Yuk! A Problem with Using Disgust to Engage Environmental Consciousness.

Politically progressive, environmentally minded. Politically conservative, environmentally minded? Well … not so much. This broad alignment between political sensibility and environmental conscious has been researched by American sociologists Feinberg and Willer. This post considers the implications of one of the “strategies of environmental engagement” that their findings suggest. 

“Purity, sanctity and the yuk factor” kind of sounds like the name of a garage rock band to me, but in fact refers to the findings of Matthew Feinberg’s and Robb Willer’s study into human psychology, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes”. Feinberg’s and Willer’s research found that “purity-themed message[s] inspired conservatives to feel higher levels of disgust, which in turn increased their support for protecting the environment” (Yasmin Anwar).  Just so you know, the “purity/sanctity-themed message” that test subjects were presented with included pictures that “showed a person drinking filthy water, a city under a cloud of pollution and a forest full of garbage”, and an article that “stressed how pollution has contaminated Earth and people’s bodies, and argued for cleaning up and purifying the environment”  (Anwar). On the face of it, this sounds pretty good because, as Jay Livingston notes, “the findings suggest that common ground between liberals and conservatives may not be as impossible to find as it may seem”. However, a “simplistic appeal to yuk reactions”  is not an ideal way to engage conservatives’ environmental support.

Purity and disgust have been—and still are!—the frames used to marginalise and ostracise disempowered social groups. Icky sex is a particularly salient focal point for “moral outrage – cum – yuk-based” disempowerment.  The Madonna-Whore complex is regularly trucked out in popular culture and suggests that good women (the model to which women are encouraged to aspire) should be paragons of sexual purity, whereas bad women engage in “dirty” sexual promiscuity. Similar rhetoric appears in abstinence only education: abductee and rape victim Elizabeth Smart reported that she didn’t attempt to flee her captor because she “felt so dirty and so filthy”:

she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum: “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away’. And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value”, Smart said.  “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value”.

Eliciting yuk reactions in the arena of environmentalism validates yuk reactions as the basis for moral judgements generally. So while this might have some advantage in one area (environmentalism), it is highly disadvantageous in other areas: for example, any issue where yuckiness has been used to vilify or deny rights to individuals or groups (control of women’s sexuality, homosexuality, inter-racial marriage, etc).  Digust is a moral framework that has been used to justify social inequality, so engaging the support of conservatives to protect the environment in a way that does not perpetuate such a moral framework would indeed be preferable.

What do you think? Can a campaign based on disgust side-step these broader social issues?


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