Hijacking our Pathogenic Disgust Response to Purify our Political Ingroups

Disgust as an emotion evolved as an avoidant pathogenic response. When we make "the disgust face" we constrict our nostrils and scrunch up our face so as to not let pathogens into our body. When someone does something morally objectionable we still find ourselves scrunching up our face even though our moral disgust may happen in the comfort of our living room with our laptop in our lap with no chance of outside contamination. 

Contamination is a key element in how disgust works, both physically and meaningfully. Pathogens are invisible. They infect you by contact with another person. In an effort to reduce contamination we try to eliminate all impure substances that could cause infection. When we think about disgusting ideas notions of contamination are also activated thus we worry about bad ideas "spreading" and "infecting people" just like a disease.

Because we live in complex reputational societies we spend quite a bit of time cultivating and maintaining our reputation.  Association with unacceptable people or behaviors carries a huge penalty and is typically avoided at all cost. Since ideas can be conceived of as spreading like viruses and being infected with a bad idea, even tangentially, can be thought of as an existential risk to the group, people who are even mildly associated with these virus-like ideas can be cut off completely.

You can see this behavior play itself out online where people are linked to ideas that are considered objectionable and thus the person themselves and anyone linked to them becomes objectionable. Mark Duplass recently appealed to his Twitter followers to broaden the scope of their political punditry by recommending Ben Shapiro. Because of this he was attacked in the following manner: Ben Shapiro has objectionable ideas and is thus contaminated and off limits. Mark Duplass tangentially associated himself with Ben Shapiro thus he is contaminated as is anyone who comes to his defense, such as James Gunn. 

Similarly Stretch, the owner of Grinders, recently tweeted an invite to Donald Trump to come eat at his restaurant while he was in Kansas City. Immediately calls for boycotting Grinders sprung up. In a similar fashion he was attacked because: Donald Trump is an objectionable figure and is contaminated. Associating yourself with a contaminated figure makes you contaminated as well, but also contaminates the business and anyone that makes any sort of argument in support of him. To avoid contamination you cut yourself off (boycott) any tangential association to not only confirm your moral outlook on the world, but to maintain the purity of your reputation in the eyes of your fellow in-group members.

The problem with this approach is not just the "echo chamber" effect but that no one can possibly pass the purity test that's required. Everyone has done some mildly offensive thing in the past, made a bad joke, said something they didn't quite mean or taken a stance they now regret. Since the bar for the purity test is so unimaginably high, the only course of action is to avoid it at all cost. Thus when the crowd descends on someone the typical response is to distance oneself and become invisible, which is either done by a lack of response or a mirroring of the expectation of what the crowd desires.

We can free ourselves from this ideological purity test that continues to box us in by stepping outside of the conception that ideas are viruses. Ideas can infect people and take them over, change their behavior in ways that seem to undermine their sense of agency, but people can also reason themselves out of bad ideas. This happens mostly through intimate conversation where there's a sense of trust between two people who do not agree but have a mutual respect for one another. Believing in the power of rational discourse means believing people have agency in relationship to the ideas that swirl around us. It requires a belief that a person's value transcends their ideological stances, and because of this, even in the throws of moral disgust, it requires a respect, not for the ideas being presented, but for the process itself, of being able to critically exchange ideas with another human being without fear of becoming an objectionable contaminated thing. Thus, it is through exposure, not ideological quarantine, that inoculate us from the truly bad ideas we fear will continue to spread and infect our country.