“Keep Those People Out of My Sight”

How the right’s politics are fueled by revulsion toward other human beings

Spikes designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping or sitting in public spaces. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever sat down and listened to conservatives speak for any length of time, especially off-the-cuff and in informal settings, you may have noticed a distinctive style to the way they discuss things they don’t like. The best way to describe it would be… exceedingly visceral. Take Tucker Carlson’s racist 2006 commentary about Iraqis unearthed this year by Media Matters for America, describing them as “a culture where people just don’t use toilet paper or forks.” Take Trump’s extensive record of using language like “shithole countries” to refer to the Global South and claiming that the left hopes for undocumented immigrants to “pour into and infest” the United States. Or take Tea Party Nation president Judson Phillips claiming in 2014 that LGBT civil rights would set a precedent for bakers being “required to create pastries for a homosexual wedding in the shape of genitallia (sic),” as well as making some equally bizarre claims in the same statement suggesting that gay weddings commonly take place in the nude and involve public sex.

Fecal matter. Strange foods with foul odors. Garbage in the street. Drugs and used needles. Contagious disease. Exposed genitals and wanton public sexuality. Dirty people, “infesting” places like swarms of insects. This is the recurring imagery that comes up time and time again in these sorts of statements. When conservatives get to speak frankly and free of euphemism about the large swaths of humanity from whom they wish to strip basic rights and dignities, this is their frame of mind. When given a platform this is also their strategy for appealing to the fears of other conservatives and those susceptible to conservative thinking, and unfortunately, it works. As it turns out, disgust is right-wing ideology’s shortcut into the human brain.

In March 2019, The Atlantic published an article consolidating and summarizing a broad array of psychological research on the relationship between political conservatism and sensitivity to disgust. The author attributes the centerpiece of all these studies to neuroscientist Read Montague, who in 2014 utilized fMRI imaging to analyze neural responses to evocative images among 83 participants of varying political ideologies. These images, all nonpolitical, fell into four major categories along the emotional spectrum: pleasant, neutral, disgusting, and threatening. Results revealed the disgusting images to be by far the most predictive of the four for gauging political affiliation, eliciting heightened blood flow to different areas of the brain for conservatives and liberals, with stronger responses appearing as sharper spikes for the more conservative participants. Based on the fMRI results, Montague and his team could predict with 95% accuracy whether a participant fell on the left or right of the political scale.

Other research detailed by the Atlantic piece highlighted and supported a range of theories about the nature of this link, painting a complex picture of a phenomenon that is not yet well understood. One study found that the tongues of conservatives contain a higher density of taste receptors, making them more sensitive to bitter flavors and by extension more easily repulsed. Another study, also cited in the Atlantic article, found that independently of the surveyed participants’ stated political affiliation, the presence of a repugnant odor in the room lowered their tolerance for premarital sex and gay marriage. It’s hard to say which of the two sets of findings are most alarming. Biological determinism and immutable physiology as a basis for political alignment is a pessimistic thought, but knowing how easy it is to manipulate people into right-wing views simply by priming them with disgusting stimuli may be even scarier.

And it’s all too easy to see that manipulation in action, especially through propaganda outlets like Fox News. As revealing as the clips from Tucker Carlson’s days as a Bubba the Love Sponge guest were, his disgust-addled bigotry is just as much on display on his mainstream cable news show, and it reaches and influences many more people. Millions of people watch as he launches attack after attack on homeless populations, using every opportunity to mention “human waste and needles piling up on the sidewalk” with the aim of replacing any sympathy present in his audience with revulsion and fear. Conservative audiences nod along as he claims that immigration makes America “dirtier,” knowing full well what his vision of a “clean” America would look like. Even as those comments draw criticism and advertising boycotts, he doubles down on comparing migrants to filth, directly juxtaposing them with images of garbage. That is his role as a propagandist: to strip the humanity away from people already facing oppression and very difficult living circumstances until all Fox viewers see is pests. It is dangerous rhetoric and that is dehumanization at its core, powered by this right-wing driving force of revulsion.

One of the interesting byproducts of this relationship between conservatism and disgust sensitivity however is how in its strongest manifestations it is inherently self-sabotaging. Gay conservatives (or politically malleable opportunists as it were) like Dave Rubin take a certain pride in their supposed knack for building unlikely coalitions across identity and political lines in the free marketplace of ideas, which makes it all the more ironic when this backfires horribly on them as it did for Rubin following his interview of right-wing pundit Tommy Sotomayor.

The interview itself between the two went about as smoothly as it is possible for a Rubin Report show to go, as Sotomayor was not aware that Rubin was gay at the time and this was never something Rubin thought to bring up. Even as Sotomayor explicitly said he would condemn his hypothetical child being gay the same way he would condemn one being addicted to drugs or “choosing” homelessness, Rubin allowed him his platform without challenge or critique. It wasn’t until weeks later during one of Sotomayor’s livestreams that one of his fans informed him that Dave Rubin is gay. Sotomayor’s explosive reaction, performative though it may have been, was perhaps one of the most literal embodiments of the relationship between conservatism and disgust ever captured on video. He screamed and clutched his hand as though it had been contaminated, bemoaning the fact that he had “shook his hand” and “was in his presence.” It doesn’t get much clearer than treating a gay person, let alone one you had spoken with and agreed with for an extended period, like a rat carrying the bubonic plague. So we can likely consider that bridge burnt.

The sole silver lining to be gleaned from this event is that it’s one less alliance of right-wingers to worry about, but as someone who’d much rather Dave Rubin be criticized from the left for his terrible politics than attacked and dehumanized from the right for being gay, to me it seems a bit of a hollow victory. The real solution going forward would be to continue researching and understanding just how this disgust sensitivity gets weaponized towards conservatives viewing other human beings as contaminants to recoil from, such that we may ultimately deprogram it.

Disgust becomes hate. Hate becomes violence. Violence becomes power. Power becomes material benefits for those at the top, and the complex interlocking systems of marginalization and exploitation that bake oppressions so deeply into our society. But the closer we come to understanding this cycle, the closer we come to breaking it.

Balanced in one hand: this world, and what I hope are some good ideas. In the other: a litany of imaginary worlds for trying those ideas out.

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