Gods and Demons: The Politics of Disgust

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a b**ch off the field right now? He’s fired. He’s fired!” ~ Donald Trump

 “This may be one of the most vile and disgusting things that president Trump has ever said in a very long and impressive list of vile and disgusting things,”
~ Marc Lamont Hill

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about disgust these past few months. Not physical disgust, making you crinkle up your nose and say, “ewwh!;” but moral disgust, that toxic feeling that comes when we experience words, actions, or beliefs and the people who espouse them as morally tainted, stupid, evil, insane, or…..deplorable.

In our politically-divided country, disgust is increasingly what we feel for “the other side.” We can’t understand how “those people” can believe and feel as they do; they are so incomprehensible to us that they become “other,” the out-group to our own identified in-group. They must be bad, probably irredeemable. We want nothing to do with them. We will stay in our own, lovely echo-chambers, thank you very much.

Disgust erodes communication because, in the throes of disgust, we no longer think of the other as quite completely human, and therefore, not truly worthy of being heard and understood; perhaps, unconsciously, not quite worthy of kindness. Psychologists and sociologists call this infrahumanization – perceiving the out-group to be less human.

Disgust is different from anger. Take a married couple. Classic research from the psychologist John Gottman shows that to predict which marriages last and which end in divorce, the amount and intensity of fighting does not predict very well. If you can discuss and resolve expressed anger, fighting can actually strengthen a relationship. But, the death knell of a marriage is when partners express contempt and disgust for one other. Once you’ve gotten to disgust, there is little room for kindness, little room for problem solving and compromise, and you can only rarely turn back and save the relationship.

The United States is like a married couple in the throes of contempt and disgust for one another. And we are very close to a divorce.

This is especially distressing because at this historical moment in time, we need as many opportunities as possible to come together, heal, and solve problems as a nation.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation that influenced my thinking about this very strongly. For the purposes of respecting a private conversation, I am fictionalizing some contextual details. I have a friend, with whom I’ve always felt I share extremely similar political and social views. But tonight was different. Charlottesville had just happened. As a reminder of events – the White Nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was organized to protest the removal of confederate monuments. The event ended tragically in the murder of a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, by a White Nationalist who plowed his car into a crowd. The subsequent eruption over Trump’s response, citing fault on “both sides” was still the leading news. Two prominent neo-Nazi forums, Stormfront and the Daily Stormer, had been digital hubs for organizing the rally. Shortly following the event, their domain support was pulled (by Network Solutions and Google, respectively) for violating terms of service by inciting violence.

As we talked about the tragedy of Charlottesville, I questioned whether the late-in-coming shutting down of these White Nationalist websites was handled strategically enough. While I believe these domain hosts should never have hosted the hate groups in the first place, I also wondered about it from a psychological perspective. Insular groups like Neo-Nazis become more cohesive as their underdog/outsider status is reinforced through perceived persecution. Because they were allowed to thrive for so long, shutting them down “suddenly” probably just vindicated their “us versus them” view of the world. I didn’t have a solution, but was thinking out loud about how to truly disrupt them rather than bolster their cohesion.

Then, almost before I realized what was happening, the discussion became a charged debate that went something like this: I questioned whether neo-Nazi websites should have been shut down the way they were; my friend counter-argued that not doing so would allow hate speech, undeterred; moreover, if we give white supremacists a voice, we are helping them point a figurative and literal “gun to the face” towards people of color and other targets of their hate on a daily basis. I agreed, but argued that freedom of speech is a very sharp double-edged sword, and we need to take a step back and strategically rethink our approach rather than reacting with our gut to just shut it all down and make it go away. I pointed out that the way we’ve been doing this so far hasn’t worked very well, and indeed, seems to have emboldened racists. My friend suggested that I was missing important points about the nature of racism, reminding me of power dynamics and who is allowed a “voice” in our society. I was stunned and found myself repeatedly thinking, “Does he think I don’t understand that? Does he think I’m a racist?”

And here, perhaps, is one of the most important points about this experience – my description of our discussion is only my perception of what my friend thought, because 30 minutes in, I had the distinct impression that we no longer understood what the other was trying to say. I felt misinterpreted, and my friend might have felt the same because from conversations following that night, he viewed our exchange quite differently.

