Witch Hunts to Culture Wars: How Disgust Divides Us

by Richard Firth-Godbehere

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a woman of advancing years. As it’s the early 1600s, that means you’re forty-something. You’re widowed and childless, and you live off of the kindness of others.

One fateful day, a cow belonging to a villager who had refused to give you money sickens and dies. The villagers start to think the worst — they begin to believe you are a witch. You certainly look like one, which means you are not what an ideal sixteenth-century woman should look like. (Sadly, judging women by their appearance is far from a modern invention.) Your hair is grey. The infirmity of age has set in. Your body is not as firm as it once was. It happens — or in my case, has happened — to us all. One day, the devil appears to you in the form of a dog and offers you the power to take revenge on those that have slighted you. You think, “Well, if they’re going to call me a witch, I might as well become one,” and you wreak havoc on your village, causing madness, suicide, and even murdering some of your neighbours. As recounted by a play first performed in 1621, this is the story of Elizabeth Sawyer, an English “witch” who was hanged in the village square. It is, of course, unlikely that she or any other victims of the witch crazes really did form a pact with the devil. But people certainly believed that they had, and that was enough.

You may now be asking yourself a question that’s plagued historians for decades: how did this happen? What conditions could have possibly created a situation where thousands of people could be killed for a crime they almost certainly hadn’t committed? The answer, or at least a big part of it, has to do with the biblical emotion known as abomination, a form of religious disgust felt when encountering sin and sinners. It was often thought that those sins could manifest themselves on your body and in your actions. The ravages of age in older women, or marks, moles, and ‘abominable’ forms of conduct in younger ones, were sure signs of the devil’s interference. These feelings of abomination, combined with a belief that the end times had come and that witches were the foot soldiers of Satan, ushered in one of the worst examples of violence against women in history. Our best estimates are that between 1560 and 1630, around fifty thousand women were executed for being witches. It might have been more. This was not the last time that disgust would be implicated in mass murder.

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Just over three hundred years later, in Nazi Germany, the political power of disgust was once again on display, and the Third Reich was notoriously effective at stoking it by disseminating utterly hateful propaganda. They showed films like The Eternal Jew, which depicts Jewish people as a swarm of rats — an infection that had been allowed to spread across the world. The movie uses disgust to dehumanize Jews, to try to convince audiences that they are vermin, to soften them up for what would come next. And, of course, what came next was the rounding up of Jewish men, women, and children into ghettos. The marking of Jews with the Star of David. The pillaging of all Jewish wealth and possessions. The concentration camps. The Holocaust.

Where such a dark emotion might come from and what its role is – besides that of “othering” outgroups – has occupied scientists for hundreds of years. Charles Darwin was convinced that disgust was universal in all humans, describing the “plainly expressed” disgust of babies at food as evidence for an evolved harm avoidance system. In the 1980s, psychologist Paul Rozin asked people if they were prepared to wear a sweater for a cash reward. After it was revealed that the sweater once belonged to Adolf Hitler, almost everyone turned the offer down. Rozin was the first to demonstrate a link between disgust, essentialism (the idea that we attribute a soul-like “essence” to particular objects), and sympathetic magic (the idea that this essence is transferable from person to object and vice versa).

A bit more recently, my fellow disgustologist, the late and rather brilliant Professor Valerie Curtis, came up with a possible explanation for why this might be the case.  She argued, like Darwin, that we evolved the disgust reaction to avoid potentially harmful objects, animals, and people. When we see, smell, or taste a rotten, maggot-ridden apple, the brain taps into memories about the infections you can get from food that looks, smells, and tastes rancid. It’s has to use memory, because what does and doesn’t taste revolting isn’t universal. For example, some cultures happily eat insects, while others find the very thought of ingesting mealworms and grasshoppers disgusting. They are delicious, by the way.

Professor Valerie Curtis

Once our brains have decided the stimulus is, indeed, revolting, a part of the brain called the “insula” is triggered, which is thought to control how strongly we feel about things. The insula decides you feel very strongly about the rotten apple. You feel an overwhelming urge to get away from the apple and clean any part of you that came into contact with it. Curtis called this “Parasite Avoidance Theory” or “PAT.” But it’s not just about rotten food. People’s actions might also infect us, which is why, according to Curtis, we find immoral acts disgusting. Rule-breaking is seen as odd behavior. That behavior is registered as a sort of contamination, a strange way of being that suggests a person might be infected with something you’d rather avoid.[i] Of course, how those moral acts are defined – much like which foods a given culture calls disgusting – can change depending on who and where you are. What doesn’t change is the role disgust plays in gatekeeping your moral boundaries, whatever they may be.

