How Disgust Is Weaponized To Control You
I believe that one single emotion, above all others, dominates modern discourse:
Raw, visceral disgust.
I also think that it’s badly misunderstood, because we’re constantly trying to dress up our disgust as something else, kind of like how they used to have to sell vibrators as “muscle massagers.” This is important, because it’s clear that the rational, logical part of your brain is secretly at the mercy of this primal override… and the world is full of influencers who know it.
How Disgust Quietly Dictates Your Opinions
To demonstrate how this is more complicated than you think, imagine the most physically disgusting man on earth. He’s never bathed, his face is covered in old vomit, his clothes are stiff with dried waste, he stinks like rot and ammonia. If words don’t do him justice, I’ll provide a picture to drive it home. I hope you haven’t just had lunch:
Awful. Touching that filthy wretch would trigger a visceral reaction that would transcend any empathy or reason. The good-hearted progressive could tell herself that his filth isn’t his fault, but all such thoughts would be but a proverbial lump of cotton candy under a tsunami of bitter, gut-wrenching disgust. It’s a circuit breaker of a reflex that’s designed to trump all others, evolution’s way of keeping us from ingesting toxins or rotten meat no matter how hungry we get.
So if I tried to shame you for your revulsion, you’d say it’s perfectly rational: the filthy man is likely a vector of disease, he’s probably mentally unwell, maybe even dangerous. But even with 100% assurance that none of that was true of this particularly filthy wretch, the visceral disgust would remain. And it’s here where things get weird:
I want you now to imagine another man, one who boasts that he showers ten times a day. He uses an entire bottle of sanitizer after touching a doorknob, he unwraps a new bar of soap every time he washes his hands and then discards it after a single use. He sprays his entire kitchen with disinfectant after every meal, he brings his own boiled silverware to restaurants, he avoids public transit lest he be forced to interact with the unwashed. Every night, just before bed, he dissolves that day’s underwear in a barrel of acid.
Weirdly, the feeling you’d have toward such a person is also a form of visceral disgust. He’s fussy and fragile, maybe even haughty. In fact, you might grow so frustrated with his fastidious Niles Crane ass that you start calling him an “asshole” or “a piece of shit”—insults that evoke feces and filth.
Once again, we’d package our negative feelings as logic. His lifestyle is wasteful (“His showers waste water! All of those household cleaning chemicals wind up in our waterways!”) and senseless (“Scientifically, he’s not measurably decreasing his risk of illness! This probably qualifies as a disorder!”). But under the layers of logic lies the same visceral response, an involuntary rejection of someone who is simply doing life wrong. And even though he is doing it wrong in the exact opposite way of the last guy, the disgust comes from the same place.
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We’re Driven By Tribal Disgust Of Outgroups And Outcasts
You may not even realize how arbitrary all of this is until you notice that every accusation you hurled up at the germaphobe could be flung up at you from the filth-encrusted wretch. Aren’t you using more water than him? Isn’t your cleanliness routine flushing more chemicals into the environment, consuming more goods, generating a greater carbon footprint? You want to believe you’re merely the oasis of reason between two unhealthy extremes, but if all times and places are taken into account, just the belief in a required daily shower puts you in rare company.
It is thus objectively true that the contempt you hold for the wretch and the germaphobe is no more or less logical than the contempt they both hold for you (as you are the wretch to the germaphobe and the germaphobe to the wretch). Your brain has played a trick on you, because it was never about physical disgust at all; it was about learned disgust toward all who don’t follow the arbitrary rituals of your tribe.
In fact, much of what you see as “normal” behavior, from the foods you consider delicious to the vices you reject as harmful, are just boundaries and rituals set long ago by strangers you’ll never meet. So the disgust you feel toward those who deviate is, in reality, a type of xenophobia, revulsion toward the outgroup. And just to be extra clear, there is really no logic to it; we look down both on the culture that forces women to cover their faces and the one that allows them to wear Lycra shorts to a funeral.
Well, if it seems like the whole world has gone a little crazy in the social media era, it’s because you’re watching hundreds of millions of people suddenly realize that other tribes have drastically different rules and that everyone involved regards their rules as undeniable, timeless truths (“But these are the pronouns GOD gave us!”). Our modern connectivity has triggered an international spasm of mutual outgroup disgust.
Then The Powerful Stoke The Disgust For Political Gain
As you might have noticed, discourse in 2023 is dominated by those who repackage their disgust as concern for something practical: safety, health, our precious children, whatever. The right-wing pundit says drag queens must be condemned, not because they make the pundit feel weird (as the rules of his ingroup dictate that men shouldn’t dress that way), but because they are secret “groomers”, or something. Immigrants must be condemned, not on the arbitrary and cruel basis that they don’t share our people’s language and customs, but because they’re importing diseases and drugs. Overweight women must be condemned, not because the rules of our ingroup dictate that only the thin are beautiful, but because the pundit is worried about diabetes or... I don’t even know.
Politicians, activists and cult leaders figured out long ago that if they can trigger your disgust response, you’ll be immune to any argument or reason from the outside—what string of pretty words can make a sewer smell like a bakery? And while I would love to end this column having successfully diagnosed the madness of the anti-woke right, we both know that’s not where this ends. When a weapon works, both sides will use it.
Wait, is… is this post about cancel culture? God damn it.
