Let’s Vomit It: Disgust, Purity, and Hate

I found in a rare book, written by my uncle Mehmet Koç in 1964, a striking quotation of a public statement on a train wreck by an “unknown” state official in Turkey:

Citizens,

Regrettably, our nighty three citizens passed away in the deplorable train wreck last night. Our sorrow is overwhelming. Our only consolation is that all of the people who died are the passengers of the third class.[1]

This quotation is more than self-explanatory. In its own context, it is a textbook case for the Marxist critique of the modern state as the enthusiastic servant of the upper classes. In general, it is a disturbing example of discriminatory language in which the phrase “our only consolation” plays the trick. Here, the discrimination is class-based.

In October 2011, the newscaster Duygu Canbaş in HaberTürk TV channel innovatively used the conjunction “although” in a racist way while she presented the news on the earthquake of Van, a district in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey:

Today, Turkey is, in fact, shaken by another bitter news. Although it comes from the East, from Van, this news has deeply shaken and upset us. We are talking about the earthquake of 7.2.[2]

The appearance of the racist language in the public sphere has been normalized by the rise of the online social media. When the son of Sırrı Sakık, an MP of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), recently committed suicide right under his father’s eyes, racist tweets erupted to celebrate the “good” news. The following two tweets represent the general spirit of those hundred tweets of hate which demonstrate the current sad truth of Turkey, i.e. the sharp polarization of society where the pain and sorrow of some have become the sources of joy and amusement of others:

@meuyar06: “The son of Sırrı Sakık, the BDP’s MP of Muş, committed suicide. One more score is added to the dead terrorist number.

@kirsanzade: “By the pain of Sırrı Sakık, the BDP’s MP of Muş, I have a happy day.[3]

Hate does not necessarily emerge spontaneously; it is, rather, incited especially when its antithetical emotions of empathy and respect spread over society. When the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was killed after his dangerous “speculations” on the Armenian genocide or on the Armenian roots of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s adopted daughter Sabiha Gökçen – one of the most fundamental cults in the Turkish nation-state building process who has become the first female fighter pilot of the world after bombing Dersim in the Alewi – Kurdish rebellion of 1938 – hundreds of thousands of people assembled in his funeral, simply because they were ashamed of not being able to protect this good person. The image of his dead body where one sees only the sacred hole in one of his shoes and his words in one of his final articles of being a pigeon in a country where pigeons are not harmed were more than enough for that huge crowd to shout, “We are all Hrants, we are all Armenians!” This was the moment of empathy that was immediately countered by a hate discourse, incited by the high officials of the army, “You are all Armenians, you are all bastards!”

When hate pervades in the air, we breathe it deep into our stomachs. It is a poisonous substance, a pathogen that sickens our bodies until we vomit it and we can only vomit it, if we are truly disgusted by it. The argument that we need to feel genuine disgust towards any kind of hate discourse for the sake of our societies becomes more crucial, as one grasps the organic linkage between disgust and hate.

Notwithstanding there exist differences of gender and culture, disgust is one of the universal and basic emotions whose raison d’être is the protection of an organism from ingesting potentially harmful substances, hence promoting disease avoidance. Charles Darwin, in this respect, read the plainly expressed disgust of babies as evidence for an evolved harm avoidance system.[4] In a similar vein, a recent research on pregnant women by Daniel Fessler, the associate professor of anthropology in the UCLA’s center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture, demonstrates that disgust is a psychological survival skill of the highest order.

Disgust, however, operates in physical as well as in moral realms. When one sees, for instance, an image of rape or murder, s/he tends to turn her/his head away to prevent the incoming visual stimuli from the image. As the emotion of disgust is associated with things that are regarded as unclean, infectious, or offensive, the objects that disgust us in the moral universe are determined by our very moral codes – which are, in turn, the products of our specific contexts. A heterosexual person, for instance, might feel disgust by the image of two men kissing each other on their lips, as this image disturbs her/his moral judgments of purity while a vegetarian might feel disgust of the image of another person eating meat, as s/he has a view of vegetarianism as the pure state-of-being. Henceforth, behind the political, economic, and cultural sources of hate there lies this vital relationship between disgust and moral judgments of purity.[5]

Before Michel Foucault’s theory of bio-power, the classical theory of sovereignty defined the essence of sovereignty as the right to kill, i.e. the sovereign right of taking life or letting live. Now, for Foucault – who saw power as omnipresent and relational instead of imposed and distributed from a monolithic structure like state – modern conception of power is less of a disciplinary power that works on the level of individual as a body and more of a bio-power that operates on that of population as a species. Although bio-power as the power that makes life and let die is almost the opposite of former disciplinary power, it does not exclude it, but it integrates it, modifies it, and uses it.[6] Still, while the aim of disciplinary power is to make the individual body docile and useful through its fatal threat of death, bio-power works on generality through ratio of births to deaths, rate of reproduction, fertility of population, and morbidity (not death) in the population as a whole.[7] Here, there existed a vital paradox for Foucault to solve: How does the power to kill (e.g. the weapons of mass destructions of modern states) function in bio-power that takes life as both its object and objective? Foucault solves this paradox of bio-power with racism. Foucault argues that racism alone can justify the murderous function of state that functions in the bio-power mode, as racism introduces a break between what must live and what must die by allowing power to treat the population as a mixture of races.[8] For the Nazi bio-power, for instance, the death of the inferior races would make life healthier and purer for the Aryan race. Through this ideal of purity in the population, killing populations was justified in the logic of bio-power. The promise was the sterilization of the Aryan population from the criminal, degenerate, dissident, feeble-minded, homosexual, idle, insane, and the weak.

The totalitarian states have fallen along with their totalitarian truths on purity, symmetry, and order, but the technologies of bio-power continue to be the principal instruments and objectives of the modern states. It seems that democracy – which can be defined as the defense of diversity in our context – remains our sole foundation to take a firm stand against bio-power and our bitter historical experiences show for that struggle that it is the time to feel genuine disgust for any kind of hate discourse and vomit it before it sickens the body and soul of our societies.


[1] Mehmet Koç, Bozuk Düzen (Corrupt Order), Kayseri: Sümer Matbaası, 1964, p. 6.

[3] For other examples of such tweets of blindness towards a basic pain of a father, see: t24.com.tr

[4] For a short article on disgust, see: Richard Firth-Godbehere, “Ugh! A Brief History of Disgust”, The History of Emotions Blog, February 3, 2012, emotionsblog

[5] For this crucial relationship between disgust and moral judgments of purity, see: “Disgust and the Moralization of Purity”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 97 (6), December 2009, pp. 963 – 976.

[6] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collége de France (1975-76), Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (eds.), David Macey (trans.), London: Penguin Books, 2004, p. 242.

[7] Ibid, p. 243.

[8] Ibid, pp. 254 – 255.

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