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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.
Gayil Nalls Ph.D.

You Stink! Smell and Politics

Smell is also a political phenomenon

Disgust–the emotion of revulsion that not only makes us literally sick, but more often, just metaphorically sick–is easily associated with the sense of smell. In metaphorical olfaction, words or phrases are used to fabricate real or fictional odors into a smell-word-dialect. For the reader or listener, these words should be likened to an emoticon that indicates the reporters' attitude, and perhaps their prejudices.

Conceptual metaphors of olfaction are subjective to the fact that associations and memories of smells are exceedingly personal, but general statements can be made as well about what people around the world find unpleasant. Commentators and reporters need only the equivalent of the adolescent insult, ‘you stink,' to express disapproval of races or groups. Do to a perceptive deficit reflected in our language, to simply say that someone "smells" is degrading. If something smells, it is judged to smell bad unless it is accompanied by a positive descriptive. It's so easy to use smell to alter perception and assessment of a person or people.

Smell, therefore, is not only a social and cultural phenomenon; it is also a political one. Stories of the objectionable odors that emanated from Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street project continue to propagate. Interested in collective human behavior and such powerfully stated olfactory judgments, I felt obliged to investigate the camp. I went to the financial district shortly before Thanksgiving to take a sniff and make an assessment for myself. I was surprised. It didn't really smell bad. There was some body odor but I could not detect any smell of garbage, urine or excrement. I concluded that the much-reported "putrid" or "stench" judgments were not accurate. It is more likely that smell reports that the public came to believe, sprung from individual emotional associations, the personal threats some people felt by the movement or the inconvenient presence of the protestors. With all the odors in New York, it's implausible that the smell of bacteria build-up would become news stories had it not involved the occupiers.

History has shown us that alleged odor is part of the scheme to evacuate or eradicate the other. Without coherent reasoning or descriptive explanation, smells are amplified and equated to the meanings of people and movements. Through a strategy of reductionist olfactory aphorisms, a speaker or writer–unable or unwilling to engage more deeply with unfamiliar and complex societal events–conveys his or her underlying ideas by describing disgusting smells to debase the offending people or ideas. Far from the first time such prejudice and disgust priming for emotional influence has dominated media coverage, this type of severely scrutinizing, abrasively critical and insensate media and citizen commentary was also prevalent during the Civil Rights Movement, especially for the duration of Resurrection City, the Poor People's Occupation of the Capitol's Mall.

I visited this effort aiming to make poverty visible during one of the many rainy spring days of 1968. Everyone was wet and looked very discouraged. Nearly 3,000 demonstrators occupied the Washington Mall for six weeks, living in the tent and plywood ‘shantytown' in view of the U.S. capitol. Like the images of police clearing the OWS encampment and ‘sanitizing' Zucotti Park in order to "return it to the public," the media heavily covered the clearing Resurrection City in late June, with images of the bulldozers pushing the remains of the shelters and the restoration of the capitol's manicured meadow. The things that were said about the smell are unrepeatable.

As a result of these and other observations I have asked myself the same question over the years, "We know that real smells can evoke strong emotional reactions; however, can reports of smells we don't even smell sway our perceptions and judgments of others?" According to the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) a non-profit research organization in Oxford, England, the answer is yes. They report that "olfactory likes and dislikes are based purely on emotional associations." This includes evidence that our expectations of an odor, rather than direct exposure to it can have similar perceptive results.

As I continue to ruminate on the connection between smell, human behavior and political ideology, I have found Rachel Herz's new book extremely relevant and compelling. That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, provides insight into how strategies of olfactory disgust can permeate the press when there is deep-seated discrimination at play. Dr. Herz, a professor of Psychiatry at Brown University and an expert on the science of smell, discusses how the power of disgust can be manipulated to alter judgments to ones point of view. One of the examples she gives as to how olfactory-triggered disgust has been used to manipulate voters is the New York state's 2010 gubernatorial election. Tea Party activist Carl Paladino beat Rick Lazio by 24 percent by sending out campaign flyers impregnated with the putrid odor of rotting garbage, pledging to "end the stink of corruption in Albany."

On the flip side of this, what should we understand about the commentators using real or fabricated smell of people as their argument? In That's Disgusting, Herz describes how, "Disgust at purely sensory experiences, like the stench of sour milk or human waste, is egoistic as well, because to be disgusted by it you have to know what it means in relation to you." She says, "Disgust is the twisted side of empathy and egoism."

About the Author
Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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