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I’m An Animal (When No Ones Looking)

Most people think nature is a good thing, but yet we humans tend to hide from the public all of the things that make us humans. Environmental sociologists argue that this separation of the natural self and the social self is completely socially constructed. In this post Nathan Palmer explores how we separate our social selves from our natural selves and why this may lead to mistreatment or domination over the natural environment.

George Carlin

Hey, do me a solid and think of all the curse words you know. Now say the dirtiest one aloud, I’ll wait… What does that even mean? I’ve never heard that word before. I just Googled what you said and that’s nasty.

Now that you’ve got your list and the people around you wondering why you are talking to your computer, tell me what all those curse words have in common (besides their social inappropriateness). Stumped? Let’s try another angle.

Comedian George Carlin famously came up with a list of 7 dirty words that you can’t say on television. I can’t repeat them here, but take a look at the list and see if what all these words have in common jumps out at you.

Environmental sociologists would point out that almost all the words we consider obscene describe our animalistic functions or the orifices where they take place. Genitals, sexual intercourse, and excreting various fluids are the basis of most curse words. What’s up with that? More perplexing is that these are common acts. Everyday, I hope, you use the bathroom. Almost everyone will have sex in their life and I hope they enjoy it. Our genitals are central to becoming pregnant and giving birth; something most parents cherish. So why are these words the basis of socially inappropriate language? What does it mean that the words that describe bodily functions we perform often if not everyday are socially inappropriate? Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at how we present our bodies to the world.

If a Martian was doing an anthropological study on the humans in the United States the Martian would certainly conclude that we hate our bodies. We go to amazing lengths to hide them from public view. Our grooming practices are designed to hide how our bodies truly look. For instance this morning I scraped a blade across my face because I’m ashamed that my face grows hair (don’t tell anyone my secret). I shower everyday because the way my body naturally smells is disgusting. And don’t get me started on the extreme lengths women are expected to go to to hide the look of their natural body. Society tells “ladies” to shave, dye, pluck, paint, or hide almost all of their body’s natural appearance (especially as their bodies get older). And that’s just what we do BEFORE we leave the house.

If things go in or out of our body we are compelled by a vast array of social norms to hide them.

When we eat we are expected to close our mouths because the sight of the human body consuming food is revolting. When we defecate or urinate we need to be sure we are alone so our friends and family are not horrified by what comes out of us. The shame of the bathroom is so profound that many Americans hate using public bathrooms and find it difficult to overcome “away game pressure.” While we know that Everybody Poops[1. This book exists because of the separation of the natural self and the social self. Defecating is a natural process that we all do, but children can sense the shame and stigma we put on this bodily process. So to keep children from feeling bad or dirty about their body we need a book to basically say, “Everybody Poops” but not in public.] doing so in public or even mentioning it in public is shameful/childish. If things go in or out of our body we are compelled by a vast array of social norms to hide them.

From an outsiders perspective it appears that we detest our bodies and all of their natural processes. Environmental sociologists argue that “modern” “civilized” humans go to great lengths to hide all the natural aspects of the human body because we are trying to hide all the ways that we are animals. Despite how hard we work to pretend we’re not, humans are mammals.[2. And looking at our place within the larger animal kingdom we are probably a fairly ugly species (I mean name me one cute hairless mammal; That’s all i’m saying).]

So how does this impact the way that we treat the natural environment? Environmental sociologists suggest that the greater the distance between our social self and our natural self, the easier it is to dominate and degrade the natural environment. In a sense, if we are separate from the natural world, then we are more likely to think it is of no concern to us. When we divide the world into “human environments” and “natural environments” we create a false distinction. Terms like “wilderness” and “urban” are distinctions of the mind and if we value one over the other it makes it easier for us to exploit. For example, environmentalists sometimes are guilty of undervaluing urban environments and capitalists are often guilty of devaluing the needs of “wild” natural areas.

Or think about what it means to “throw away” something. Where is away? Does away exist? Your trash is just in a landfill somewhere. A more accurate statement would be, “I am throwing this out of my sight.” Now for the sake of argument imagine that all of your trash was accumulated in a pile in the front of your home. How would your relationship change with the things you discard? You’d probably “throw away” a whole lot less if away was that close. When we create social and/or physical distance between the natural world and our social selves we set the stage for environmental domination.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe some natural processes, not discussed in the article, and how we hide them from public view.
  2. How do we socialize our children to hide the natural aspects of their bodies?
  3. How could we change social norms to be more accepting of the natural self without vastly changing what is considered indecent?
  4. When I ask my students why these natural functions are defined as socially inappropriate they often say, “because they’re gross.” However a sociologist would argue that no act is inherently deviant or gross, but rather it has to be socially defined as gross. Explain what you think sociologists mean by this.