For the first time since the presidential campaign and election roller coaster started many months ago, I understood what Trump supporters must have felt when Hilary Clinton placed them in a “basket of deplorables” because I started to suspect that my friend found my opinions deplorable – I felt misunderstood, judged, and bewildered. I felt that my back was against a wall and nothing I could say, other than agreeing with all his points, would create common ground. I found myself expressing shock at some of the things he was saying, and certainly I was judgmental at times. Was this in some small way the beginning of disgust and misunderstanding among friends, even when (I still believe) our views and values are in reality so closely aligned? Did our disgust towards the “other side” distort our thinking such that we started to find the “other side” in each other?

Before and after the presidential election, Donald Trump used the word disgust a lot – referring to Hilary Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell, a lawyer taking a break to pump breast milk for her 3-month-old baby, Barney Frank, Madonna, the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the list goes on. Disgust has been levied right back at him continuously by countless commentators on all sides. This moral disgust is a perfect mirror of Trump-era U.S. politics: You are either for or against Donald Trump; and you were either for or against Hilary Clinton. It’s a Manichean battle between good and evil.

Evolutionary psychology has long argued that we evolved to experience disgust towards things that could make us sick (rotten meat) or harm us (poisonous plants), and that we then transformed this physical disgust into the moral and ethical domain, serving as an important basis for rules of conduct and civilized behavior. Moral disgust leads us to “expel” the offenders. We want nothing to do with these disgraceful human beings – they are reprehensible, beyond the pale, and beyond our ability to reach an understanding. They are not part of our group, our society, our tribe. They are outsiders or “those people.”

Let me say clearly that when we’re talking about racism, xenophobia, verbal or physical violence against others because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, or because they are different from us, moral disgust, unequivocal condemnation, and clear action to counteract are necessary. When it comes to Neo-Nazis inciting violence, nothing short of disgust in is order. But the problem with disgust in normal political discourse is that when it takes center stage, there are no in-betweens. If we disagree, our views must be on opposite sides, with few bridges long enough to connect them. Moral disgust in a political discussion among friends is so toxic that it can twist what we perceive and how we communicate, breed misunderstanding, and place us in warring tribes even when we are of the same mind.

We must acknowledge that most of us have fully embraced disgust in our views about “the other side.” I see this in myself on a daily basis. But if we want to find new solutions, thinking about the political landscape as a battle between good and evil is simply too dangerous because this worldview only leaves room for gods and demons; it leaves little room for human beings that may, one day, be able to understand one other again.

Perspective Taking: Is There an App for That?

Perspective taking is a key building block of kindness. It is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes, and to understand that someone might think and feel differently than you do. In the new millennium, we might say it is the recognition of different points of view (POV).

Perspective taking therefore relies upon our capacity to shift our POV, to conceive of reality not as fixed and black and white, but as subjective. This mental flexibility is the bedrock not only of kindness, but of sympathy and empathy.

Although this cognitive achievement is shared by other species, and does not look the same in all people, many would agree that perspective taking is among the sine qua non of being a well-adjusted and socially-connected human being.

How Does Perspective Taking Develop? Theory of Mind

Starting in the 1980’s, developmental psychologists created some simple but clever techniques to study children’s ability to take another POV, also called theory of mind. Theory of mind is the capacity to attribute mental states – including beliefs, intentions, perspectives, desires, emotions, and knowledge – to oneself and to others, and to further understand that one’s mental states can be private and different from another’s. Calling it a theory of mind, asserts the philosophical truism that we can only intuit the existence of our own mind through introspection, and have no direct access to the mind of another. This theorizing also allows us to understand that mental states can be the cause of—and thus be used to explain and predict—the behavior of ourselves and others. So theory of mind is quite a useful theory indeed.

In these first theory of mind experiments, children were told stories or shown puppetmaxi-task-pic-only
shows about other little children with names like Maxi, Sally, and Anne, and involving objects like candy and marbles. For example, in the “Maxi Task” developed by Wimmer & Perner (1983), researchers act out a scenario with two dolls, one a little boy called Maxi and the other a mother doll. Maxi has a piece of chocolate and puts it in a blue cupboard. Then, after Maxi leaves the scene, the mother doll moves the chocolate to the green cupboard. Maxi does not observe that the chocolate was moved. Finally, Maxi returns and the child is asked, “Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?”

