Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Disgust in Politics

It is difficult to call people out for relying on disgust for their opinions in social and political settings.  They either deny it out of hand, "I don't hate gay people, and I don't even think about what it is they do.  I'm just going by what's in the Bible." Or, they embrace it to a degree that robs it of its power to shame. "Of course I'm disgusted by Trump, as any decent, right-thinking person should be." With regards to the former, I suppose it is fair that we not pretend to motives.  Yet sometimes they leave us little choice but to conclude that disgust is at leat one of their motives, and a strong one.

Disgust, disdain, and horror are distinct in theory, but overlap in practice.  We recoil at emaciated, starving figures and feel disgust, largely because we feel horror.  We do not feel disdain for them, but pity.  Yet with fat, many people find it disgusting, and disdain is common.  Horror and pity are less common. I am going to stick closely to disgust because it is one of Jonathan Haidt's six moral foundations.  Paired with purity as its opposite, it is a moral axis that Haidt believes that Conservatives use much more often than liberals. He now calls it Sanctity/Degradation.  His work is fascinating, and I largely agree with him.  I will not summarise him here, but only point you to his own site, where he discusses these in detail.

I think he is largely wrong on this point. I believe he went wrong right from the start in his initial questionnaire.  He asked if one had no other cloth in the house and the toilet needed cleaning, would it be acceptable to use an American flag? All groups generally said "no," but conservatives said so more often. There was also a question if the family dog had got hit by a car and killed, and there was no other food in the house, would it be okay to eat it for dinner?  Almost everyone said "no," but there were more liberals who allowed it was okay.  I will note that not all his questions were this extreme. It is good to have more ambiguous questions mixed with the extreme ones. Haidt concluded that liberals were less motivated by disgust. I think his choice of questions came from his liberal assumptions.  He did not ask if one was out of toilet paper, would it be okay to use a newspaper that had a picture of Gandhi, or MLK, or Obama on it?

Similar arguments might be made about his other axes that liberals supposedly don't use, but conservatives do.  I think he is largely right on the issue, but it is a nearer thing than he imagines.  He has defined some things as authority, some things as loyalty, and so forth, that might be defined otherwise.  There are authorities liberals defer to that he hasn't asked about.

I think liberals and conservatives are pretty even in their use of disgust as a guiding moral principle. This is of more than theoretical importance because disgust is malleable, and changes over time.  You know it in everyday life, hearing people say "I used to be disgusted  by blank until I got a job working as a blank." It can come back, especially if it is associated with trauma.  People were disgusted by blood and mutilated flesh and death until the went to a war zone, where they got more used to it than the y ever wanted.  Then they came back and disgusted again, though in a different way, because of their associations. We are disgusted by some foods until we try them because of hunger or social pressure, then come to like them.  Many of us, particularly females, thought the sexual act sounded pretty disgusting when we first got a clear picture of what it it actually was, but we, uh, got over that. I have words I don't use because they disgust me.  I have others, like crap, that used to disgust me but I now use. I enjoy foods I used to shudder at. People who found smoking unattractive but put up with it no longer do.

Someone else might want to do a post on how these changes happen, but I'm not that fascinated by the process, only by the fact that it does occur. I am not strongly motivated by disgust myself.  I have things that disgust me, but I try to step back and say "What's the real damage here?  What's the real problem here?"


Kirsten Gillibrand, discussing what she would do if elected president  “The first thing I would do is Clorox the oval office. ” That’s disgust talking.

Haidt can tell you how disgust manifests in conservatives, but I'd like to illustrate how it manifests in liberals, because in the academic conversation, that seems to be missing. There is the disgust of the newspaper with the photos, above.  Environmentalism is built on disgust, as the political cartoons reveal. It goes beyond being disgusted by smoke or smog, and includes mud, smelliness, and the many goops of nature that make a place look unattractive. Possible toxins that are invisible, such as PCB's , get a pass. It makes the people who actually work in environmental cleanup and prevention a little crazy sometimes, to watch people get excited about controlled logging because it looks ugly rather than aquifers that are out-of-sight. Bogs, shallow ponds, dead jellyfish  - or on the other side of the purity question the idea of pristine wilderness (now there's a discussion) can get people worked up about mining, drilling, building, largely because of appearance, not danger or pollution.

Gun control may be largely motivated by fear, but disgust at hunting is not that far beneath the surface.  Not with all, but with some.  Controllers aren't that willing to give ground to gun owners even in the face of overwhelming evidence that universal background checks or banning of certain weapons simply has no effect.  They don't like hunting, and they don't like guns. 

There are vegetarians on both the left and right, but there are more on the left, and if you let people talk, I'd say about half of them reveal that disgust at butchery and eating flesh is prominent.  If you ask them to tell their story of how they became vegetarians, it's even more.  Reasons to sustain are not always the same as reasons to adopt, but there is continuity.  There is sometimes something rather disquieting about (some of) them as well. Do they not actually like large swaths of humans?  Opposition to GMO's is not merely fear of the unknown or fear of risk.  If you go over and read the actual complaints, you will find disgust is very powerful.

It shows up strongly in discussion of Trump.  As in many things, he brings to the fore many unattractive motives of his opponents that they were more able to keep contained with Bush, McCain, Romney.

Criticism of Trump is sometimes physical, focusing on his hair, his voice, his general ickiness. I wonder how it all fits with the concept of embarrassment as a moral disqualifier.  It shouldn't be that deeply related, but the complaints about Trump's vulgarity come as a package with shudders about his hair, and his facial expressions.  Well, small sample size on that:  on my FB feed and where I work there are plenty of mini-rants about how infuriating it is to listen to him and look at him - grown women talking like sophomore girls. Worse, that is what attracts all their energy, though they are educated enough to develop a coherent argument based on policy and principles.  Lord knows Trump supplies enough material to not have to be distracted into discussing how he is just such an impossible man.   I don't get it.

Partof it is because of mere imbalance in reporting – things like “You’d better put some ice on that” are known mostly only to conservatives – but because these things arouse anger at their unfairness rather than disgust.  The one accusation that caused Clinton the most trouble had some details that might arouse disgust.  That’s part of why they had legs. I thought Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy" was indeed an offensive thing to say, in any context.  Because of the disgust, Trumps’s critics miss that the comment was largely one of amazement, and that it is in fact accurate that not only do some men behave this way, but so do some women.  There was no hint of advocating forcing oneself on unwilling women.  But feelings of disgust overwhelm reason and stick in the memory.  

Plus, Bill Clinton was cute. That has a lot to do with whether people are disgusted.  


Mark Stoler said...

I've read Haidt's work which is quite good but I share your views about the purity/disgust axis. Having been a liberal who is now on the right, I've seen it across the political spectrum. I think he has been working in good faith but he worked with liberal blinders on for so long, it is sometimes difficult for him to get his bearings now that he decided to remove them. But he is slowly getting there.

Christopher B said...

Re vegetarians, my very liberal wife was vegetarian for awhile in her younger days and is quite open that disgust at eating animal flesh was a big part of it. It still endures, though bacon overcame it.

Grim said...

Martha Nussbaum wrote two important works in disgust and shame, one of which reads like a letter to SCOTUS on why they should press for gay rights and marriage. She thought of herself as opposing disgust in political philosophy in favor of reason; but you don’t have to read very far to find her using phrases like “that would be hideous!” in reference to her opponents wishes.

Grim said...


Assistant Village Idiot said...

The part Richard Johnson pointed out last time is that "Deplorables" is not only disdainful, but has a whiff of disgust as well.

Ralph said...

The best use of disgust is in reference to yourself; I get disgusted with myself for falling for a con, or being petty or mean for no excuse.

Disgust aimed at others is used to dehumanize, discredit, and avoid an actual conversation/debate.

Texan99 said...

Those questions about cleaning toilets with flags and eating Fido for dinner are interesting, especially the casual "in the house" structure. I wouldn't casually use a flag for cleaning up filth just because a suitable rag wasn't handy, but if someone were bleeding to death in a car wreck I wouldn't hesitate to use a flag for a bandage. It's not a magic cloth. I wouldn't casually eat Fido, but there are few lengths to which I wouldn't go to prevent starvation in a real crisis. Fido's flesh isn't holy any more than mine is. The point of restricting casual use is to make us stop and think, to discourage us from reducing all symbols to meaningless and all living creatures to bundles of useful resources for our personal exploitation.

These examples strike me as very much like the question Pharisees put to Christ about whether it's OK to save a donkey from a mud-pit on the Sabbath. You can err on the side of irreverence just as you can err on the side of empty rule-mongering, whether you're a liberal or a conservative.

RichardJohnson said...

Disgust aimed at others is used to dehumanize, discredit, and avoid an actual conversation/debate.

Interesting point.

Another way of looking at disgust in a group context is that it is an attempt at shaming someone: you are a member of that yucky group. When, decades later, I became aware of our "progressive" friends using "racist/bigot/deplorable/Islamophobic/homophobic/hater" in attempt to shame the other, I was reminded of something.
I was reminded of high school, of attempts to shame someone by labeling that person as a member of that yucky group. Not the in-crowd, whatever. The point is that everyone needs a yucky group for contrast. "I'm not like THEM."

Labeling in-groups and out-groups is universal.