Toilet Talk: My Address To The World Toilet Summit
(What is the World Toilet Summit? Find out here.)
Today I'm going to talk about how the flush toilet negatively shapes attitudes towards sanitation. And I'm going to tell you what you need to know in order to counteract the ideological influence of the flush toilet.
But first, a bit about me. In 2003, I started writing what I expected to be a humorous look at the world of toilets. But the more research I did, the more serious the book grew.
As you can see by its title, my book still has humor -- but the humor is for a purpose: I use humor to diffuse the taboo so that people feel comfortable enough to take the subject seriously.
In my research, I've discovered something about the toilet that everyone attending the World Toilet Summit needs to know: the toilet was NOT invented for sanitation. It was invented for ideology.
Here's the brief history. The toilet was invented in the 18th and 19th century to help rich Victorians in England differentiate themselves from the lower classes.
This was during the industrial revolution, when wealth began to spread beyond the most elite members of society.
The most elite Victorians didn't like it that so many people were becoming rich like them, and so they adopted elaborate customs and morality to differentiate themselves in ways mere money couldn't.
So to them, sweating, burping, having sun-darkened skin, showing sexual desire or strong emotion -- all these were taboo to the elite Victorians, because they identified all these with the lower classes.
But the problem was, whenever they felt the need to evacuate, they left behind in their chamber pot a disgusting reminder that they were no different than anyone else.
Even if no one heard or smelled what they were doing in their private bathroom, there was still this disgusting THING left in the chamber pot, and the servants would know who put it there.
The toilet appealed to their ideology because it enabled fecal invisibility. The water would contain the smell, and then with a press of a button, every reminder of their shared humanity would disappear down the drain.
The toilet is a tool of ideology. It only became a tool of sanitation after science linked cholera with fecal contamination of water. THAT'S when people decided the toilet had a sanitary purpose.
This isn't to say the toilet is a bad thing. Of course it isn't. It's one of the most lifesaving inventions in the history of man. But if we're going to attend the World Toilet Summit, it's important to know where the toilet came from. This knowledge will help your work.
Because clearly this ideological influence is at work today.
Surely you've met people who refuse to even talk about the toilet, to even think about it, whether it's as a joke or in discussing the importance of sanitation in the developing world.
Like it or not, when you talk about toilets, many people think you're talking about making feces invisible. We know that our goals are sanitation, but there is an ideology that comes with it.
But here's the good news: by recognizing this ideology, we can use it to our advantage!
I gave a lecture at the University of Iowa about the way the news media covers bathroom-related subjects. In it, I examined some of the headlines that ran worldwide about this very event: the World Toilet Summit. Here are some of the headlines that ran:
- World Toilet Summit lifts lid on public hygiene (Reuters)
- World Toilet Summit more than a wee bit important (Irish Examiner)
- Summit flushes out smelly toilets (AP)
Obviously the World Toilet Summit does not "flush out smelly toilets." Why does the media feel the need to use puns, or place stories about the World Toilet Summit in the "news of the weird" column?
It's because in American culture, at least, and I suspect in many other cultures, human waste is taboo.
And when you treat human waste in any other way than the taboo dictates, many people will be horrified -- horrified by the subject, and horrified by you for bringing it up. It's contamination by association.
If the media thinks some of its readers will think the World Toilet Summit is disgusting, then the media will do what it takes to distance itself from the subject. Hence, headlines like those.
There are also people who will think that someone who takes toilets seriously is contaminated.
That is the ideological barrier to sanitation.
It's imperative to break down this barrier. And it can be as simple as acknowledging the absurdity of the subject, making a joke to break the taboo-- as Jack Sim does when he introduces himself as Toiletman.
It's important to recognize that you see the taboo and show that you've moved past it, if you're going to get people receiving your message to do the same.
Sanitation is critical for both the developing world and the developed world. I don't need to tell that to the people in this room.
But it does need to be communicated to the people outside of this room, and to the media.
So whether you're on the floor of the UN talking about the Year of Sanitation, or introducing people to their very first toilet, you need to keep this in mind: the toilet has an ideology, and this ideology speaks as loudly as the facts and statistics that we're working so hard to change.
If you have any questions, my email address is in the book. Thank you very much.