|Two of Paul Ekman's research faces.|
Except what people call "disgust" also seems different for different kinds of outrage. What our research tends to find, using carefully varied scenarios, is that moral violations that involve harm or unfairness attract high levels of anger, and a kind of "disgust" that's very highly related to anger. But when you factor out the effects of anger, disgust really stands on its own mainly as a visceral response to moral codes about the use of the body.
In other words:
- I tell you about greedy corrupt politicians - and you may say you are disgusted, but go "grrr".
- I tell you about someone who has cloned his or her own muscle cells in order to eat a consensual, harmless, ethically sourced human steak - now you say you're disgusted, and go "yuck" - nobody is harmed, so you only go "grrr" a little - but importantly, most people (not all) feel there's something morally wrong about this technical cannibalism.
|Jack Chick's "Gay Blade"|
Back to imaginative literature and gaming. There's a tendency, most pronounced in works that aspire to "epic" or "traditional" storytelling, to stack the deck with both moral anger and moral disgust - and to help that along with liberal lashings of physical disgust. Think of Frank Herbert's Baron Harkonnen, with his boils (physical disgust), catamites (moral disgust) and underhanded cruelty (moral anger/disgust/outrage). That works, if the reader plays along with the assumptions of the work. If the reader doesn't, this all-in-one moral universe becomes a nagging flaw. I mean, I love me some Jack Vance and in particular Lyonesse, but damn if "queer = villain" doesn't get tiresome in that series.
The body is often also moralized, and overlaid with disease and deformity arguments, to feed a dehumanizing and xenophobic political agenda. Just one very obvious example: the Nazi caricature of Jews encompassed disgust at alleged physical uncleanliness, strange dietary practices, physical abnormality, and sexual licentiousness. All this came to a sharp and pointed end with the final accusation to justify the Holocaust; Jews were not just gross but dangerous and malicious. Indeed, some of our recent unpublished studies implicate fear and moral anger, as well as disgust, in the tendency to dehumanize members of other social groups.
Yeah, yeah, so fantasy heroes are little Nazis slaughtering orcs. We've all heard that before, so that even the counter-cliche itself is at risk to get worn out. In my creations, I'd prefer to keep to hand the power of bodily-moral disgust, avoiding both cliches, letting the audience draw its own conclusions. These strange customs, they are weird and gross; the high priest marries his sister, ritual scars are salted to a fine purple hue, here's a feast to which everyone contributes a slice of their own flesh. Are these marks of villainy, or of mere strangeness? Our explorers of the unknown have signed up for encounters with both, in any event, and the interpretation is up to them.