Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recovering and Retraining Revulsion

Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, makes a compelling case that both liberals and conservatives experience moral outrage and believe themselves to be making moral decisions, but that the character of their morality is very different. What struck me is that conservatives, in addition to being far more authoritarian, use the emotion of disgust a lot.

So, what is disgust or revulsion? It is deeply primal and clearly is tied in with our animal natures and evolution. Revulsion is that virtually non-cognitive feeling when we encounter something that could make us sick and kill us. It is the emotion that keeps us from eating meat that has maggots in it. It is the emotion that keeps us from getting shit on our hands and then putting our hands anyplace close to our mouth before washing first. It is really, really powerful. Haidt has examples that just literally make my skin crawl and make me nauseous and it is very hard to argue against that visceral feeling and say that something is morally okay when it evokes that reaction.

The question, then, is how is it used and why. At its most basic, that intense feeling is about the survival and care of our animal selves...and is an important warning system. But over time, what has happened is that it has been used, very skillfully, to evoke that reaction to things that are not harmful. The main arena in which this has been used is sexuality. This is probably because there may be real animal-nature revulsion to having sex with close kin, that would result in genetic problems. But this feeling has been expanded to all sorts of things that, frankly, aren't relevant.  There is nothing dangerous to the survival of the animal nature about same-sex relations, nor about menstruating women, or about sex in general.  But somehow over the course of many, many, many generations, people have been trained to experience revulsion at many of these things. Not only that, but the revulsion gets generalized and laid straight on the people themselves.

 I think we are kidding ourselves if we do not realize that many people on the right experience disgust about not just same-sex relations, but gay people and lesbians, and women, and anyone who makes them feel sexual. And disgust is so strong, that it is a very effective tool of authoritarian power because it can be used to redirect hostility against those who would limit personal freedom by giving people a substitute target with such a visceral power behind it. I do think retraining these aspects comes from making it clear that those people who are experiencing this kind of revulsion are NOT moral. It is inappropriate revulsion that has nothing to do with morality.

 That then, is a meditation about how disgust is used towards things that are inappropriate.

 That's only half the problem, though. We, collectively and individually, are doing a TON of things that ARE actually harmful to our animal nature...in other words, our very bodily survival. And do we experience revulsion? Usually not! We feel morally outraged by fracking and water pollution, but do we really feel the kind of visceral disgust like we do if we think about touching rotting, maggoty meat with our bare hands? I know I don't. But I should because this is poisoning our water and that is exactly the reason why this emotion exists.

 The moral outrage on the left about all of these devastating environmental problems doesn't tend to have the power of visceral revulsion behind it. If it did, we would be making more progress. If we could retrain our animal natures to experience this kind of revulsion for environmental degradation, we would fix it...and clearly the animal nature can be trained to experience revulsion because it has been done in regards to harmless sexuality that was once not experienced that way (witness ancient Hellenic sexuality where bisexuality was the norm).

 An example of how this is working now is that when I go out and walk through the neighborhood, I pick up and throw away all plastic trash that I see....which is an alarming amount. Now, I have literally been told, "don't touch that, it's dirty." This is revulsion and disgust speaking. And the answer is, "you are damn right it's dirty...and it's going to go into the water if I don't pick it up!"

 The disgust at the possibility of this going into the water supply, where it can do real damage, has to start trumping the more immediate...which is a retraining.

 As an occultist, I believe that for all that we tend to experience ourselves as individuals, on another level of reality, we are cells in a greater mind - that there IS an oversoul of humanity, if you will. That those decisions that we make, those experiences that we have, those things that we learn all have a power to influence more than just one individual without necessarily "teaching" others. And, furthermore, I believe that as occultists, because we work intentionally and consciously with this aspect of the Greater Self of humanity, we can have disproportionate impact.

 So, I invite you to consider this challenge. Let's retrain our sense of revulsion to really call up that visceral disgust in regards to environmental degradation so that it is not only cognitively based moral outrage but has the same feeling as getting shit all over your hands (to be gross, but accurate). What we are dealing with is far more dangerous than that.

1 comment:

Byron Ballard said...

This is brilliant! The notion of retraining and the powerful descriptorsof/for revulsion and disgust are food for much thought. Thanks, Gwendolyn!