How to Counter The Politics of Disgust

Originally published on The Huffington Post on 1/28/2016.

In Pixar’s movie, Inside Out, the character Disgust looks like this:


In politics, disgust often looks more like this:


This second example references not the Holocaust, but a few years before it. This was a time when entire groups of people – Jewish people, gay people, and mentally and physically disabled people, among others – were the targets of propaganda campaigns working to transform ordinary human beings into something disgusting in the public eye.  

It’s now about 75 years later, and the word “disgusting” is getting thrown around in presidential politics, referring to groups like women, Mexicans, and Muslims. Should we be alarmed? Yes, we should.

In this post, I’m going to give a quick rundown of how disgust works as a political strategy, and why it’s so powerful. Then I’ll get into how we can counter it.

How disgust works

Biologically, disgust is a reaction to substances that might harm us by making us sick, like poop, blood, rotting flesh, and spoiled food. It’s different from fear, which is a reaction to imminent bodily harm (like seeing a shark fin approach).


Fear and Disgust in Pixar’s Inside Out

If you’re a politician speaking at a podium, it’s actually pretty hard to make the people listening physically feel fear. Low-grade dread is the best you can hope for. Disgust, on the other hand, is simple. Feeling grossed out is visceral and automatic, and it’s easy to get there with words alone. Think about it – have you ever asked a friend to stop telling all the gory details of their recent surgery, or how their dog got sick, because it just made you feel too gross?  

Not only is disgust an easy emotion to evoke, it’s also special because it’s highly contagious. If you touch a disgusting object (like a fly swatter) to a clean object (a sandwich), the clean object becomes contaminated. This easily translates to politics: if you rhetorically tag Hillary Clinton with a toilet, BOOM, she’s disgusting.

This actually happened recently. During a debate, Hillary Clinton was a few minutes late returning from a bathroom break. Here’s what Donald Trump said about it:

“I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.”

The reality is that all the candidates regularly use the bathroom, including him. But that fact doesn’t diminish at all the emotional power of the image he invoked with his words. He specifically wants you to think of a toilet when you think of Hillary Clinton.  

Shortly after this incident, Donald Trump tagged Clinton with disgust again, using a different angle. In his “Hillary and her friends” instagram video, he shows images of her alongside Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby and Anthony Weiner. This time, instead of a toilet, he’s tagging her with “the blue dress”, serial rape, and dick pics.

The contamination feature of disgust is just as easy to apply to social groups or moral issues as it is to individuals. It has a subliminal, distancing effect, and it’s scary how easily it can go unnoticed. As Soraya Chemaly writes, “Disgust is step one of othering people, step one of justifying injustice.” The myth that “Jews smell bad” might actually have seemed like a silly thing at first – but it was a step on the path to dehumanization. It should come as no surprise that the groups most likely to be tagged with disgust are lowest in the social hierarchy, and disgust is often used to prevent them from “infecting the integrity” of a better-positioned social group.

I want to say a few more words about Donald Trump, since he’s the person who’s been making the news the most lately for invoking disgust. The first time Trump really got in trouble for it was when Megyn Kelly called him out at the August 2015 Republican presidential debate, saying “You’ve called women you don’t like, ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ slobs, and disgusting animals” to which he responded “Only Rosie O’Donnell” and then later described the exchange by invoking period blood: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” He’s “contaminating” women by associating them with animals and blood.

Donald Trump has also called Mexicans and Muslims disgusting, as well as handshakes and elevator buttons and windmills. Here’s a nice list of 32 things he’s called disgusting. His excessive use of the word is becoming a joke at this point.

The thing is, if you think elevator buttons are disgusting, that’s fine – you can’t dehumanize an object. But if you’re running for the highest political office in the country and you think entire groups of people are disgusting, that’s scary. It’s particularly scary if you are representing a party with conservative political beliefs, because studies have shown that conservatives are significantly more sensitive to disgust than liberals. One study was even able to predict political leaning based on disgust sensitivity with 95% accuracy. If you want to learn more about the science behind this, there have been a couple of great breakdowns in the Washington Post and the New Republic.

In a nutshell, Trump’s strategy of tagging people and groups with things like toilets and pigs and blood is extra powerful politically, because he knows his audience. He’s exploiting his party’s elevated sensitivity to disgust.

The antidote to disgust as a political strategy  

Now that we know how disgust works, what do we do about it? Because disgust has a distancing effect, the solution is to eliminate that distance. We need to find ways to bring people closer to the “disgusting” person or group and invite them to develop empathy.

The only way past disgust is through it. Here is a step-by-step approach:

Step 1. Expose disgust as an othering strategy

When disgust appears in politics, the first step is to identify which person or group is being pushed away. What -isms or -phobias do we see? Might be racism, islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia. We can ask ourselves, why is that person or group being othered? What is the political reason they are being distanced? We can also look at our internal assumptions: Do we personally feel distanced from that person or group? Why?

Step 2. Zero in on the ignorance involved  

Ignorance is an absolute requirement for political disgust to exist. For example, the GOP has cultivated ignorance around women’s lives and bodies, maintaining that there will always be a “mystery,” about the “opposite sex.” They do the same thing around Mexicans and Muslims, painting them as the un-relatable, un-understandable “other” who needs to be held back by walls and laws. When you see disgust being evoked against a group of people, you’ll rarely see a personal story – the narrative is all vague generalizations. Our tendency as humans is to love and care about other humans. If we start to understand and identify with a member of a group, that’ll erode ignorance. But first we have to recognizing that ignorance is being purposefully cultivated.

Step 3. Use empathy

Disgust and empathy are processed in the same part of the brain (the anterior insula) and both focus on protecting the self from discomfort. Disgust protects from discomfort via getting sick or “contaminated”, by causing us to draw away from the source of discomfort. Empathy does the opposite. It forces us to get close to another person or group and feel their pain. The worse we feel as a result of our empathy, the more motivated we are to help the person or group feel better, because it will make us feel better. It’s a little bit selfish, really, but it works. And the result is that the feeling of discomfort is no longer just far away, it’s actually gone.

But it doesn’t just happen automatically. How do we make that switch from feeling disgust to feeling empathy?

Step 4. Make it personal

Here is where we bring in those powerful individual stories that are suppressed in order to cultivate ignorance. It’s time to let them out, because they are the secret to closing the distance. Where can you find them? Look to your social networks, or start googling. The stories are there if you’re motivated to find them.

A few great examples I’ve seen recently involve people trying to counter period disgust, such as this art project by Rupi Kaur and this video for the guy who hates period commercials. Both are heavy on exposure: they aim to bring a traditionally “othered” taboo into a balanced reality.

Another great example is the stereotype-breaking “I’m Muslim, But I’m Not” video (definitely watch it if you haven’t already: the messaging transforms amazingly into “I’m Muslim, And”). In this video, a group that is usually otherized by American mainstream media as a homogenously scary, incomprehensible group, is able to deliver its own personal messages to communicate varied, relatable self-identities.

Lastly, back to that Hillary Clinton bathroom thing. Soraya Chemaly’s piece on the subject gets into what bathroom inequality actually looks like in reality. The otherizing message on women’s bathroom use is that women take forever because they waste time on a combination of frivolous (gossiping, primping) and unmentionable (periods) activities. Chemaly’s piece exposes inequalities in bathroom construction, the differing realities of women’s bodies and clothes, and disproportionate childcare responsibilities. There’s nothing mysterious about it.

Creating a blog post or a video or an art project takes a lot of time and energy. But sharing one with your network does not – you can easily boost the signal this way. Hashtags are another powerful method of personalization, because they allow us to easily participate as well as access a huge, connected volume of personal stories very quickly – like #MuslimApologies and #periodsarenotaninsult. These might seem like small things, but they’re so important. You never know who’s listening.

Step 5. Repeat

Transforming disgust is not a one-time thing. It requires repeated, positive exposure. In our social-media saturated environment, this is extremely doable. But it will involve a lot of people pushing back in personal ways and sharing their experiences to counter the disgust narrative. When it comes to women’s bodies, it will also be important for the platforms themselves to stop “protecting” men from non-sexualized realities of periods, breast milk, and body hair.

Why can’t we just flip the script and talk about how Trump is actually the disgusting one?

The last thing I want to mention is how some groups have started to try to use the word “disgust” against Donald Trump. Like this skywriting:


Or the recent Slate article calling Trump’s anti-Muslim plan “disgusting but not surprising.”

My initial reaction to turning the term “disgusting” against Donald Trump is that it’s a weak strategy because it maintains the feeling of disgust front-and-center, which doesn’t really get us anywhere. Dan Kelly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University, takes a more philosophical point of view, saying “It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo.”


How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike


Now that policing strategies are squarely in the public eye, criminal justice system reform advocates are encouraging the public to take a step further and see the problems with policing as part of a larger, broken system. This is an area where reframing is going to be key.

What does a bike have to do with it? Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last month that lays out a new metaphor for thinking about the system:

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. It is as if we have been riding on an old bike with balloon tires and one speed even though we have far more sophisticated vehicles at our disposal. Imagine a public safety vehicle as a 21-speed bike, with enough flexibility to traverse any terrain.”


Ogletree and Harris didn’t pick the idea of a bike out of thin air as a creative way to illustrate their point. On the contrary, they were involved in the strategic construction of this metaphor for three years. Formally known as the “Justice Gears” metaphor, it is the product of intensive research by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with the Hamilton Institute, to determine where the gaps in understanding fall between experts’ understanding of the criminal justice system and the general public’s understanding.

Here’s the Justice Gears metaphor in its entirety:

“Right now our justice system is stuck using only one gear – the prison gear. Think about how a bicycle needs to use different gears for different situations to work effectively and efficiently. The criminal justice system is trying to deal with a wide variety of situations using only the prison gear. We need to have other justice gears for people who come into the system, like mental health or juvenile justice services. We need to change the criminal justice system to make sure it has different gears for different purposes and that it can use the right gear in the right situation. If we do use more justice gears, we can improve outcomes and all get where we need to go.”

The point of this new metaphor is to put a concrete go-to picture in people’s heads when they think about the criminal justice system. Currently, most Americans’ automatic thinking around the subject involves a combination of the following:

  • We jump to public safety, thinking about it mostly in terms of front-line responders: police, firefighters, security personnel. We readily acknowledge that some of these individuals are corrupt or lazy.
  • We think crime is caused by individuals who weigh costs/benefits (rational actors), or by “rotten egg” personalities. To a lesser degree, we think of crime as a result of ecological determinants.
  • We trust that the system is “generally” functioning as it should. We don’t usually think critically about whether the system is working to advance society’s goals, or whether it serves the broad public interest.

The Framework Institute’s report gets into much greater nuance, but a central point is that the general population recognizes that there are problems in the system, but tends to attribute them to isolated individuals. Experts, on the other hand, attribute the problems to structural issues within the system.

It is important to note that African-American and Latino groups in the research study, while still demonstrating a predominant focus on the individual, came closest to the expert view on systemic issues around racial inequities within the system, a finding which comes as no surprise.

Here’s why it’s problematic to have a mental model like our current one, that doesn’t take into account systemic issues: because the model in your head naturally determines the solutions you see. If you think rational actors are choosing to commit crimes, the solution you might see is harsher punishments. If you think bad cops are responsible for police brutality, the solution you might see is stricter policies to establish surveillance around and root out those individuals. Same goes for corrupt prosecutors, crooked wardens, etc. If your mental model is focused on individual “agents”, the solutions you see will be tailored towards those agents.

If you instead see the problem in terms of structural issues, like police quotas, overwhelming caseloads, mandatory sentencing, etc., the potential solutions you see will be very different. The “Justice Gears” metaphor is one element of the reframing process that helps us reorient our dominant cognitive model towards something that positions us to consider a different set of solutions. According to the Frameworks Institute, the two other critical elements for reframing are the values and facts that most effectively reinforce the new narrative around the issue.

They tested the effectiveness of these facts:

  • Neutral – describing the impact of the criminal justice system on all adult Americans.
  • International – comparing stats on the US criminal justice system with other countries.
  • Racial Disparities – comparing effects of the system on African Americans/whites.

And these values:

  • Pragmatism emphasizing taking a “common sense” approach to public safety and criminal justice.
  • Fairness – emphasizing equal treatment.
  • Cost Efficiency – emphasizing fiscal responsibility.

The winning combination was the value of Pragmatism plus facts about Racial Disparities. Here’s an example of what messaging aligned with this value/fact combination can look like:

“Managing the criminal justice system more responsibly can address some important problems currently facing our country. For example, we know that communities with high unemployment, underachieving schools and a lack of other resources have high rates of crime. This problem particularly hurts children and young adults who may end up in the system. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. Specifically, we need to identify practical things we can do to address these and other issues. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people to prison instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our country safer and help all Americans. The system we have is not doing this. In 2010, seven out of every 1,000 white men in the United States were in prison. By contrast, 43 out of every 1,000 African American men in the United States were in prison. Clearly, the system is not working, and is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our society.”

The idea is that advocates will be able to start using this messaging as a way to start familiarizing the general public with this new framework.

As you might imagine with such a huge issue, the Frameworks Institute isn’t the only organization working on reframing. The Berkeley Media Studies Group released a report in 2009 around reframing violence among youth that touches on similar points, and also gets into some really interesting research around how to counter the distortions in news coverage of crime that conflate race and violence.

Have you seen any other research out there around reframing or other communications strategies? What do you think about the Framework Institute’s proposed framework? I would love to learn more about other perspectives or ideas. Drop me a line!