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The politics of disgust

  • 30 August 2013

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.

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.