This striking picture by Michael Sowa is on the front cover of William Miller’s absorbing study The Anatomy of Disgust

I am (or maybe you are) arriving late at (or maybe returning to) the table. There is a chair for us – or at least there is an empty chair. Maybe we are even expected. But the others are looking at us with dismay. Some are whispering behind their hands; the butler is peering down his long nose; many are looking ‘down’ on us and at least one person won’t look at us at all. Even the dog  is teeth-bared. Is the dog aggressive and snarling? Or laughing in derision? (Which would be worse?) The company looks unattractive  –  stuffy, self-righteous and mean-spirited. But we don’t know what choices are open to us, where we could go if we walk away. In any case, one thing is very clear: we are not welcome.

This picture was chosen presumably to illustrate the sentiment of disgust, but is it disgust that is being evinced here? No one is looking nauseated or has the facial expression archetypically  (perhaps stereotypically ) associated with disgust. Nor are they turning away. The empty chair has not been removed and even if the dog is confronting us in an unfriendly way, no one has (yet?) tried to bar our way or chuck us out. Fear isn’t right either: no one looks alarmed or is trying to run away. Disgust looks closer, then, but is perhaps too strong – maybe contempt, suspicion or disdain?

The reaction might be to something we have done. This could be no more than a relatively minor faux pas, although the hostile glances and furtive mutterings could suggest something more serious. But perhaps their attitude is because of who we are – in some sense a dodgy person, a bad character.

This seems to be precisely the emotional reaction that confronts many people leaving prison when they attempt to engage with ‘straight’ society, seeking employment opportunities or accommodation or just moving into different social circles. They are likely to be encouraged by criminal justice practitioners to avoid the ‘bad company’ of their past and spend their time with better influences. But they are not welcome and are made to feel that they do not belong. Judgements about bad character come from bad behaviour and when people are reduced to the worst things they have ever done – seen as ‘offenders’ without regard to their biography, the context of their actions or any other personal characteristics – there seem compelling reasons to deal with them differently or perhaps to avoid them altogether.

Since disgust is an uncomfortable emotion to avow and hard to talk about, these reactions may be rationalised as fear – and among criminal justice practitioners articulated in the emotionally sterile language of risk assessment and management. Yet sometimes these responses make much more sense when they are understood as a disgust-like aversion, masquerading  as fear. For example, when early release is under consideration for someone who has committed the gravest of crimes and the newspapers revive the memories, anxieties are expressed about reoffending. In such cases, typically long periods of time have passed and the wrongdoers themselves are middle aged or older. This is not to deny that older people are capable of grave crime or to try to claim that a mere passage of time will always bring about change, but it is not clear why commentators who have no (or no recent) knowledge of these individuals feel themselves in a position to make such predictions. This only makes sense if the bad character which found expression in serious crimes is something inherent and ineradicable – intrinsic evil or wickedness in moral language, intractable psychopathy (or some other personality disorder) in the terminology of psychiatry. The attitude is much more comprehensible if interpreted as disgust – people who have committed such appalling crimes are simply unfit to live among us.

Such grave cases are, of course, exceptional, but the idea that crimes are compelling evidence of irremediable bad character is enduring. It finds expression in the persistent discrimination that people with criminal records have to put up with all the time. This, practically by definition, is unjust: people have now completed their sentence, their ‘debt’ is paid in full. Yet the reluctance of others to allow them to set aside their criminal history is apparent all the time. Attempts to extend the limited protections of Rehabilitation of Offenders legislation always meet opposition and, if this is to be changed, we need a fuller understanding of the emotions behind this resistance. As before, the argument is often cast as a fear of further offending, even though ‘the ability of criminal records to predict future offending declines over time with reported rates of offending becoming similar to (or even lower than) those for previously un-convicted people after approximately seven years’ (Andrew Henley 2018: 293) Nor, as Henley explains, do we know the extent to which any further offending might have been made more likely by the punishment imposed in the first place or by the continuing stigma that stands as an obstacle to desistance.

Perhaps disgust and its variants, milder in proportion to the degree of wrongdoing, are a fitting response. It has been argued that ‘ … repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it …   Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder’(Kass 1997: 20). Dan Kahan, in his extended review of Miller’s book,  holds that only some such response will match up to our outrage at the violation of our deepest moral commitments.

How are people of bad character to be identified? In small communities, this is someone who is known and gossiped about. In the anonymous setting of towns and cities, there may be a need to mark the body –  clipping the ear, tattoos and brandings have all been used in this way. The Greek word for such a mark is stigma. Anyone so stigmatised will probably be looked at askance and shunned, although there may be more confrontational and aggressive reactions.

The modern branding is the criminal record, checkable in many contexts with full disclosure ‘required’ for some purposes. This is why rehabilitation legislation has typically centred on the restriction of the record. The grip has been tightened, however, and the pains exacerbated by digitisation. In the USA, every encounter with the criminal justice system, whether or not leading to a conviction, is captured and stored on databases so that, as Sarah Lageson writes, ‘digital punishment continues to permeate a person’s ability to find meaningful employment, safe housing, or even develop social networks’.  She suggests that ‘We’ve reached a point where the American public not only uses criminal records to make important decisions about who we employ or rent to, but also as fodder for entertainment, voyeurism, and public shaming.’

Returning to Sowa’s picture, we may wonder what it is like to be regarded in this way. The experience is familiar to many people – not only to people with criminal records, but often to those who experience racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of oppression. Those who have the wholly unearned privileges coming from other identities may rarely if ever encounter this reaction personally. Here, the diners at the table are inviting us to feel ashamed – and not, perhaps, in a manner that could be resolved by apology for something that we have done, but because of who we are. It is hard to imagine a more crushing way of being regarded and one that is likely to attract a reciprocal hostility. We might press forward boldly (brazenly?); we may want to give them a piece of our mind (shamelessly?) or even to take place at the table (defiantly?). Most likely we might prefer to retreat with mixed feelings of shame and resentment.

But we should also reflect on the effects these transactions have on ‘society’ – the diners at the table. What does this contempt, conspiracy and malicious gossip do to them? Once the unwelcome intruder has left, will it be someone else in the company who will provide the ugly source of  entertainment? Trust will shrivel. Disdainful attitudes easily spread beyond their original targets, the sneer hardens until it becomes a fixed feature. This group looks at or close to that condition already.

Attitudes towards people with criminal records are expressions not only of fear or anger. There are other emotions at work – more elusive and harder to characterise. In some sense, fear might be easier to manage. To be sure fear, no less than disgust, can lead to foolish or cruel reactions, but at least arguably it is more amenable to the measured reflections that constrain some immediate and intuitive responses. If the attempt is made just to assuage fears with assurances of safety, however intellectually persuasive, resistance will still not be overcome if the aversion is based on disgust more than on fear.

The Christmas-cracker-motto wisdom  ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’ – encourages these attitudes of rejection. The first time, your shame is in your deceiving me; the second time, my shame is my failure of judgement, perhaps an intellectual rather than a moral shortcoming. How am I to make sure that you don’t fool me a second time? By never trusting you again and perhaps, to be on the safe side, having nothing to do with you at all? We cannot relate to  people in this way. Such attitudes oppress them, corrupt us and impoverish our relationships in our society with one another.

Miller, W.I. (1998) The Anatomy of Disgust, Harvard University Press.

For the picture and others by Michael Sowa:




Disgust, disdain and suspicion: Some obstacles to desistance

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