Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Disgust and Other Negative Emotions in Politics


Alternet has a very interesting study on the role of disgust in politics. The article discusses research that finds the emotion of disgust is rooted in a cultural response to biological contamination.

The argument goes as follows. Humans have a biologically based aversion to poisonous/contaminated food. Overlaying this biological aversion is a cultural code of pure/contaminated.

The cultural code of pure/contaminated gets applied to cultural phenomena. For example, we view the toilet as a contaminated object, but are generally not included to view the kitchen sink as contaminated, even though the kitchen sink harbors far more toxic bacteria. Cultural distinctions do not necessarily map directly onto biologically risky phenomena.

It is important to understand how cultural distinctions between pure/polluted are applied because the application of distinctions is often political. Think about the "untouchables" in the Indian caste system. In the U.S., the cultural category of "white trash" illustrates how the polluted designation is unfairly and unjustifiably applied to working class white people.

Obviously, we can see in the example of "white trash" how contaminated/polluted designations have political implications. In the case of "white trash," the designation denigrates people of working class status and thereby explains their lack of affluence in relation to intrinsic liabilities/weaknesses, rather than explaining lack of affluence in relation to lack of opportunity.

What happens when a political strategist--like Carl Rove--taps into these cultural designations with the intent to manipulate populations? German propagandists engaged in precisely this type of activity when villifying and de-humanizing Jews and people with disabilities in the 1930s and 1940s.

The article linked above examines the political implications of this type of "propaganda." By assigning policies or people as "polluted," evil rhetoricians can engineer popular support for their agendas, even when these agendas ultimately harm the populace.

This type of denigration has been applied to "illegal immigrants." Immigration is a complex topic. Few U.S. citizens really understand how NAFTA spurred illegal immigration due to the dumping of US agricultural products onto Mexican markets. Dumping put Mexican subsistance farmers out of work and also harmed small-to-middle-sized Mexican firms. NAFTA therefore spurred illegal immigration.

Illegal immigration was welcomed by US industries that benefit from cheap, unregulated labor, like housing and agribusiness. Simultaneously, illegal immigration eroded the wage earning power of low-income US farm and construction workers in states such as Arizona (this I believe from my observations of the AZ economy).

There is little wonder illegal immigration is considered a significant problem among working class Americans.

However, rather than examining the policies and interests that have driven and benefited from illegal immigration, publics have villified the illegal immigrants (rather than the policies and employers who have produced illegal immigration).

The denigration and dehumanization of illegal immigrants scape-goats the problem and displaces blame. Publics encouraged to react to illegal immigrants with disgust are likely to tolerate human rights and/or civil rights abuses.

De-humanizing illegal immigrants doesn't address the root problems and leads to potential hate crimes. Disgust is a powerful tool for those puppeteers who wish to escape notice and blame.

If those in power really to redress illegal immigration then NAFTA would be re-negotiated, guest worker programs would be formalized and monitored, and employer sanctions would really be enforced.

Obviously, there are many who benefit from the status quo and have no problem with the displacement of blame on the immigrants themselves.

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