Paul Bloom argues that humans dig deep, look beyond the surface, and attend to the nonobvious in ways that add to our pleasure and appreciation of the world of objects. I wholly agree with that analysis. My objection, however, is that he does not go far enough. There is a dark side to our infatuation by and obsession with the past. Our focus on historical persistence reveals not just appreciation and pleasure, but also bigotry and cruelty. Bloom’s story is incomplete without bringing these cases to light.
All the examples that Bloom discusses involve what we might call positive contagion—an object gains value because of its link to a beloved individual, history, or brand. This positive glow rescues a seemingly offensive behavior: contrary to what we might at first think, spending exorbitant amounts on a watch is not selfish or self-absorbed but rather can be understood as benign and even virtuous. Those who spend on luxuries are not “irrational, wasteful, . . . evil”—rather, they appropriately take pleasure by rationally considering the joy that we all find in a cherished object’s history.
Our appreciation of an object’s history also reveals bigotry.
Yet attention to an object’s history does not merely provide joy. History can also be a taint leading to suspicion, segregation, and discrimination. The psychologist Paul Rozin notes that people seem to operate according to a principle of “magical contagion,” where one can be harmed by contact with an object involved with evil or death, leading people to reject wearing Hitler’s sweater, a suit that someone died in, or a house in which a murder was committed. Fair enough. But the troubling point is that this same impulse arises when people come into contact with objects linked to those who are not evil but just different—not part of one’s in-group. In fact, simply thinking about such contact can be disturbing.
Segregation and institutionalized discrimination reflect this impulse to avoid contact across social groups. In parts of India, elaborate behavioral codes ensure that individuals will not come into contact with objects that have been touched by those of a lower caste. Thus, some teashops use a “double-tumbler” system, such that Dalits (“untouchables”) are required to use different cups, plates, or utensils than caste Hindus. Whites-only drinking fountains in the pre–civil rights southern United States can be understood as a means of avoiding negative history—contact with an object that has been touched by members of a marginalized group. In the 1980s, many responded similarly to individuals with AIDS, who were sometimes banned from swimming pools and other public places. Indeed, in one national survey, many respondents reported that they would be less likely to wear a sweater that had been worn once by a person with AIDS, or would feel uncomfortable drinking out of a sterilized glass that had been used a few days earlier by a person with AIDS.
In our own research, Meredith Meyer, Sarah-Jane Leslie, Sarah Stilwell, and I found similar negative responses to a homeless person, someone with low IQ, someone with schizophrenia, or someone who has committed a crime. Adults typically report feeling “creeped out” by the idea of receiving an organ transplant or blood transfusion from such individuals for fear they will be contaminated or even become more like the donor. These beliefs hold even when people are assured that the organ or blood is healthy. In this case, a heart’s history is thought to carry with it negative characteristics of a group subject to discrimination.
Attention to object history may indeed be a biological adaptation. It can serve us well and enrich our appreciation of the objects around us, from Rolex watches to discarded baby shoes to a poet’s unused typewriter paper. But it is important that we recognize the terrible costs of this way of thinking.