Fine. Look, this is the last thing I’m ever gonna say about what has to be the most cursed fucking subject of the internet era:
On the rare occasion that someone complains about “Cancel Culture” in good faith, this is usually what they’re really referring to, the persuasion technique that declares certain opinions/words/habits/people to not just be wrong, but worthy only of raw outgroup disgust. Anyone who even entertains a tainted opinion is instantly declared by the zealots to be a secret member of the wretched outgroup. For example, the debate happening on my Twitter timeline today boils down to,
Person A: “Disaffected young men turn to right-wing extremists because that’s the only group actively offering them a social support network, the left is too busy mocking and shaming them. There needs to be outreach.”
Person B: “Look it’s another Incel who wants us to be nice to Nazis lol.”
The same vanguard of extremely-online scolds spent the last couple of years insisting that any argument against any pandemic intervention flags the speaker as a literal murderous genocidal eugenicist. Before that, their primary cause was cutting off association with all thinkers/authors/creators who hold any problematic opinions or who have engaged in even a single act of bad behavior in the past.
The key to the technique, and what scares the normal people out there, is the absolute dehumanization of any who disagree. You are literal waste that must be purged and expelled from the tribe. There’s a reason they love “piece of shit” as an insult; it’s all about the enforcement of new social norms via the power of disgust, this primal logic override in the brain. Even this column has probably enraged someone, since any criticism of the left, no matter how mild, is seen as giving aid and comfort to the literal fascists who they insist make up half of society.
The Shitification of Dissent
“Wow, that sounds pretty bad,” some will say, “I’m surprised you haven’t made your entire Substack about nothing but this. In fact, I’m thinking of making opposition to these woke social media zealots my entire personality!”
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That’s a very common reaction, apparently, especially if you have a popular centrist Twitter account or newsletter. Fun fact: I’ve been sitting on this column idea for six months because I wanted to avoid publishing amid some specific celebrity cancellation (see, otherwise the entire piece would be seen as a secret defense of the canceled’s actions, and the entire actual point would be lost).
But I went outside recently and what I found is that most people are just living their lives and not spending every waking moment looking for a reason to summon an outrage mob to their cause. In fact, even the worst of the worst keyboard warriors tend to become normal people the moment they look away from the screen. The issue has always been that this small segment of heavy social media users has an incredibly outsized effect on the culture, because they’ve learned this technique for constantly drawing brand new battle lines and then trying to bully or shame people into picking a side.
They figured out long ago that if they say, “Don’t do X anymore because it’s problematic, for the following reasons,” that will either bore their audience or invite them to debate those reasons. But, “X is disgusting and no good person would associate with or hire anyone who does it” ends the argument before it begins. It’s easy for the listener to agree to stop using some piece of offensive slang or whatever. It’s hard to find an entirely new career and social support group.
I hate this technique even when it’s used to advance a cause I agree with, for the same reason I wouldn’t cheer a confession that was beaten out of a guilty man: The tactic would have gotten the same result even if the interrogator had been wrong.
In The Long Term, This Is A Ratchet That Only Tightens
If it seems like people are too scared of “Cancel Culture”, I agree in the sense that too many commentators treat it like the most pressing threat we face as a species…
…but I disagree in the sense that what I’m calling Cancel Culture is really just what polarization looks like at ground level. And we are becoming polarized at a terrifying rate:
It’s weird, it’s almost like the two sides in that graph are pulling away from each other, as if, I don’t know, recoiling in disgust or something. That is the mechanism in action, persuasion via “Are you with us or against us” tribalism. Each side makes it absolutely clear that the other cannot be reasoned with, that any debate on any subject is the equivalent of negotiating genocide. There are even Twitter mobs now that use “Just asking questions” as an accusation, insisting the mere act of asking for information or clarification is a sign of an infiltrator secretly out to undermine the cause. It reminds me of the reaction I got asking about dinosaur bones in Sunday school: persistent questions, I was told, are a sign of weak faith.
That’s the irony of Musk accusing the left of spreading a mind virus: Each side is explicitly trying to do exactly that, to create ideas that spread even against the will of the audience that hears them. “Believe this, not because it’s true, but because this is what the tribe believes now. And you can’t live without the tribe.” Watching the herds shift directions on a dime is kind of terrifying. I grew up during the climax of the Cold War; seeing the hard-core Republicans in my feed suddenly become pro-Russia over the last few years has been fucking surreal.
But of course it ends in madness; reason has been shut out of the process. Putting disgust in charge of our opinions already requires us to believe something that is patently untrue and ridiculous, which is that there is a group out there with whom we have zero ideological overlap, that not a single position of theirs is held in good faith, that every word is either a grift or thinly-veiled bigotry. It requires adopting the cartoonish belief that there is not one molecule of humanity to be found in the opposition (many of whom happen to be my neighbors), that they do not feel love or any other positive emotion, that in their hearts is only cruelty, greed and hate.
Therefore, any effort to understand or engage the subhuman outgroup is a waste if not an outright betrayal. After all, they’re not only disgusting, but infectious: mere contact with their ideas can spoil any mind. Their work must be pulled from shelves, purged from the system like tainted meat from a sickened stomach. If taken far enough, you can reach a point where actual intellectuals are boasting about all of the books they don’t read, where creators spend half their time passionately demanding that other creators be silenced.
It’s a reflexive sorting of pure vs impure, holy vs unholy, all enforced by new batches of rules of uncertain origin and methodology that cannot be questioned. It’s a pattern of behavior that, if we observed it from the outside, we’d instantly recognize it for what it is: A powerful, ancient and destructive force called superstition. Sure, superstition exists for a reason—we fear the dark because we instinctively know that predators can hide there. Superstition works. But I thought the goal was to replace it with something better.
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