Articles worth discussing: “Our Culture of Contempt” (Arthur Brooks) & “Yuck!” (Jiayang Fan)

Here are two magazine articles that I recommend to you. They are on a topic that should be of interest to all Americans, and especially to all Christians in America. The topic is disgust.

Disgust, of course, is common to human experience in a fallen world. By itself it isn’t a bad thing. One time it kept me from eating a boiled egg that looked fine from the outside but stank when I cracked it open. My sense of disgust ruined my breakfast; even the cereal suddenly was unappetizing. Chances are we’ve all come across something that disgusted us—a decaying mouse carcass behind a bookcase, a piece of rotten food forgotten in the back of the refrigerator, some demeaning comment said with cruelty and a snarl.

And it is this last manifestation of disgust that shifts from appropriate to inappropriate. No, that’s wrong. The shift is to wickedness, hurtful, destructive, and inexcusable—what the followers of Jesus call sin.

Our Culture of Contempt: The problem in America today is not incivility or intolerance. It’s something far worse” by Arthur C. Brooks in The New York Times (March 2, 2019).

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, argues that it is one thing to disagree over some issue, and quite another to hold those who disagree with us in contempt. I’ve written about this before (you can read it here) but the problem is urgent enough that I encourage you to prayerfully reflect on it for yourself and use this brief piece to discuss it with friends.

“What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better,” Brooks says. “And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers—the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful. Unless a leader is actually teaching you something you didn’t know or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, you are being used. Next, each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible—no one has ever been hated into agreement, after all—so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

“Yuck!: The gatekeepers who get to decide what food is ‘Disgusting’” by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker (May 17, 2021).

Jiayang Fan’s debut book is to be released in 2023 and based on the quality of writing in this wonderful article, I plan to purchase a copy as soon as it is available. Fan visits (via Zoom due to the pandemic) the Disgusting Food Museum, in Malmö, Sweden. Yep: it really exists, and includes, at the end of the tour, a tasting buffet. And yep: museum staff keep track of the number of times guests’ vomit. “Mercifully,” Fan mentions dryly, “admission tickets are printed on airplane-style barf bags.”

The description of the museum and the various foods it includes made me laugh and wonder at the amazing range of tastes displayed by the human race. Fan writes with a keen eye for detail and a delicious wit that makes her essay a delight.

And then Fan turns the tables on us, noting how some of the food in the museum’s buffet is not disgusting to her, but delicious, full of sweet memories from her childhood in China with beloved grandparents. And then she takes another turn, relating how she, as an Asian American has endured harassment from strangers who say, “disgusting Chink!” as they pass her on the subway. “Something happens when you discover that you yourself are ‘disgusting.’ It does not matter whether you believe it to be true. Shame and fear flood your body, as involuntarily as the disgust face, until a kind of self-disgust takes root. The origins of self-disgust have yet to be fully understood, but scientists speculate that the emotion likely arises from the internalization of others’ disgust. It is also a unique form of torture; to be perceived as repugnant is to live inside that repugnance, desperate to expel you from yourself.”

Funny, wonderful, thoughtful, and poignant, “Yuck!” reveals both how what one person considers disgusting in terms of food can be a delicacy to someone else, and how treating people with disgust is unimaginably evil.

The reflection questions these two articles naturally evoke is an opportunity to think deeply, both about ourselves and about our society.

What beliefs, practices, or values disgust us?

What sorts of people disgust us?

Of what do we need to repent, and perhaps make amends?

What resources does the Christian faith and Scripture provide for dealing with our inappropriate and sinful expressions of disgust and contempt?

What do we need to learn about disagreeing appropriately?

How might the Church, and individual followers of Jesus, bring healing in a society divided by contempt?

How can we prepare for being objects of disgust in a society increasingly hostile to Christian faith? “Blessed are you,” Jesus says, “when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you (or cast out your name as evil), on account of the Son of man! Rejoice on that day and leap for joy…” (Luke 6:22-23).


Photo credit: Photo by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash