If they see shit splattered across the floor of a public toilet, or smell the decaying carcass of an animal lying dead in a ditch, or are touched by a visibly unclean stranger or a lecherous familiar, most people feel a physical reaction bordering on the emetic: they want to throw up. As you read this, perhaps you recoil at the very memory of these, with similar, negative sensory stimulations with feelings of ‘revulsion’, a word whose dominant meaning for the past two centuries is a ‘sudden, violent form of extreme disgust’ from which we are supposed to be hardwired to ‘back away.’
As extreme disgust, ‘revulsion’ is more than an individual or idiosyncratic feeling. There is near-universal revulsion, evolutionary biologists argue, towards things that are pathogenic: blood, pus, open wounds and other bodily emissions, for example. This has had a more profound role in shaping human society than recognised, helping humanity avoid diseases and helping form ideas and practices of cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene. Those more prone to this feeling have been more successful in evading the Covid-19 pandemic, they argue, as they are likely to wash their hands more often and use sanitisers.
Of late, experimental psychologists studying the role of revulsion and disgust in determining political choices and positions find that the more the things towards which you feel revulsion and disgust, the more likely you are to be conservative or rightwing. However, before exploring the link between revulsion and politics, it is worth asking a prior question: are we predisposed, even hardwired, to feeling disgust and revulsion towards certain objects, habits and people? Clearly, some objects and habits provoke such feelings universally. But far from being a ‘natural’ response, revulsion is a cultivated response: from the time we are babies, variations of the expression chhee signal to us things for which we should feel revulsion and disgust and which we must avoid touching or eating.
Other forms of revulsion are more contained: the smell of durian fruit, described as ‘smelly gym clothes, rotting meat and raw sewage’, or of stinky or worm-infested cheeses, does not deter their fans from proclaiming them as tasting exquisite, discernible only to the most refined palettes and noses. Consuming animal urine and faeces would be considered with revulsion and disgust in most societies but are part of religious practice, even a source of good health, in India. Sedimented culture and lived experience, then, is the backdrop against which some people feel revulsion towards some things and not towards others.
But revulsion and disgust are not the only feelings towards things we are taught as children. Far from it. Politics, especially rightwing politics the world over, has identified habits, and by extension, those whose habits these are, as objects of revulsion and disgust. Words and images, historical facts and, increasingly, fake news and untruths, media and social media ephemera circulated through the multiple flows in which we are embedded, operate to orient us to regard entire groups of people with these feelings.
The best-known instance of cultivating revulsion towards an entire group of people is that which was directed towards Jews in Europe, described in popular and high culture for centuries as drinking the blood of children, living in dirty ghettoes,infested with lice, likened to rats, termites and cockroaches, parasitic on the body politic, weakening it from within. Returning the body politic to a state of purity, vigour and strength needed their excision from it. These prejudices were deep, and while acted upon most notoriously in Nazi Germany, were also common elsewhere in Europe which saw mass evictions, pogroms and massacres of Jews. Revulsion towards Roma and homosexual populations led to their deaths in concentration camps. A revulsion towards enslaved and subjugated peoples, cultivated in language, culture and emerging forms of knowledge, resulted in colonial brutalities.
Recently, cultivating revulsion towards people has taken centre-stage in determining political outcomes worldwide. Preceding Brexit, British media ran several stories of Eastern European ‘criminal gangs’, ‘beggars’ and ‘benefit scroungers’. Central to the QAnon cult in the US was its story of ‘cannibalistic paedophilic liberals’, Revulsion towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is a prominent theme animating the rise of the alt-right across Europe today: stories of the affront they cause to European sensibilities by their behaviour in public places and in swimming pools with ‘European women’ and by associating them with ‘no-go areas’ proliferate. A cultivated revulsion leading to a violent response is common to many variants of the far right currently in government: Duterte’s disgust towards sellers and consumers of drugs have so far produced more than 15,000 deaths in the Phillipines. In Brazil, the recently defeated Bolsonaro government cultivated revulsion towards Amazonian indigenous groups, the Brazilian Left, and sexual minorities, leading to police and vigilante violence. Revulsion for Arabs has accompanied settler and state-sponsored violence against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
The cultivation of revulsion and its violent outcomes are evident closer home in India. Feeling and affect, it is now widely accepted, both have a mobilising role in the politics of Hindutva. Like other forms of the contemporary global far right, Hindutva does not only highlight ‘differences’ between the Hindu majority and the ‘others’ but also cultivates revulsion towards the ‘others’ whom it serially constructs as disgusting, deserving radical exclusion from history, from society and from the body-politic of the nation. Primal sensory feelings decide those who defile nation and society.
To feel revulsion towards fellow citizens makes them less than human, indeed a threat to other humans. This is necessary to garner social consent to deny them rights and recourse to law and inflict relentless violence on them. Not all of this is new: I recall, growing up in Bihar, the word miyan being used to describe smells and tastes specific to Muslims, always used with a sense of recoil. But the large-scale revulsion towards Muslims is recent, constructed and kept alive by media. Almost the entirety of India’s TV news media participated in creating this revulsion towards Muslims, accusing them falsely of ‘spreading the pandemic’, preparing the ground for vigilante and state violence. A meme, for instance, asks ‘Why do they spit on food?’ followed by pictures of Muslim-owned eateries, of Muslims preparing food for charity, or weddings, seemingly spitting on food: ‘It is their religion’, ‘it is part of Sharia’, say Hindutva adherents of all castes and classes. Even Shah Rukh Khan, India’s best loved Muslim, is accused of ‘spitting’ at the dead body of Lata Mangeshkar when he went to pay his respects after her death, rather than offering dua (prayers).
Similarly, feelings of revulsion towards Dalits are also sedimented and kept alive through language and ever-evolving practices: words like ‘dom-khana’, ‘dom-ghauj’ etc., common in Bihar, carry a sense revulsion within them. The very idea of being ‘touched’ by them invokes revulsion. We hear far too regularly of the parents of dominant caste women attacking and killing Dalit men who married their daughters, denial of entry into temples, assaults on Dalits who do enter them, cleansing rituals post their visit, no matter how high an office the Dalit person in question was holding. At the mid-day meal scheme in schools and at Covid-19 quarantine centres, it is frequently reported that the food prepared by Dalit cooks was refused.
The vicious rumour of ‘love-jihad’, and the violence on Dalit men who marry or have relations with dominant-caste women, ignites revulsion because it suggests touch, and the possibility of the exchange of bodily fluids: both negating the acceptable limits of the feeling of true ‘love’.
From difference to otherness, from otherness to vilification, from vilification to revulsion and from revulsion to violence: we have been on this road many times. The cultivated feeling of revulsion helps us deny a common humanity. The denial of a common humanity is what, sadly, a lot of politics worldwide is about these days. As a sensory feeling, revulsion causes prejudice: an instinctive decision we arrive at prior to moral or rational judgement. Perhaps, we need to revisit revulsion: medical anthropologists say that exposing ourselves to that towards which we feel revulsion gives immunity and builds a stronger body. Could this be a metaphor for how to build a healthier body politic?
(Views expressed are personal)
Subir Sinha is reader in the theory and politics of international development at SOAS university of London
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Irrationality Of Revulsion")