The Gag Reflex: Disgust Rhetoric and Gay Rights in American Politics

Shana Kushner Gadarian & Eric van der Vort

Americans are more accepting of lesbian and gay rights than ever. There are many reasons for that growing acceptance, but increased contact and visibility are central elements. Contact and visibility have changed some of the influences that drove attitudes. One changing factor is the emotion disgust, which we explore in our article. We consider (1) what role disgust rhetoric plays in shaping attitudes on gay rights and (2) whether disgust is as effective for persuasion on gay rights today as it used to be. We argue that disgust rhetoric is an effective but contingent tool for persuasion that may backfire in our more accepting time. In contemporary politics, disgust dampens support for rights for lesbians and gays, but for at least some respondents, disgust also prompts anger directed at anti-equality speakers and thus increases support for rights.

Like other emotions, disgust plays an important role in shaping politics. In the physical world, disgust helps people to avoid noxious substances. This maintains physical health and cleanliness, keeping the body safe. In the political world, disgust draws social boundaries around certain groups or activities deemed outside the acceptable limits of particular societies. Research on the political role of disgust shows a link between high levels of disgust sensitivity (or reported feelings of disgust) and political conservatism/traditionalism. These studies typically expose respondents to some disgusting stimuli (e.g. fart spray or photos of a person eating worms) and show a strong connection between felt disgust and conservative responses.

Elites often make emotional appeals, but they do it through language and imagery. Political rallies featuring speakers eating worms would not last very long. Political meetings in unclean places would have low attendance. It is far more effective to invoke the image of a trash heap than to bring your partisans to an actual trash heap.

In our article, we explore the efficacy of disgust rhetoric using the 1993 American National Election Study (ANES) pilot study and two original studies. We first examine the ANES data to establish a baseline for what disgust looked like in the past. The 1993 ANES pilot study included questions about disgust and gay rights that we argue allow us to approximate the effect of disgust in a time before widespread change on gay rights. In 1993, disgust was a powerful predictor of attitudes about lesbians and gays, and drove down support for more inclusive public policy. Respondents who reported being disgusted by homosexuality were less likely to support adoption rights or open military service for lesbians and gays. They were also more likely to negative evaluate lesbians and gays as a group.

We also use two original survey experiments to study the efficacy of disgust and disgust rhetoric. In Study 1, we asked respondents in a treatment condition to actually feel disgust by writing about what made them disgusted about gays and lesbians. In the control condition, respondents wrote down everything that came to mind about gays and lesbians. Writing about disgust produced feelings of disgust as expect, but also produced indignation. For some respondents, disgust occurred in thinking about the ways in which some elites attack or treat lesbians and gays. Some of our respondents reported disgust at the thought of same-sex sexual behavior and relationships, but others were disgusted – even indignant – at the thought of discrimination against lesbians and gays. Study 2 builds on this finding by randomly exposing respondents to a positive, neutral, or disgust frame in a news article about a proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The findings in the second study mimic those of the first study, but in a top-down approach. Exposure to disgust rhetoric lowered support for a wide variety gay rights policies, including adoption and marriage, among those who felt disgust. Yet, some subjects responded to the disgust rhetoric by becoming angry. These feelings of anger actually increased support for rights.

We conclude that disgust is a contingent political tool. Elites may be able to use disgust to shift attitudes on gay rights, but using it in a more inclusive era means that elites would run the risk of producing a pro-egalitarian backlash. Citizens pushed too hard through outdated rhetoric to exclude a group of their fellow citizens they no longer consider dangerous or disgusting may push back against the speakers.

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