Bodily Products: Insects as Yucky Stuff
Hair, feces, urine, mucus, saliva, sweat, blood, vomit: this is the stuff of primal, visceral disgust. At least most insects aren't hairy (furry caterpillars notwithstanding), so aside from defecating, regurgitating lubber grasshoppers, insects don’t generally contaminate our world with their bodily products. However, the final species of disgust is another matter.
Bodily Violations: Insects as Invaders
Last summer, I was sitting with my son while he was being prepped for surgery to reassemble his shattered collarbone—a rather grisly bodily violation, in my queasy estimation. Out in the hall, I heard a brief ruckus and my son’s nurse say, “Oh thank you! I couldn't do that. It just turns my stomach.” I peeked around the corner and saw that a medical technician had squashed a cricket.
Insects in hospitals, metal screws in bones—transgressions of boundaries. Clinical psychologist Susan Miller argues that the greater the potential for something to enter us, the greater the disgust:
Small, primitive life-forms close at hand are especially likely to disgust us. I believe this is because they seem too likely to enter us or at least to latch on … they seem hungry for an affiliation with something more substantial. If they are structurally designed to cling or ooze, the problem worsens.
Lice infesting pubic hair and worms squirming from an anus are paradigm cases of creatures violating our boundaries—of insinuating, transgressing, trespassing. Our essential "self" is compromised when our biological or psychic skin is breached. We might also feel revolted when we are the violators, as when we penetrate an amorphous, protean mass of grasshoppers.
Having considered these species of disgust, we might wonder whether insects would fare as well (or badly, depending on one’s perspective) with other taxonomies. Does Rozin have it in for these creatures—or is there something about them that any cataloging would reveal? Let’s conclude with a whirlwind tour through the paired terms that William Miller uses to classify disgust (which he associates with the second descriptor in each pair): inorganic/organic, plant/animal, human/animal, us/them, me/you, outside of me/inside of me, dry/wet, fluid/viscid, firm/squishy, nonadhering/sticky, still/wiggly, uncurdled/curdled, life/death-decay, health/disease, beauty/ugliness, up/down, right/left, cold-hot/clammy-lukewarm, tight/loose, moderation/ surfeit, one/many. We might quibble about just how many of the latter terms pertain to insects, but it seems reasonable to describe many of “them” as organic, squishy, sticky, wiggly, ugly, animals associated with surfeit, death, decay, and disease.
So we see that disgust arises from a complicated set of sensory experiences and cognitive associations. However, not only the triggers of disgust but the feeling itself is, well, sloppy. Like a sticky, mucous substance, disgust is difficult to separate from other emotions. However, coming to understand the entanglements is vital to understanding the infested mind.
This post is adapted from Jeffrey Lockwood's The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects.