Steve Kardynal is a comedian and YouTube sensation. Among his many schticks, the most famous are his chatroulette videos. Chatroulette is a video chat site that connects strangers to one another. Soon after it was launched, it became a favorite for exhibitionists and voyeurs. In an early video, Kardynal — who has a shapely, shaved body and a full beard — danced in a bikini with his face out of frame, waiting for his partners to react. I don’t know how many partners he cut to make this short video, but the ones he chose were all men who were pretty clearly looking for likeminded women. Just as his partners are getting into the sexy dance, Kardynal leans towards the camera, revealing his gender. Here’s one typical reaction:
As Dan Kelly would tell you, that face expresses disgust. Disgust is a nasty emotion. It seems to have evolved to detect both poisons (thus the feeling of oral incorporation and the near-retching expression) and diseases/parasites (thus the sense of contamination, the urge to purify, and the taboo-like way in which disgustingness is transmitted by touch). Some things are almost universally disgusting: bugs, vermin, feces, incest. Some things are disgusting only in certain cultures (various foods, various moral violations, various forms of — for want of a better word — perverse sexual practices). Our disgust reactions are on a hair trigger and, once set in motion, nearly incorrigible. They’re expressed by a characteristic facial expression across cultures: the “gape face.” This expression is extremely hard to repress and extremely easy to detect. Moreover, when it’s detected, it tends to trigger a kind of emotional empathic contagion: if I see you make the gape face and recognize it as an expression of disgust (even unconsciously), I’ll typically make the gape face myself and feel a tinge of disgust — perhaps even at the same object.
When we view something as disgusting, we tend to think of it as corrupt, degraded, and dehumanized. Of course, if you’re staring at a pile of shit and feeling disgust, being incapable of seeing the shit as humanized in some way is fine. But if you feel disgust towards another person, this can be morally problematic. Kelly and Morar (following Nussbaum) argue that disgust should never be encouraged as a moral emotion because it is so easily triggered, incorrigible, and dehumanizing. Lynne Tirrell points out that the the road to the Rwandan genocide was paved with dehumanizing metaphors for Tutsis. They were over and over again referred to as cockroaches and snakes — both universal objects of disgust. Likewise, the Nazis referred to Jews as vermin. In Uganda just recently, the president called homosexuals disgusting while defending a new anti-gay law. Indeed, I would be surprised if genocide or systematic dehumanizing persecution has ever occurred without the enablement of disgust.
What does this have to do with Steve Kardynal? Kardynal’s genius, I contend, is to crowd out people’s disgust reactions to homosexuality with another emotion: joy. In his later chatroulette videos, he flamboyantly dances in costume to pop hits (Katy Perry’s “Peacock,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” and — most recently — Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You“). If you haven’t seen them yet, take a few minutes to watch at least one of them before reading on.
What does it mean to crowd out an emotion with another emotion? I suggest that some basic emotions (contempt, anger, disgust, fear, surprise, sadness, joy) can be experienced by a given person at the same time, whereas others — perhaps for neurological reasons, perhaps for other reasons having to do with embodiment — simply cannot. When emotions combine, they produce a hybrid emotion that has characteristics of both. For instance, horror is a combination of disgust and fear. Fright is a combination of surprise and fear. A eureka moment is a combination of surprise and joy. Schadenfreude seems to be a hybrid of contempt and joy.
Some emotions, though, seem impossible or at least extremely difficult to combine. Can sadness and joy be combined? Perhaps: there’s a certain kind of relief that comes with the death of a loved one who has been suffering tremendously, but it’s unstable. In my experience, the two seem to oscillate over time, rather than being fully present together at the same time. Assuming a catalogue of seven basic emotions (there are controversies about the exact number, which some claim is as low as four and some claim is as high as eight), there are 21 pairwise comparisons:
Perhaps not all of these are physiologically or psychologically possible. Our lacking a word for some of them is defeasible evidence. Neurological studies of emotions that indicate different brain activation patterns for different emotions would be another. Disgust is processed in the insula, unlike the majority of other emotions. Perhaps joy dampens that activation. (I literally don’t know, and lack sufficient acquaintance with the neuro literature to say whether there’s any evidence one way or the other. If a reader knows the answer and has some citations, I’d be most grateful.) A third source of incompatibility could be in more peripheral parts of the body. For instance, disgust is an avoid emotion, whereas joy is an approach emotion. Disgust is low-arousal, whereas joy is high arousal. Even if the brain regions that mediate these emotions don’t dampen one another’s activity, it could be that they are endocrinologically or dispositionally incompatible.
At the very least, it seems that full-fledged disgust and full-fledged joy are uneasy bedfellows. Kardynal’s hilarity sometimes triggers such an overwhelming feeling of joy that his chatroulette partners can’t help but lose their disgust — often in just a few seconds. His videos demonstrate this. My favorite is this trio of surprise, followed just one second later by disgust, followed just three seconds later by joy:
Some of Kardynal’s partners evince only one emotion, some two. It might be that there’s a little fear mixed in here and there (though of course he’s completely incapable of threatening them). Here’s a catalogue of some of the best expressions; some faces crop up more than once:
Incidentally, lots of people look surprised when they first connect with Kardynal. Lots of people end up filled with joy. So far as I can tell, none of the women express disgust.