Researchers consistently find that children younger than 4 are more likely to say that Maxi would look in the green cupboard – where the mother put the chocolate – despite the fact that Maxi could not have known this.  In contrast, 4- and 5-year-olds are more likely to say Maxi would look in the blue cupboard.

The Maxi Task and similar tasks are called false belief tasks because they reveal whether or not a child comprehends that two people can have different beliefs about the same situation. In the case of the Maxi task, a child who has developed theory of mind understands that Maxi would have falsely believed that the chocolate was still in the blue cupboard, where he had originally put it, since he did not see his mother move the chocolate into the green cupboard.

Developmental Psychology has a rich history of theory and research on how humans develop theory of mind, and it’s considered “typical” or what we expect from every child and adult. When there are problems with this fundamental ability, we take notice. Indeed, a range of psychological disorders list differences or deficits in the ability to perspective take as a core symptom, such as autistic spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Digital Technology and Perspective Taking: To POV or not to POV

So, if perspective taking and theory of mind are necessary facets of being a healthy human being, then finding ways to cultivate perspective taking in our daily lives becomes a fundamental goal, and one that isn’t just about politeness or niceties.

Digital technology and social media are among the most important contexts in which we exercise our ability to share POVs. The term exercise is highly appropriate here because, like a muscle, perspective taking is something that can be strengthened with practice. But there is a deep tension between how digital technology both disrupts and cultivates our ability to share another person’s POV.

Technology is disruptive when it compromises our ability to engage with others as real human beings, with their own perspectives, and to whom we owe basic respect. The pervasive culture of online harassment, trolling, and cyber bullying shows us that something has broken down here. A recent white paper on online harassment reports that almost three-quarters (72%) of American internet users have witnessed online harassment or abuse and almost half (47%) of have personally experienced it. Men and women are equally likely to face harassment, but women, younger people, and those identifying as LGBTQ experience a greater variety and more serious forms of abuse. Self-censorship as a result of this harassment is growing more common, with more than a quarter of Americans (27%) saying they have decided not to post something online for fear of attracting harassment, and 40% of harassment victims say they experience increased isolation or disconnectedness due to the online harassment.

What is it about online culture that drives this trend towards the unkind? Part of it is anonymity: people will say and do things they normally wouldn’t when they believe they are anonymous. Part of it might also be that digital culture is embedded in the attention economy, which is precisely and relentlessly designed to high jack our attention for the economic benefit of its creators. If the services we use are to gather and sell our personal data, technology needs to be addictive, keeping us looking, clicking, buying, hoping to hear the next best thing, to get a “like”, and to feel connected, soothed, and understood. Social media is deeply anchored in the interpersonal version of this carrot and stick dance; and trolls and bullies are likely to crash the dance.

The consolation prize for us users is that we are supposed to be part of a world that, as described in the Facebook mission statement, “give[s] people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” And in many ways we do live in a much more connected world in which so many POVs are discoverable, recognized and acknowledged. Given that, we should be in the golden age of perspective taking.

But our digerati have failed us, because the attention economy has also created echo chambers in which information, ideas, or beliefs from a single POV are amplified or reinforced because the algorithms that control the flow of information have become the fuel of the economic engine that drives billion-dollar empires. The Facebook echo chambers talked about so much during the 2016 US presidential election were perhaps the single most powerful method of spreading fake news, because we are much more likely to believe something that comes from our self-selected network of friends and information sources with radically similar POVs. This has led to Facebook and others making attempts to halt the flow of fake news, but thus far, these attempts are only baby steps.

Downloading Kindness into Digital Technology

So how do we “download” kindness into this problematic ecosystem of digital technology by using the power of perspective taking?

Perhaps there’s not an app for that. Last year, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Personal Democracy Forum on the politics of fear. Sherry Turkle also presented, speaking about ideas described in her book Reclaiming Conversation. She cited a research study that received media attention over its finding that millennials reported less empathy than previous generations. While the study had no evidence of what might have caused this decline, the authors proposed that the increased use of social media and digital communication might be the culprit. One of the authors went on to suggest that a solution to this problem was to build an “empathy app” – relying on the same sorts of technology that supposedly caused the empathy decline. Because many aspects of digital technology allow us to consistently and effectively hide from the challenges of feeling and expressing emotions in our relationships, to “sidestep physical presence” and seek “frictionless relationships,” Dr. Turkle called for reclaiming not only face-to-face communication, but the common sense realization that mediating our social lives through technology is not the only or best solution to the empathy gap. Instead, she argued, we are the empathy app, and our daily social interactions are all we need to foster empathy. Indeed, I might further argue that the killer empathy app is the one that fosters social interactions on and off screen, and that fosters echo chambers cultivating multiple POVs.

Yet, harnessing technology for the digitally-mediated promotion of perspective taking is not impossible. Technology sometimes affords us the ability to literally show people the world through another’s eyes. Rapid advances in virtual reality (VR) are making this more possible because the promise of VR is to immerse us in a full human experience by harnessing all of our senses. People in the VR world, like Chris Milk who founded the company Within, are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to create greater understanding and empathy. In a project with the UN, Chris Milk created a VR film “Clouds Over Sidra” to vividly portray the plight of refugees through the day-to-day life of a 12-year-old girl named Sidra who, along with more than 80,000 other refugees, lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. 120 diplomats and policy makers stood in line at the 2015 World Economic Forum to experience it. In instances like this, could VR really be the “ultimate empathy machine?” Visions of future dystopias, in which the artificial, virtual worlds of our own choice and design are so much better than reality, tend to dance through my head when I think about the future of VR and AR. Chris Milk and others believe that instead, these technologies can make us more human and fundamentally succeed in removing borders. Perhaps when perspective taking and kindness are at stake, the benefits of technology like VR could outweigh the risks.

Kindness is a 21st Century Skill

These are rapidly changing times, in part due to the frenetic pace of technological innovation. How we communicate, connect, love, hate, and elect presidents are forever altered. Given this, educators, parents, and corporations are focusing on cultivating 21st century skills – skills like problem solving, synthesizing information, interpreting, collaboration, and kindness. These are skills that prepare us for the increasingly complex life and work environments of the 21st century, and reflect the changing nature of work, communication, and how we use technology to facilitate our lives.

I believe that of these, kindness is the most critical 21st century skill, whether your goal is a civil society or successful business. Kindness is at the hub of our pro-social selves and is the glue of civilization. It allows us to understand the world through another’s eyes and act meaningfully in that world.

What is kindness? Kindness means interacting with others in friendly, generous, and thoughtful ways. It means performing acts to benefit others without expectation of reward or benefit for oneself.

For that reason, forcing acts of kindness sabotages the motivation to be kind, and a display of good manners does not automatically mean that a person is kind. Good manners can exist in the absence of generosity and thoughtfulness, and can be motivated by the hope of reward and praise.

Kindness is distinct from other, related aspect of our pro-social selves. For example, sympathy refers to the concern for and understanding of someone else’s distress, feeling pity toward the misfortune of another, especially those perceived as suffering unfairly. In contrast, empathy is the capacity to experience what another person is experiencing, including thoughts, emotions, and sensations, all from the other person’s frame of reference. It leads to an attuned response from the observer. And compassion, perhaps the pinnacle of our pro-social self, is empathic and sympathetic awareness of another’s suffering coupled with the drive to alleviate it. Think Mother Theresa, although compassion does not need to be that elevated, complete, or grand.

So, kindness is at the hub of all these aspects of our pro-social selves.

Kindness does not emerge out of a vacuum, nor is it innate. Kindness instead is the result kindness-mapof core, crucial skills and capacities that lay the foundation for kind behavior and kindness as a moral compass. These capacities of the sine qua non of our pro-social selves: perspective taking, emotion regulation, moral reasoning, and social learning. Each of these skills allows kindness to emerge, and without them is impossible.

In upcoming posts, I will discuss each of these skills in turn, starting with perspective taking.

In our current political climate in the U.S. as well as nations all over the world, kindness and civility appear to be crumbling. Xenophobia and “us versus them” thinking is ascendant. One of the most effective ways to combat this, I believe, is to practice perspective taking, make a habit of trying to understand what and why a person might be experiencing the world in the way that they do. Practicing perspective taking will nourish kindness in us all.