For a more recent illustration of the role of disgust plays as a gatekeeper emotion, look no further than today’s so-called culture wars. As countless others have observed in recent years, the western world is becoming increasingly politically polarized. Scroll through the responses to a Tweet as innocuous as “Wear a mask, everybody! Be safe!” and you’ll see everything from accusations that the poster is a “snowflake” to full-blown death threats.  All because masks have become so politicized that they signal which side of the political line you stand. The fuel that drives these sorts of exchanges is disgust.

A search of our stock image database under ‘disgust’ throws up this picture. Which seems accurate.

Some studies have demonstrated that the more prone an individual is to physical disgust, the more socially conservative they will be. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt showed this by asking people how strongly they agree or disagree with statements like “Even if I was hungry, I would not drink a bowl of my favorite soup if it had been stirred by a used but thoroughly washed flyswatter.”  He also asked respondents to rate their disgust response to certain scenarios on a scale of 0 to 4. Examples include: “You see maggots on a piece of meat in an outdoor garbage pail” and “You discover that a friend of yours changes underwear only once a week.”[ii] People who answer with a lot of 4s tend to be more conservative than those who respond with a lot of 0s.[iii] Subsequent research has shown, however, that disgust isn’t simply linked to conservatism per se, but rather to ideas about purity.[iv] People on the far left are just as physically disgusted by things as people on the far right.[v]  The reason Haidt initially missed this is down to the questions used in his test – they slanted ever so slightly toward more conservative revulsions. For example, an earlier version of the test included the question “I think homosexual activities are immoral.” As an aside, in a testament to the transitory nature of what disgusts us, the quiz doesn’t include that question anymore. By the late-90s, almost no one was answering it with anything but a zero.  Those more sensitive to disgust tend to react aggressively to those who deviate from the supposed purity of their political viewpoints. To use Curtis’s model, they are more susceptible to the belief that their opponents are somehow ‘infected’ and likely to infect others. At the time of the witch trials, the abomination caused by impurity was exaggerated by fears of the end times. These days, misinformation, social media, and the anonymity and distance those platforms provide are the catalyst. In the West, our political identities, regardless of party, have come to be defined by a severe reaction to anything we see as “impure.” If you are a white male who believes that minorities and women are getting all the breaks, you’re likely to view the situation as an infection that needs cleaning up. If you’re a civil rights activist or environmentalist, you’re likely to see the people who challenge you and all you stand for as contamination that needs to be removed. The same dynamic underscored the responses to the Tweet about wearing a mask. The respondents were disgusted by the tweeter’s views and took to expressing that disgust in ways that, in turn, were thought of as disgusting. The result is a positive feedback loop of increasing disgust.

What’s the solution to all this revulsion? One way through this repulsive maze might be desensitization. Desensitization is often thought of as a bad thing – accused, often incorrectly, of inuring the video game generation to violence. But without it, no surgeon, first responder, or homicide detective could do their jobs. To become a little more exposed to the other side, less sensitive, less prone to being disgusted is the first step to re-humanizing those we think of as enemies. If ever we will find common ground, we need to be less revolted by any dissenting opinion and more open to listening. Of course, this must be a slow process. Just like desensitizing an arachnophobe to spiders can’t be done by trapping them in a cage of tarantulas, becoming more accepting of opposing views takes time and patience. But I think this journey, however arduous, is one more of us should attempt.

Of course, sometimes people have views that can’t be redeemed, like the Nazis and those intent on burning women for the crime of not being young and beautiful anymore. Some people will always be disgusting.

[i] She goes into way more detail in Valerie Curtis, Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[ii] Jonathan Haidt, “The Disgust Scale Home Page,” New York University Stern School of Business, 2012, http://people.stern.nyu.edu/jhaidt/disgustscale.html, accessed August 1, 2020.

[iii] Simone Schnall et al., “Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34, no. 8 (May 2008): 1096–1109; Jonathan Haidt, “The Moral Emotions,” in Handbook of Affective Sciences, ed. Richard J. Davidson, Klaus R. Scherer, and H. Hill Goldsmith, Series in Affective Science (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003), 852–70.

[iv] Florian van Leeuwen et al., “Disgust Sensitivity Relates to Moral Foundations Independent of Political Ideology,” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences 11, no. 1 (June 2016): 92–98.

[v] Julia Elad-Strenger, Jutta Proch, and Thomas Kessler, “Is Disgust a ‘Conservative’ Emotion?,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 46, no. 6 (October 2019): 896–912.

Dr Richard Firth-Godbehere is an honorary Research Fellow at The Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London. His book, A Human History of Emotions, will be released in the UK on 17th February. Its’ available now in the US, Australia and the Netherlands (as Homo Emoticus). You can find him on Twitter at @DrRichFG.


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