In many parts of the world (Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, China) insects are consumed regularly and with no great fanfare. They're supposed to be pretty good for you and they're far better for the environment than raising cattle is.

So there are cultural reasons for what we find disgusting as well. But are there things that globally we all find disgusting? Most people would be uncomfortable with having shit smeared in their face or accidentally swallowing someone else's vomit. Some not only don't like the idea of ingesting such matter but are repulsed by it coming OUT of their bodies too. It was Firth-Godbehere's wife emetophobia that set him off on a six year long analysis and dissection of the history, philosophy, and psychology of disgust which culminated in a PhD in the English understanding of that feeling.

He'd extrapolated his findings into a belief that disgust actually rules the world! From refusing certain foods to relationships to political leanings and religious beliefs. It was here he lost me. I'm not arguing that feelings of disgust don't have huge impact on what we do, how we behave, or even what we believe but I'd say you could equally make the case for any number of emotions. Does angst rule the world? What about fear? Happiness? Desire? Lust? Shame? I'd wager that an infinitely complex mix of all these emotions are what drives us to do what we do, be who we are, and to narrow it down to just one is an over-simplification.

Firth-Godbehere came across as a likeable, jocular, chap who, perhaps down to feeling a bit nervous, tended to let his talk wander off into cul-de-sacs of digression and peppered it with too many poor jokes. It felt at times he was auditioning, unsuccessfully, for a place at a comedy festival and I felt that detracted from his highly interesting, if somewhat flawed, premise.

There was some stuff about neuroscience that he didn't really build on, some pictures of things that people might find disgusting (turds, puke, an ice cream with onions on it, rats, Donald Trump), and a very brief overview of the history of disgust which began with the Romans and moved through to the present day. One slide contained a painting of a couple having sex. As the woman was on top this was, apparently, considered disgusting in Roman times as men, as the dominant sex, should always be in the dominant position.

This showed, if nothing else, how our notion of what's disgusting changes over time. In recent years studies of disgust have shown that as recently as the 1980s a huge amount of people considered homosexuality to be repulsive and disgusting. Now, thankfully, it's a tiny amount. We can learn, we can teach, and we can be taught about disgust.

Children grow up without much of a concept of it. Some of them will happily play with their pooh. Some won't. Most adults don't. A member of the audience piped up to propose the theory, based on observing his own and other's children, that the smell of farts doesn't really bother humans until they reach about 4 or 5 years old.

We learn from those around but we also evolve. I'd have liked it if Richard had gone further back into evolutionary theories regarding disgust. It seems to me quite likely that this emotion (or reaction) must've developed for a good reason and I can't help thinking it would be a way of helping prevent us ingesting, or coming into contact with, things that are bad for us. Feces makes us feel nauseous - therefore we don't eat it.

Where the speaker did hit on something was by looking at the way politicians and propagandists use disgust. The Nazis regularly compared Jews to rats thus making their wider audience associate the two with each other (you think about Jews, you think about rats, you feel disgusted, therefore Jews = disgusting). Dehumanisation of an enemy and comparing them with disgusting things is a cowardly trick that goes back as far as history itself and, as witnessed in the recent spate of radical Islam inspired attacks, continues to this day.

Katie Hopkins' regular streams of vile filth that pour out over the pages of the Daily Mail calling migrants 'vermin' and 'cockroaches' is exactly the same technique used by the Nazis and ISIS but before us liberal minded lefties pat ourselves on the back for being better than her it's worth noting that the mere mention of her name, or that of Donald Trump, caused a huge repulsed sigh to break out across the room. Whilst the Conservatives remain the nasty party and, along with their buddies UKIP, use these slanderous and untrue techniques the most it's worth noting that some Corbynites are equally guilty of demonising the enemy. Theresa May, for all her many faults, does not barbecue and eat children as I read on my Facebook feed this morning. She disgusts me for sure - but that's because of her policies. Not because of how she looks or lies made up by those to dehumanise her.

I didn't eat the insects. I didn't believe the premise. I don't think Theresa May eats children. I don't think homosexuality is disgusting and I positively like the idea of a woman on top. According to Firth-Godbehere, in a leap of logic so wild it had me shaking my head, the reason I'm less disgusted than others is because I'm a left wing person brought up in a left-wing family. He clearly hasn't met my dad.

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