When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he dreamed that his book would change the world. He told the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, and how Rudkus struggled to make his American Dream a reality. Sinclair exposed the “inferno of exploitation” that the typical American factory worker faced at the turn of the last century. However, while Sinclair had hoped that empathy for his main character would trigger social reform, he actually triggered social reform through a different emotion: disgust.
Rudkus worked in a meatpacking plant, and readers were so disgusted by the tuberculosis-infected meat and the accounts of workers falling into rendering vats and being ground up with animal meat that the readers demanded reform. The resulting outcry prompted the Meat Inspection Act.
Though disgust evolved to cause us to push away spoiled food as an act of self-preservation, it can be applied to anything. We can become disgusted by someone’s indifference to their children, the way they clean out their ears in public, or how lovey-dovey they are in public with their new lover. In all cases, the disgust response is the same that we’d have toward rotten meat: We push away the thing that disgusts us and try to cleanse our environment of it.
Genocide is the most extreme example of that idea. When Bryan Callen and I interviewed Jared Diamond, he retold us a story about two neighboring tribes who had peacefully coexisted for years. Then, one day, resources got scarce and one of the tribes went off and told made-up stories about their neighboring tribe. These stories first dehumanized the other tribe and then whipped the storytelling tribe into a state of disgust. They convinced themselves that their neighbors were vermin who needed to be wiped out.
If this vermin rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s because it fuels every genocide. Kangura was the Hutu Power magazine that helped stir up the Rwandan genocide. Look on the bottom left and compare it to the NAZI image on the right. As part of our evolutionary make-up, digust is an inextricable human emotion, but it can be marshaled for extreme ends. Disgust can be used to trigger genocide–or social reform.
For example, corruption undermines the effectiveness of political systems around the world, whether it’s the explicit nepotism of the developing world or the rampant problems stemming from campaign finance in the United States. The solution to both problems is the same: triggering disgust. Donald Trump’s #DrainTheSwamp campaign slogan tapped into these feelings. Trump rode the public’s disgust with Washington all the way to the White House.
With corruption galore, with rising income inequality, and with the #jobocalypse leaving people around the world bewildered as they try to survive in this age of automation, disgust will play a critical role in our future path. The path we take will depend on what disgusts us. If we get disgusted with behavior like corruption, then we might well fix our societies and create better systems. On the other hand, if we scapegoat ethnic, racial, or religious groups, then we might repeat the age-old pattern of ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the end, using disgust to make a better society comes down to a very simple principle: love the sinner; hate the sin.