The Politics of Disgust

Moral disgust has toxic effects on political dialogue.

Posted Nov 02, 2017

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a b***h off the field right now? He’s fired. He’s fired!” –Donald Trump

“This may be one of the most vile and disgusting things that president Trump has ever said in a very long and impressive list of vile and disgusting things.” –Marc Lamont Hill

Source: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

I’ve been thinking a lot about disgust these past few months. Not physical disgust, making you crinkle up your nose and say, “eww!” but moral disgust, that toxic feeling that comes when we experience words, actions, beliefs and the people who espouse them as morally tainted, evil, stupid, insane, or… deplorable.

In our politically-divided country, disgust and moral outrage are increasingly what we feel for “the other side.” We can’t understand how “those people” can believe and feel as they do; they are so incomprehensible to us that they become “other,” the out-group to our own identified in-group. They must be bad, probably irredeemable. We want nothing to do with them. We will stay in our own, lovely echo-chambers, thank you very much.

Disgust erodes communication because, in the throes of disgust, we no longer think of the other as quite completely human, and therefore, not truly worthy of being heard and understood; perhaps, unconsciously, not quite worthy of kindness. Psychologists and sociologists call this infrahumanization, perceiving the out-group to be less human.

Disgust is different from anger. Take a married couple. Classic research from the psychologist John Gottman shows that to predict which marriages last and which end in divorce, the amount and intensity of fighting does not predict very well. If you can discuss and resolve expressed anger, fighting can actually strengthen a relationship. But, the death knell of a marriage is when partners express contempt and disgust for one another. Once you’ve gotten to disgust, there is little room for kindness, little room for problem-solving and compromise, and you can only rarely turn back and save the relationship.

The United States is like a married couple in the throes of contempt and disgust for one another. And we are very close to a divorce. This is especially distressing because, at this historical moment in time, we need as many opportunities as possible to come together, heal, and solve problems as a nation.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation that influenced my thinking about this very strongly. For the purposes of respecting a private conversation, I am fictionalizing some contextual details. I have a friend, with whom I’ve always felt I share extremely similar political and social views. But tonight was different. Charlottesville had just happened. As a reminder of events, the White Nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was organized to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. The event ended tragically in the murder of a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, by a White Nationalist who plowed his car into a crowd. The subsequent eruption over Trump’s response, citing fault on “both sides” was still the leading news. Two prominent neo-Nazi forums, Stormfront and the Daily Stormer, had been digital hubs for organizing the rally. Shortly following the event, their domain support was pulled (by Network Solutions and Google, respectively) for violating terms of service by inciting violence.

As we talked about the tragedy of Charlottesville, I questioned whether the late-in-coming shutting down of these White Nationalist websites was handled strategically enough. While I believe these domain hosts should never have hosted the hate groups in the first place, I also wondered about it from a psychological perspective. Insular groups like Neo-Nazis become more cohesive as their underdog/outsider status is reinforced through perceived persecution. Because they were allowed to thrive for so long, shutting them down “suddenly” probably just vindicated their “us versus them” view of the world. I didn’t have a solution but was thinking out loud about how to truly disrupt them rather than bolster their cohesion.

Then, almost before I realized what was happening, the discussion became a charged debate that went something like this: I questioned whether neo-Nazi websites should have been shut down the way they were; my friend counter-argued that not doing so would allow hate speech, undeterred; moreover, if we give white supremacists a voice, we are helping them point a figurative and literal “gun to the face” towards people of color and other targets of their hate on a daily basis.

I agreed but argued that freedom of speech is a very sharp double-edged sword, and we need to take a step back and strategically rethink our approach rather than reacting with our gut to just shut it all down and make it go away. I pointed out that the way we’ve been doing this so far hasn’t worked very well, and indeed, seems to have emboldened racists. My friend suggested that I was missing important points about the nature of racism, reminding me of power dynamics and who is allowed a “voice” in our society. I was stunned and found myself repeatedly thinking, “Does he think I don’t understand that? Does he think I’m a racist?”

And here, perhaps, is one of the most important points about this experience—my description of our discussion is only my perception of what my friend thought, because 30 minutes in, I had a distinct impression that we no longer understood what the other was trying to say. I felt misinterpreted, and my friend might have felt the same because, from conversations following that night, he viewed our exchange quite differently.

For the first time since the presidential campaign and election roller coaster started many months ago, I understood what Trump supporters must have felt when Hilary Clinton placed them in a “basket of deplorables” because I started to suspect that my friend found my opinions deplorable. I felt misunderstood, judged, and bewildered. I felt that my back was against a wall and nothing I could say, other than agreeing with all his points, would create common ground. I found myself expressing shock at some of the things he was saying, and certainly I was judgmental at times. Was this in some small way the beginning of disgust and misunderstanding among friends, even when (I still believe) our views and values are in reality so closely aligned? Did our disgust towards the “other side” distort our thinking such that we started to find the “other side” in each other?

Before and after the presidential election, Donald Trump used the word disgust a lot, referring to Hillary Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell, a lawyer taking a break to pump breast milk for her three-month-old baby, Barney Frank, Madonna, the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the list goes on.

Disgust has been levied right back at him continuously by countless commentators on all sides. This moral disgust is a perfect mirror of Trump-era U.S. politics: You are either for or against Donald Trump, and you were either for or against Hillary Clinton. It’s a Manichean battle between good and evil.

Evolutionary psychology has long argued that we evolved to experience disgust towards things that could make us sick (rotten meat) or harm us (poisonous plants), and that we then transformed this physical disgust into the moral and ethical domain, serving as an important basis for rules of conduct and civilized behavior. Moral disgust leads us to “expel” the offenders. We want nothing to do with these disgraceful human beings—they are reprehensible, beyond the pale, and beyond our ability to reach an understanding. They are not part of our group, our society, our tribe. They are outsiders or “those people.”

Let me say clearly that when we’re talking about racism, xenophobia, verbal or physical violence against others because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, or because they are different from us, moral disgust, unequivocal condemnation, and clear action to counteract are necessary. When it comes to Neo-Nazis inciting violence, nothing short of disgust is in order. But the problem with disgust in normal political discourse is that when it takes center stage, there are no in-betweens. If we disagree, our views must be on opposite sides, with few bridges long enough to connect them. Moral disgust in a political discussion among friends is so toxic that it can twist what we perceive and how we communicate, breed misunderstanding, and place us in warring tribes even when we are of the same mind.

We must acknowledge that most of us have fully embraced disgust in our views about “the other side.” I see this in myself on a daily basis. But if we want to find new solutions, thinking about the political landscape as a battle between good and evil is simply too dangerous because this worldview only leaves room for gods and demons; it leaves little room for human beings that may, one day, be able to understand one another again.