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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Loving the Disgusting Without Regrets



It seems to me that more and more people these days are filled with disgust when others confront them with a different point of view. For some reason so many people equate tolerance of politics, ethics, or religion with agreement. If another person does not agree with their position in its entirety, these folks care little about searching for any validity in an opposing view; instead, they find themselves thoroughly disgusted.

Why do people hold disgust for those who merely state opposition and differing opinion? I believe it is much easier for someone to denounce people and verbally attack them than to consider accepting their alternative thoughts or to tolerate their "different" ideas. By lashing out with their disgust, these one-way thinkers believe they retain superiority through belittling others and rejecting them as subhumans.

Disgust is most often used as a convenient "stand-in" for reasoning. And, unfortunately, many love to display their disgust in graphic terms with no feelings about the potentially harmful consequences.


Disgust: A Necessary Emotion But Also a Dangerous Acquisition

Disgust is the most virulent of human emotions. Born out an adaptive response to potential disease vectors such as vomit, blood, or feces, disgust is created by something totally offensive. Without it, people would subject themselves to potentially dangerous situations.

Disgust, in particular reference to insuring survival, is the result of the bodily need to avoid any toxic substances, especially rotten and poisonous foods. Thus, the emotion is most closely associated with bodily functions having to do with digestion. For this reason, something that disgusts is defined as that which excites nausea or loathing. Very simply, disgust sickens.

The brain even has sensors to recognize when the body has been contaminated, and it uses specific chemical markers to remember events that may have lead to the unpleasantness that followed. So, humans develop this primal response to harmful, disgusting things that is so strong, and so automatic, that even the most weak-minded are intelligent enough to walk the other way in avoidance.

Yet, on closer examination, disgust also appears to be a cultural acquisition: people are taught what is disgusting, when to be disgusted, and, if all goes right, how to avoid being disgusting themselves. University of Michigan law professor William Ian Miller noted in his recent book, The Anatomy of Disgust that "disgust marks the boundaries of culture and boundaries of the self."

Therein rests the danger of disgust. Often those in our various cultures dictate to us what is to be commonly disgusted. Throughout the history of warfare, every warring group has tagged their enemy with disgusting qualities that are reminiscent of disease, filth, and parasites. The imagery is overwhelming and craftily designed to trigger a rallying cry.

Those who claim to know the truth about politics, ethics, or religion can be arrogant and intolerant. These people often use disgust as an offensive "weapon" to fight battles of opinion. They view their own acquired "self" judgment, strongly reinforced by their limited experience, so superior to opposing views that they lose all respect for broad mindedness.

These self-righteous individuals view differing opinions and nonconformist speech as dangerous bullets threatening their very existence. And, then most transfer their disgust for a people's ideas or words to fear and loathing of the opposition.

Joe Brewer, founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational and research center devoted to the application of cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics, believes that to understand judgmental behaviors like these, people need to become familiar with the psychology of disgust. According to him, researchers have learned a lot about it in recent years, such as:
  • Disgust – like all emotions – is biological and can be explained through the workings of the brain;
  • Disgust is the physiological foundation for moral notions of purity and sacrilege;
  • Disgust, once felt, creates a persistent association that is very difficult to get rid of.
(Joe Brewer, "Why You Should Care About the Psychology of Disgust," truthout, May 9 2010)

There are now a wide variety of scientific research programs dedicated to understanding the physical, biological, and evolutionary foundations of morality. Research centers include the International Institute on Cognition and Culture at the London School of Economics, the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, the Institute on Cognition and Culture in Belfast, just to name a few.

Distinct moral sensitivities have been found across different political groups that correspond with key social emotions. Brewer says the understandings coming out of this research are absolutely critical for cultivating a culture that is conducive to participatory democracy. This is especially true for the emotion of disgust.
 
One of the major discoveries so far is that morality is grounded in bodily experience. People literally "feel" right and wrong in their bodies. This view suggests that the emotion of disgust is strongly connected to a sense of morality. 

For example, disgust and morality work together as people perceive how to handle horrible situations like incest, cannibalism, and rape. For each of these emotionally potent topics, the strength of a person's feelings corresponds directly with our sentiments about how they should be handled in society.

As people deal with emotionally filled topics, they often feel disgust, and they believe they should also express their feelings of moral outrage. And to counteract any negative, disgusting emotions they display during their outrage, they feel they must increase their concern with a singular notion of purity -- for example, they profess "the one God-given solution" or "the one true understanding of American constitutionality."

Many who vent their disgust willingly put on the white robes of their perceived immaculate understandings, and they preach purity as accepting a singular mind. Studies suggest that there is a tight relationship between a sense of moral purity and the emotion of disgust. Violations of a sense of this moral purity lead people to feel intense emotions of disgust. And, when they experience the emotion of disgust, they also change their judgments of the moral purity of others.

Research tailored to the study of moral purity and the emotion of disgust shows that the physical experience of disgust provides the bodily foundation for the moral concept of purity. Put succinctly, when someone experiences the feeling of moral disgust – via the tainting of something they hold sacred and pure – it is produced by the same neural and chemical process that arise after biting into a moldy piece of bread or some rotten fruit. 

(E.J. Horberg, Christopher Oveis, Dacher Keltner, and Adam Cohen.   
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. December 2009)




Escalating Disgust in Nazism

For example, when Hitler and the Nazis viewed the Jews not as a religious group, but as a poisonous "race," which "lived off" the other races and weakened them. For years before Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he was obsessed with ideas about race. In his speeches and writings, Hitler spread his beliefs in racial "purity" and in the superiority of the "Germanic race"—what he called an Aryan "master race." He pronounced that his race must remain pure in order to one day take over the world. For Hitler, the ideal "Aryan" was blond, blue-eyed, and tall.

When Hitler came to power, these "principles" of racial science became the government ideology and were spread in publicly displayed posters, on the radio, in movies, in classrooms, and in newspapers. The Nazis began to put their ideology into practice with the support of German scientists who believed that the human race could be improved by limiting the reproduction of people considered "inferior."

Beginning in 1933, German physicians were allowed to perform forced sterilizations, operations making it impossible for the victims to have children. Among the targets of this public program were Roma (Gypsies), an ethnic minority numbering about 30,000 in Germany, and handicapped individuals, including the mentally ill and people born deaf and blind. Also victimized were about 500 African-German children, the offspring of German mothers and African colonial soldiers in the Allied armies that occupied the German Rhineland region after World War I.

The result of the racial disgust was the Holocaust, the genocide of approximately six million Jews during World War II. This program of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany took place throughout German-occupied territory.


Disgust Is Alive and Well

The Holocaust has not extinguished mass disgust for innocent human beings. Disgust is still tied to moral judgments in society. Those judged as disgusting are often...

(1) Classified -- put into categories to distinguish people into “us and them,”
(2) Symbolized -- distinguished by names, colors, dress, and symbols such as "Niggers," "rednecks," or "rag heads," then 
(3) Dehumanized -- denied the humanity of other groups and equated with animals, vermin, insects, and diseases like "rats," "snakes," "roaches," or "cancers.
 
Dehumanization ignores the target's individuality, and it can occur in various ways:
 
* Discursively (e.g., idiomatic language that likens certain human beings to non-human animals, verbal abuse, erasing one's voice from discourse), 
 
* Symbolically (e.g., imagery), or 
 
* Physically (e.g., chattel slavery, physical abuse, refusing eye contact). 

Of course, since dehumanization prevents one from showing compassion towards stigmatized groups, it can even overcome the normal human revulsion against murder. Those considered "un-human" are vilified by leaders and governments. Isolated cases of extermination begin. And, with enough organization, polarization, and preparation, the disgusted individuals achieve their ultimate goal. That horrible, wicked reality, like the Holocaust, is known as genocide.


The "Gentler and Kinder" Genocide -- Killing Off Unwanted Ideas

Oh, I know what readers are saying: "For Christ's sake, I feel disgust sometimes, but I am not going to kill someone with whom I am disgusted. And, I'm certainly not going to choke the opposition with classification, symbolism, and dehumanization, you dumb ass, moronic old, spineless bastard!"

Yet, once people associate negative feelings with an idea (like "wimpy liberalism" or "Obama the Muslim" or "gun-toting conservative" or "Romney the Mormon") it is very hard to shake off their disgust. Thought and behavior based on evolutionary origins linked and adapted to survival are usually strong and long lived. Joe Brewer contends...

"Applied to politics, this phenomenon implies that once a political idea becomes a rotten apple it will remain a rotten apple. Disgust tends to stick around. This is why so much time, effort, and money is dedicated to painting the opposition with negative feelings. If a disgust response can be evoked, it will tend to stay around....

"There are two lessons to learn from this. 

"First, if you want someone to support your idea (like the notion that addressing global warming might be a sensible thing to do), don't let it get associated with disgust (such as how people feel about the elitism of scientists - be it real or imagined). 

"Second, if you want someone to oppose an idea, just riddle it with associations to the profane and impure. Do so with references to basic bodily functions and you'll be particularly effective. 

"These tactics have long been used in politics to the detriment of civil society."

Is this so? People commonly employ disgust as a social glue that binds like-thinking others together against a common threat. Once opposed to a person, policy or idea at this basic level, it becomes easier to mobilize large groups around any effort to remove the threat. In this manner, disgust is very efficient at compelling others to action. Consider how disgust is used in these situations:

* By Right to Life advocates who display bloody medical photos of aborted fetuses 
* By the promoters of Feed the Children groups who feature young people with emaciated frames whose faces are covered with flies
* By Animal Rescue groups showing films of pitifully neglected pets accompanied by heart-wrenching soundtracks

Despite the fact that disgust may lead to some good, imagine what manipulation of the emotion does for the unscrupulous. Don't political strategists and biased "news" commentators employ disgust as a primary tool to influence mass behavior? In truth, these "reporters" have become masters of manipulating the citizenry. Their skilled interpretation of "facts" is politically motivated. Where is ethics, even in the news?

I am of the opinion that too many Americans run on disgust these days. They are happy to be thoroughly disgusted with those who oppose their views. They enjoy their feelings of moral superiority. And, they revel in finding others "of the same feather" who will join them, no matter the lack of logical support for their beliefs.

I believe in argument, and I am strongly in favor of airing opposing ideas and different opinions: this is the manner in which people seek truth and understanding in a complicated society. Discussing our many viewpoints is the catalyst to making positive changes. In America, a nation of immigrants from every land, we must guard the right to speak our minds and address our grievances -- that right extends to all.

Yet, in my expression, I try to guard against being goaded into barrages of name calling and ad hominem attacks. I find tactics of disgust to be very offensive. Belittling a person by attempting to turn them into toxic refuse is unacceptable. Disagreement is fine. Dehumanization is deplorable.

To me, the answer is not to abandon the notion of truth and belief. Rather, the answer is to develop the virtues of humility and tolerance. Tolerant civil discourse, rather than shouting and insubstantial sound bites, can help us get to the truth in difficult but crucial realms of human existence.

In my mind, it is folly to expect to change an opponent's strong view. It only serves to frustrate and annoy me. I do like to offer alternative thoughts for contemplation, and I love to "plant a seed" of doubt in a person who displays a one-track mind about a subject.

But, sooner or later, I must be willing to accept the futility of further argument. In doing this, I become willing to deny my own frustration or annoyance about a belief. I put a period at the end of the matter that signals finality of development and acceptance of simple tolerance.

And, to me, in actuality, the frustrating actions or annoying ideas expressed by others may have no  end dates at all. Often, I must simply decide to accept the contrary views of friends, partners, or employers as terms of association -- things I must endure as I step onto their turf. I am expected to respect their views so as to remain cordial and social. So, even tolerance can exact a cost upon an honest individual.

My problem occurs when tolerance is not extended as genuine, mutual acceptance. Too many are willing to tolerate only when they feel superior after their browbeating of others. Their "gift" of an olive branch to the beings they have judged as inferior is then accompanied by a low murmur of "that's what I expected out of such a disgusting, nauseating creature."

Now, to me, that's disgusting.



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