The social construction of the unmentionable


We begin with an apology, 44 years delayed.

Back in 1967 when we first arrived in California at the ripe old age of 21, we were assigned to cover the City of Carlsbad for the late, great Oceanside Blade-Tribune.

On evening during our first months on the job we were covering the city’s planning commission, seated in the first row of a packed meeting room.

We don’t recall what we’d eaten, but whatever it was, our repast had a distinctly unsettling effect on our viscera, which we noticed a few minutes into the meeting in the form of a distinct pressure on our nether regions.

A few more minutes passed, with growing intensity and a consequent tightening of our reportorial sphincter.

After a few more minutes, we were faced with an urgent choice. If we got up and left the room to do what nature impelled, we’d be missing a critical part of the meeting.

Besides, the mere act of rising would likely result in the very thing we strove to prevent, and by standing, we’d be eminently notable as the author thereof. So we stayed seated, and gently eased out the visceral afflatus.

Ah, we thought. Silent!

Yes silent, but also deadly.

We can honestly say that the emission was the most acrid we’ve ever extruded, the sort that peels paint from walls and causes cats to, well, caterwaul.

Within seconds, people in adjacent chairs were shifting in their seats, casting furtive glances hither and yon, looking for the telltale red face.

We too played along, and as our eyes roved, we spotted a hapless elderly gentleman in the row behind us, his face furrowed in furtive anxiety. As out gaze settled upon him, so did the eyes of first one, then others. The poor fellow, unable to speak, slowly reddened, thereby attracting more eyes like iron filings to a magnet.

Fixed by furious glares, he did the only thing possible. He got up and left.

We felt guilty, but what could we do? Stand up and announce that their ire was wrongly directed? That it was we, not he, who authored the ineffable?

Fortunately for us, that single toxic irruption was the only one of the meeting, so when the final gavel sounded and we gathered up our notes and papers, we were free of suspicion.

Leaving, we looked for the elderly fellow, but he had already departed.

More than four decades later, and now not so distant in age from that of our hapless victim then, we offer an apology to the fellow who bore the unjust burden of our own gaseous discharge.

An American original had his own take

No less a figure than Benjamin Franklin gave considerable thought to the subject of the fart, once writing in an essay to “The Royal Academy of Farting”:

Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick’d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! The Knowledge of Newton’s mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack’d by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels?

Read the rest.

Indeed, Franklin declared that the fart was nothing less than, well, a declaration of libertarian independence:

My brethren and countrymen, if you cherish freedom and liberty, you are going to have to learn how to fart. You are going to have to get the point where the comforts and securities of life are not longer sufficient exchange for you loss of freedom. Stop running to the government to protect you from every possible calamity. Take on the responsibilities of human living from yourself, and tell the government to get out of your life!

And when you are criticized, as you will be, remind your critics that you have the right to speak your mind. And if they shout you down, as they probably will, then inform them that since they insist on being asses, you will henceforth communicate with them with the appropriate part of your own anatomy. And turning to face them from the posterior, let them know where you stand. Let every fart sound as a peal of thunder for liberty. Let every fart remind the nation of how much it has let pass out of its control.

It is a small gesture, but one that can be very effective—especially in a large crowd. So fart, and if you must, fart often. But always fart without apology.

Fart for freedom, fart for liberty—and fart proudly.

Read the rest.

Indeed, Franklin held that a major goal of medical scientists should be the discovery of some marvelous substance to neutralize the malodorous content of our endogenous emissions, to remove the final source of stigma to a natural function.

Would that they had.

The social psychology of the fart

So what prompted such an extended discourse on such a subject?

Twas an essay we chanced upon in our daily web wanderings, from the blog Neurotic Physiology, entitled “Friday Weird Science: The Social Psychology of Flatulence.”

The essay was prompted by a rumination: “Did you ever notice that you need to fart less when you’re in public?”

He describes what happened next:

I scoured the internet looking for someone, ANYONE, who had studied farts. It turns out that 1870 people on Pubmed have published on flatulence, but none of them had really looked at the PSYCHOLOGY of the fart. I was in despair, until Jason at The Thoughtful Animal found me a citation. Lippman, 1980. I searched some more, but no one seemed to have the paper. Finally he and I tracked down the elusive Lippman, who is on the Editorial Board of the Annals of Improbable Research. Given that his 1980 paper was titled “Toward a social psychology of flatulence: the interpersonal regulation of natural gas”, I figured this was the right guy.

The blogger made contact with the author, and a discussion of his findings ensured. He summarizes the results:

So the moral of this story? If you’re in a social situation, and feel the fart coming on…well you could try and pass it off as funny, but if you know it’s going to be loud, run while you still can. And if you know it’s going to be rank…well, try and blame it on someone else.

Which we did four decades ago.

So we guess we’re only human. Which is probably a smile also accompanies our guilt when recalling those long ago events.

Still, one has to wonder how many turns history has taken because of gas-passing.

What we they eating as they devised the Treaty of Versailles?

And how many wars and diplomatic ruptures have resulted from the wrongful assignment of blame for intestinal turbulence?

And we know, from reading many biographies, that Adolf Hitler was a notorious and malodorous farter, taking a whole host of toxic medications from 1935 onward in an endless pursuit of a remedy that would quiet his overactive bowels, and there’s some suspicion that those poisonous pills [which included strychnine]  played a leading role in unbalancing his mind.

Which raises some interesting questions. For one, did people agree quickly with Der Fuhrer simply because they wanted to escape that awful stench? And would history have taken another turn if medical science has acted on Franklin’s suggestion? Inquiring minds want to know.

Certainly those grim faces on those Nazis nearest the Hitlerian presence become more understandable.

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One response to “The social construction of the unmentionable

  1. “reportorial sphincter”

    Nice phrasing!

    At least you recognized you had one. Too many reporters today recognize a career advantage, and act as hand maidens for the wealthy and powerful. They, themselves, have become reportorial sphincters.

    Evidence for this is in my the UPI Stylebook of 1977:
    “BURRO, BURROW. A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know the difference.” (p.29)

    Such a job description now seems quaintly out of date.

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