Aesthetic experiences are powerful. They can help us remember particular moments by creating a sensual account in our memory. But they can also help us when we are describing an amazing experience, situation, or object to someone else. Basically, the aesthetic aspects we encounter enhance whatever else we may be experiencing. Sometimes it is the aesthetic object itself, but it can also be another kind of experience that has an amazing aesthetic component. These positive aesthetic experiences are primarily what we discuss when speaking about aesthetics.
We use aesthetic concepts to describe our experiences or perceptions, the encounters with our senses. The most common would be beauty and ugliness. But we also use words like dainty, gross, elegant, and disgusting. This last one ‘disgusting’ and its synonyms are of interest in this entry. Just as positive aesthetic concepts, like beauty, can have a positive affect, so negative aesthetic concepts, like disgusting, can have negative affects.
Negative aesthetic concepts can have a more powerful affect, especially to influence others, than facts or reasons. This strategy has been employed as a means to oppress and disenfranchise people in social and political realms. While aesthetic experiences can have rational or intellectual components, they also have an emotional component. The emotions seem to be more powerful at governing someone’s taste, which impacts moral judgments as well. And this is precisely why negative aesthetic concepts are a powerful tool of propaganda.
This capacity of judgments of taste to short-circuit or overrun our capacity for moral judgment is of course often exploited by dictators and other seducers of nations. Dehumanization very often operates with the help of negative aesthetic concepts.Per Bauhn, “Judgments of Taste and Cultural Conflict,” in On Taste: Aesthetic Exchanges.
Rather than present reasoned arguments against a group of people or a particular practice, the dictator (or other spokesperson) will refer to this group or practice as ‘disgusting.’ For a less pernicious example, many meat-eaters in America would not think to eat a cat or a dog. The main reason is likely that it fills them with disgust, rather than they have strong moral reasons for choosing to eat some animals and not others. While there might be moral reasons (or other kinds of reasons) to eat or not to eat certain animals, it seems that these reasons are not the main guidance for action.
The way people talk about other people, cultures, and practices can have a strong influence over the acceptance (and treatment) of those people, cultures, and practices. Think about the way convicts are often characterized in America as ‘animals’ (not cute animals, but disgusting ones). In some Norwegian countries, those in prison are referred to as clients, rather than convicts. And this simple word choice changes the attitude of guards and prisoners. It’s obviously not the only factor, but it is interesting to note that the recidivism rate in Norway is about 20%, the lowest in the world. And it seems tied to how they view and treat prisoners.
Word choices make a difference. And the use of aesthetic concepts to speak about people both favorably and unfavorably can have a very significant affect over time. The problem with using aesthetic concepts to oppress is that rational discussion has been taken off the table. It is not the case that there couldn’t be a rational discussion. But once people believe that a group of people or a practice is disgusting, it becomes very difficult for them to change their minds. In 2017, there was a New Yorker article that discusses why facts do not change our minds. It’s kind of disheartening to think that once we get an idea in our heads, it becomes very difficult for us to believe something else. But it’s not impossible.
Whether we like it or not, we are swayed by aesthetic taste proclamations, both negative and positive. These are not the only factors, but they are powerful ones. And the more we are already inclined to believe something, the more easily the aesthetic concept helps to push us over the edge. I reflect on the use of negative aesthetic concepts, like ‘disgusting,’ as a cautionary tale to myself and others. We should be aware at how easily we can be manipulated by these aesthetic concepts that trigger our impulses. This is why discussing with others of different beliefs can be so crucial. We don’t have to change our minds about everything, but it is important to expand them by interacting with a multiplicity of perspectives.
For Further Reading:
Lars Aagaard-Mogensen and Jane Forsey, editors, On Taste: Aesthetic Exchanges, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019. (especially Chapters 3 and 5).