In the Face of Digital India, It’s Time for a Public Disgust Discourse

If there is a disgust-discourse around human scavenging, this might provoke a larger social movement, where people who have always been disgusted by excrement are now equally disgusted at the social order built around its cleaning up.

Representative image. Credit: Sharada Prasad CS/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Representative image. Credit: Sharada Prasad CS/Flickr CC BY 2.0

India isn’t disgusted enough.

In the rhetoric of Digital India and smart cities, we refuse to pay attention to the organic and the material that enables these new developments. Turn to the paradox of such a revolutionary new step for the country, where SEZs (Special Economic Zones), ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and such acronymised environments of air-conditioned, glass-and-mortar offices or havens of cyberpleasure sit uneasily with something so primitive, so non-modern and so organic.

The system of human scavenging, one would imagine, should be the dead past by now, given the legislation (now an incredible 23 years old), protests and activism. Yet news reports about human scavenging and lives lost while cleaning sewers continue to appear, in small print of course, in our public culture. The news reports are horrific – that humans should suffer in their professions like this.

Why is there no moral outrage at the state of affairs? Perhaps this is because India does not generate an adequately thick discourse of disgust. We have outrage, patriotism, pride and despair, but not disgust.

Disgust is an aversive emotion triggered by the appearance of something we hope we never have to come in contact with, as Colin McGinn argues in The Meaning of Disgust. Disgust drives our avoidance mechanisms, so we hope to retain our purity by steering clear of certain objects, taboos and conversations. McGinn writes about the disgust over excrement:

Disease [from excrement] is the major problem, but human disgust follows close behind. The cause is unpopular partly because people don’t want to have to wallow too much in the disgusting issue of human excrement.

Excrement in itself is disgusting and so is talking about it – social etiquette finds it offensive. However, the disgust around excrement which prevents conversations about it also produces a complete, non-odorous black box around the people who work with it, in it, literally. The disgust around bodily functions and a byproduct of such functions therefore enables the silence around the people who have been, thanks to the impossibly cruel caste system, consigned to the task of cleaning it all up, so that the towns and cities are not ‘polluted’. In our sincere attempts to not bring up disgusting topics, we shut out the people most affected by the disgusting object. We have thus located the hapless safai karamcharis also onto the disgust continuum, thereby mixing the object with those who help move the object away from our delicate sensibility, and we avoid both. The absence of a disgust-discourse, not around excrement but its social ramifications in terms of employment, ostracisation, etc., poses serious problems.

The role of disgust

Outrage at atrocities might be effectively channelised through disgust-discourse. Politician or celebrity behaviour – which now covers all categories envisaged by the Criminal Procedure Code and some which it didn’t – triggers anger and, more often, despair. Would disgust add to this another layer? Perhaps it would. The great 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson wrote: “Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust”. But what would it add exactly?

Disgust lasts longer than outrage because things that disgust, commentators tell us, establish normative codes, structures of feeling and conditioned responses. Certain things like bodily fluids, degeneration and organic waste have disgusted us ever since we developed notions of civilisation. These are objects that can only be read in one way.

Disgust based rhetoric drives emotion, both individual and collective, and therefore is influential. Daniel Kelly in Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust goes so far as to say that subliminal disgust can have dramatic effects and may exert some power on judgments. It can result in moral judgments, risk aversion and economic calculations. William Ian Miller in The Anatomy of Disgust notes the language of disgust in the enunciation of moral judgments: ‘he gives me the creeps’, ‘I nearly puked when I heard that’, among others. Disgust generates moral judgments, when the conversation revolves around what disgusts most of us, and this is where it plays a socially significant role, if we can generate a thick enough disgust-discourse.

Because of this moral effect of disgust, if there is a disgust-discourse in operation around issues like human scavenging, this might provoke a larger social movement, where people (and not just the immediately affected safai karamcharis, who have been agitating for years now) who have always been disgusted by excrement are now equally disgusted at the social order built around its cleaning up processes. In other words, disgust-discourse may help put together a campaign from disgusted people. For this it might be essential to shift the discourse away from the object to the object-handlers.

Disgust-discourse relies on the cultural transmission of disgust, where what disgusts you need not necessarily disgust me, but some things definitely disgust both (and most) of us. A strategic universalism built around objects and processes – excretion is of course universal – might be effectively harnessed to generate cultural transmission of disgust as a socially transformative discourse.

Disgust-discourse forces us to respond only in morally outraged and offended ways: there is no neutral position possible on reading disgusting objects or disgusting jobs. If it repulses us, we should ensure it is avoided, for us as well as for others. Disgust is a socially powerful moral discourse that can then reject the object and the people who are forced to work with the object. The universalism inherent in disgust at the organic, in particular, does not allow us to say, ‘what is disgusting for me in excrement is tolerable for others’.

Disgust response involves withdrawal, a sense of being offended and the anxiety of contamination. This means we need, to quote Kelly, a “distinctive, easily decodable component that could act as a straightforwardly recognisable signal”. Such a component might be the object of disgust that does not figure in textbooks, polite social conversation or public discourse. We acknowledge what we have tried to avoid so far, that has resulted in avoiding the people working with disgust as well. Disgust-discourse combined with moral outrage might enable us to see the human cost, paid by some sections of society, of our efforts at avoidance.

This disgust-discourse would of course slide into debates about what Michael Ignatieff called ‘moral disgust’. It is disgust at the failures of moral actions to have any effect. However, this is not the only way in which moral disgust can act. Since outrage has failed to get the necessary leverage against social evils like human scavenging or political corruption, perhaps the time has come to shift the focus to the extreme aversive emotion of disgust. Unlike speculative fears and mythic monsters that trigger panic or fear, disgust “signals seriousness, commitment, indisputability, presentness and reality”, as Miller puts it.

Disgust-discourse returns us to the organic. Since the near-universal triggers of disgust are corporeal and organic, this might be the necessary temper to the glowing discourse of modernity itself. The inorganic – machines, to start with – that has enabled us to move away, as McGinn notes, from the organic has climaxed in the rhetoric of ‘Digital India’ and such. But the digital can only be built upon wires, installations, cables, infrastructures – all of which require labour. The core inorganic materiality of the new development remains rooted in the organic: the body of the labourer. So a return to the question of human labour through a disgust-discourse can be utilised to address forms of labour, which would include labour at disgusting works. The emphasis on the clean digital evades the dirty corporeal, further exacerbating the labour divide and condemning certain people to certain (disgusting) professions.

With Digital India, we need a disgust-discourse.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad