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The politics of disgust


Miley Cyrus

A growing body of research suggests that disgust plays an important role in informing people’s moral and political beliefs. Disgust includes the physical dimension of repugnance.

People who are repulsed by images that might include a man eating a handful of live worms, a pus-infected wound, or an emaciated but living person, are more likely to have a conservative political orientation. 

Like fear, disgust plays a vital role in human self-protection. It’s nicer – not to mention safer – for us to remain unexposed to viruses, infections, and foul odours. But the extent to which this same response informs political and moral beliefs needs to be scrutinised. 

Although it is reported that up to 50 per cent of political identification comes down to genetic factors, there remains huge scope for cultural context and contemplation to inform the outcomes of our political and moral responses, beyond sheer visceral feelings. 

Politicians, punters and polemicists all frequently invoke disgust in their speech, especially around topics that resonate strongly with us. The sense that the disgust response is ‘embodied morality’, and therefore a higher truth, leaves little space for rational cognition. 

This week saw a strangely passionate response to a particular performance at the MTV Video Music Awards (pictured). 20 year old US actor and recording artist Miley Cyrus 'twerked' in a skin-coloured bikini, and the whole world pulled over to vomit. Being a young-ish person with a high exposure to pop- and raunch-culture, the clip washed over me when I viewed it online.i

For context, I was born in 1987, so during my life there has never been a time that dominant culture wasn’t shoving skinny, sexualised young women in bikinis in my face. I can see that Cyrus crossed barriers of good taste, but if you’ve been to a night club in the past decade, you’ll know crossing taste barriers is kind of how kids have fun these days. 

The reason I mention what has become known as 'Cyrus-gate' is that I think it is a brilliant example of moral outrage based on those visceral feelings we recognise as disgust. Cyrus dances tastelessly, and we perceive the woman as a harlot.

The man she grinds up against is Robin Thicke, whose most recent hit celebrates the "blurring" of sexual consent, alongside an alarmingly sexist music video titled ‘Blurred Lines’. He escapes all criticism, even though he is arguably more complicit in the subjugation of women in pop music than Cyrus could ever be. 

My point is that the response of disgust bypasses the stage of cognition, and charges full steam ahead on the assumption that it is undoubtedly the best response. 

It’s not. The coming election calls for a pragmatic interpretation of proposed policy. Moral questions remain high on the rhetorical agenda of this campaign. These include same sex marriage, asylum seekers, and climate change.

While they are undoubtedly moral questions, to frame them as such in a pragmatic-political context is dangerous, because it legitimises the process of determining the best outcome based on visceral feelings. Instead, looking more closely at issues that pertain to proposed policy and budget is a better strategy for casting a vote in this disempowered era. 

Joe Hockey’s budget is rooted in the ideology of avoidance of environmental responsibility and serving ‘economic justice’ for the wealthy at the expense of those who struggle. Labor’s proposal to build a $114 billion east coast railway is slightly bizarre, but is long-sighted, as our energy consumption habits are bound to change in the future. 

It’s a hard sell, looking at what is being offered to us when not much is being offered at all. But we are an incredibly wealthy nation, and the distribution of money and power matters for our future. The problem is that while our political environment has shifted to one of pragmatism, moral issues – the ones we feel something about – are the ones we love to get stuck into. They are vastly more interesting than budget forecasts.

It is important to note that disgust is partly socially conditioned. Statistically its gut response is most likely to invoke racist, sexist, and homophobic responses. US jurist Martha Nassbaum argues the ‘politics of disgust’ has always had the effects of supporting bigotry in the forms of sexism, racism and anti-Semitism. 

The moral questions presented in this election demand rational action based on long-term, inclusive and humane outcomes, rather than responses based on people’s initial and unconsidered feelings about gay men kissing, or relinquishing personal property in the form of paying tax. While both major parties are vying for politics-of-disgust votes on the backs of vulnerable people, we can’t expect much in terms of great, humane, democratic reform. 

But then, federal politics is no longer a place of great democratic reform, but an institution for regulating the distribution of power and money, which retains the power of hugely significant political outcomes. We can’t expect that this election will bring about the greatest equality for the greatest number of people. But we can vote with our heads, to at least choose a party who might push for greater equality for a greater number of people. 

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, The Lifted Brow, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Miley Cyrus, disgust, politics, election, popular culture, taste, morality



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Existing comments

In reading this article by Ellena the thought occurred to me that "the more things change, the more they stay the same". Ellena is the same age as my son so I write from the perspective of one generation earlier. In using the example of Miley Cyrus and her performance at the American Video Music Awards, I also noticed that the male in the performance escaped criticism. Perhaps women are still being perceived as objects in male transactions? In assessing who to vote for, we perhaps do need to note the similarity of the major parties in attempting to 'buy' votes (nothing new really). And we should think carefully about the power of our vote.

Pam | 29 August 2013  

A puss-infected wound would make me cat-atonic...

Penelope | 29 August 2013  

As someone 40 years older than you Ellena I am neither disgusted by the Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke non-event nor the current political battle between Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber. Both seem to be incredibly boring. If the first represents heterosexual sex as represented in Shakespeare; great art or sublime dance like Bharatanatyam and the latter deep political insight, well, as Barry McKenzie would say, I'll be buggered. There is more to both. I think consumers of both music and politics need to turn off. Completely. Take their custom elsewhere. There is far, far more to life. Thank heavens.

Edward F | 30 August 2013  

Penelope, are you familiar with Peter Porter's "Mort aux chats"? Great poem.

Pam | 31 August 2013  

I am a great advocate of the discipline known as Political Sociology. It is the ugly duckling in most Political Science departments. Your article, Ellena, is a breath of fresh air, so different from the polls analysis that substitutes for policy analysis in most of the media. You may be a voice crying in the wilderness, but keep crying. Australia needs your voice. I'd love to see you on Q&A, but maybe you would not be confrontational enough, a la Barnaby Joyce, or bleeding heart enough, a la Senator Hanson-Young. More's the pity!

Uncle Pat | 01 September 2013  

Fresh analysis of a tired topic. Well done. I'm really interested in the stat that up to 50 per cent of political identification comes down to genetic factors. Are there journal articles etc I can read about this? Or even an overview of the topic?

Greg Foyster | 02 September 2013  

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