You are probably disgusted by more than you think and its preventing you from positive growth.
Disgust is an extremely important reflex. I say reflex because it initially appears far below our level of conscious awareness. In many instances, it just seems to happen.
From an evolutionary perspective, we need disgust. It keep us physically healthy and societally secure. The most obvious example is of rotten or tainted food. One smell can immediately trigger disgust. Those with a less conservative disgust reflex are more prone to illness and death from bad food. Pregnant and nursing women develop a heightened disgust response as a defense mechanism for the significantly weaker and less experienced immune systems of their fetuses and infants.
Our highly tuned disgust reflexes also serve to protect us from outside threats. We can feel a disgust response toward individuals or groups who look different, act and live differently, eat differently, and hold different cultural values. This proves a double edged sword. On the positive side, it helps us preserve our own value structure and way of life and protects us from invaders and pathogens that might threaten our safety. Disgust toward outside influence can protect a community, it’s individuals, and the values that they hold dear.
There are costs to this reflex as well. Repulsion of “outsiders” can limit personal development and societal growth. Outside influence can introduce immensely positive factors that may have never arisen internally. This holds true both at the individual level and for larger communities. Interaction and idea-sharing between individuals from different cultures can teach both actors more about themselves. Meeting someone with drastically different values and traditions than you acts like a mirror for you to truly see yourself, free from the cultural context that you have always seen yourself within. From this interaction, you can discern the difference between human universals and your personal cultural beliefs. Seeing another person thrive and find rich fulfillment in a completely different situation from your own demonstrates that most of which we hold dear is only important within our societal constructs.
On a purely practical level, outsiders can add to the strength of a community. By blending tactics in different factors such as education, healthcare, and food production, societies optimize such practices. A broader gene pool for reproduction will give the subsequent generations what geneticists refer to as hybrid vigor - a strength and resilience in offspring from taking the best from two very different gene pools.
Disgust both serves and limits, protects and stunts growth. It helps us to keep our body, our values, and our traditions safe and sovereign. But, it also blocks new ideas that might shatter pre-existing assumptions to allow new growth and insight.
Optimal living comes in finding a balance. We must seek to understand what triggers our disgust, when to heed the warning, and when to push past our initial impulse.
When Disgust Goes Too Far
Disgust is a biological trigger. We take a whiff of rancid food and immediately recoil. We observe a “disgusting” tradition such as honoring the dead by eating their body and feel repulsed and entirely incapable of ever condoning (let alone participating in) such an act.
These are initial reactions - a biological response that happens deeper and far more immediately than our conscious mind can operate. We will always have these initial impulses on a variety of biological and emotional triggers. These are gifts that simply inform our internal environment about the details of our external environment. They are one step beyond our five senses and far below conscious thought, reason, and logic.
Overcoming disgust does not mean turning off this initial response. It means receiving it as information, pausing long enough to allow your higher order thought to take over, and acting accordingly.
Disgust as an impulse is a good thing. Disgust as a deeper held emotion or feeling limits your ability to think and act objectively.
Disgust and People and Politics
Much of the current partisan chasm in the political sphere is explained by disgust. Identity politics relies on our highly tuned disgust reflex. Practitioners of the identity politics game know exactly which disgust reflexes to flick and activate to pander to the ideological views of their given supporter demographic.
Liberal politicians and pundits claim that conservatives support “locking kids in cages” and throw around around “Nazi” so freely that has lost its cultural sting (a decade ago the term “Nazi” had a shock factor lost today, a severe disservice to the real victims of Nazism). Conservatives fire back with images of murdered fetuses and deviant sexual acts. Rather than seeking real debate over issues, these tactics aim only demonize the other side by triggering the disgust reflexes of those who already agree with them.
While a “disgusting” tactic on its own, this identity politics pandering only works on the individuals who have adopted their disgust triggers as deeper held values.
Certainly our disgust reflexes will inform our higher thought and thus, our personal values. However, allowing your disgust triggers, a simple biological response, to travel unchecked along the path to emotion and eventually belief, eliminates the possibility to find common ground with your fellow human. I believe that most of the current resistance to homosexuality comes not from an ideological or religious belief, but from simple disgust at the thought of homosexual acts. I have male family members who claim the Bible as the source of their anti-gay beliefs. They recoil at the sight of two men kissing on TV, yet exhibit almost no disgust trigger at the sight of two women kissing. Clearly, it is not the act itself (a kiss is kiss) but their own imagined disgust how they would feel in kissing another man.
Optimal living and (inspired human) development relying on understanding your own disgust triggers and developing the skill to know when and how to overcome them.
With openness and time, we can grow accustomed to almost everything. Like an acquired taste for certain foods, we can come to appreciate, adopt, and even value ideas, traditions, and practices that once repulsed us.
If I held tightly to childhood disgust I would have never developed the love for many of my favorite foods like black coffee, red wine, dark chocolate, avocados, Brussel sprouts, and spinach. I used to hold judgement for individuals who did not share my health and nutritional values. While this was not a strong disgust response, I have learned to not expect others to share every value and this enables a more free enjoyment of the hobbies and activities that we share a passion for. I have felt a repulsion toward others’ romantic relationships. I was turned off by the relationship dynamic between two people who I love dearly as individuals. This disgust came from projecting myself into the confines of their relationship and imagining how I would feel within their dynamic. Much like my straight family members imagining themselves in homosexual acts, my personal views and desires for my romantic relationship have no part of another partnership.
This is the key to overcoming disgust. When you feel initial revulsion to anything, be it food, a political belief, or someones lifestyle/values, do not judge yourself for feeling put off. It was a simple first reaction and you now have the power to understand what it means and think, feel, and act accordingly. The next step is to realize that most disgust come from imagined feelings in hypothetical situations. If you find something disgusting, simply do not partake. Do not equate your personal disgust with objective moral wrong.
I find it helpful to examine these issues through a simple question. Ask yourself, “does this affect my life in the slightest?” For almost all issues, the answer is “no.” Even if you continue to feel the biological disgust, you do not need to extend your disgust to individuals who do not share it. I may never get over my revulsion of pickles. Their mere smell makes my recoil. If I extended this disgust to those who love pickles I would find myself very quickly without my current romantic partner.
It is important to point out that feeling disgusted by something does not qualify as it “affecting your life.” The “I don’t want to live it a world where homosexuality exists” defense is as silly as me claiming that “I don’t want to live in a world where pickles and pickle-eaters exist.”
While I have tread into political and ideological waters, I want to distance this argument from any individual issue. Getting used to the idea of something that previously disgusted you allows you to evaluate foods, ideas, traditions, and people more objectively. We might try a food that repulsed us as child to find that we now love it (except pickles, they will always be disgusting). We might develop a friendship whose bond transcends factors that once would have prevented interaction, let alone love. We might travel to a new place whose cultural values might have previously repulsed us, only to fall in love with an exotic and new way of life.
Know that you will encounter disgust. Consider it an addition to your five senses rather than a permanently held belief. When something initially puts you off, it might remain that way, but it might just be a small hurdle blocking an amazing, horizon-expanding experience.