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The Politics of Contamination | Psychology Today

As a nation, the United States is perhaps as polarized as it has ever been. Political discussions are strained. Partisan opponents do not simply disagree, they view each other as “out of touch”, crazy, and inferior. We come to see ourselves as morally superior and the other as morally tainted. When this happens, the political other becomes a source of moral disgust; we avoid the other out of fear of becoming stained, tainted or polluted ourselves.

Moralization and the Contamination of Political Identities

In the past decades, partisan politics have become transformed in several ways.  First, at the extremes of the political spectrum, partisans and political elites have increasingly come to define their personal identities in terms of their political, ideological and group affiliations. In this way, we can say that among partisans, personal identities have become increasingly politicized.  This is a change from past generations.  In past generations, while individuals have been members of political parties, they were less likely to define themselves in terms of their political affiliations.

A second transformation involves the moralization of political identities. Partisans have increasingly come to define their politicized identities in moral terms (van Zomeren, Kutlaca, & Turner-Zwinkels, 2018).  Ideological differences are not simply seen as differences in local beliefs, values, strategies and policies; they are seen as moral systems – strong systems of belief about what is right, good and worthy. 

Further, partisan advocates increasingly come to view their moral worth – and the moral worth of others – in terms of their political positions and affiliations.  What does this mean? 

  • If my political ideas are moral and yours are not, that makes my ideology morally superior to yours.
  • To uphold my political identity becomes a source of pride and moral superiority; to act in way that are contrary brings about shame and moral inferiority.
  • The more I identify myself in terms of a moralized political identity, the more my self-worth is dependent upon maintaining that moralized identity. 

What happens when we think of our political opponents as morally inferior beings? We dehumanize them (Kteily, Hodson, & Bruneau, 2016). Their inferior views become illegitimate, unworthy of serious consideration, and able to be dismissed. The political other becomes persona non grata – beyond the pale, untouchable, even contaminated. 

What happens when we interact with untouchable beings?  We run the risk of contamination. To maintain my self-image, I need to remain morally pure.  If the political other is morally tainted, then mere contact with them can taint me to.  I become impure, stained or polluted through mere contact with the politically polluted other.

A Recent Example: The Biden/Harris Exchange

A recent example illustrating moral contamination involves an exchange between presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Joseph Biden in the first Democratic Presidential debate on June 27th, 2019. Ms. Harris critiqued Mr. Biden’s stated history of being willing to work with members of the opposing political party – including past Senators who advocated of racial segregation — in order to advance legislation. Although Mr. Biden had indicated that he both disagreed and disliked these Senators, Senator Harris addressed Mr. Biden as follows:

I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe…and it’s personal, and I was actually very…it was hurtful…to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career build on the segregation of race in this country, and it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing… and you know there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me… so, I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot just be an intellectual debate among Democrats, we have to take it seriously…we have to act swiftly… (emphasis added).

There are several things going on in this exchange. Ms. Harris speaks about Biden’s opposition to busing and positions herself as hurt by Mr. Biden’s efforts in that regard. I do not want to focus on those statements. Instead, I want to highlight Ms. Harris’ implication that, while “finding common ground” is a good thing, there was nonetheless something inappropriate about Biden working with the segregationist Senators during a time when they were prominent members of the Senate.

Today, we appropriately feel a sense of moral disgust toward the political positions offered by segregationists. If something is disgusting (e.g., maggot-infested trash, a bloody tissue), we do not wish to touch it. It becomes untouchable.  We fear that if we touch the disgusting thing, we will ourselves become contaminated, stained or polluted in some way.

However, when we feel moral disgust toward a person, that individual becomes untouchable. This is especially the case when we identify ourselves in terms of moralized ideologies. My good reputation becomes tainted through my association with people with bad reputations (e.g., “who built their reputations and career[s]…on the segregation of race”). To maintain the moral high ground – to prove my moral worth — I shun my political foe. To engage my political foe would be to appear to acknowledge or condone his positions. Engaging my political foe runs the risk of contaminating my moral identity.

While this may be an understandable sentiment, it is nonetheless corrosive. The rhetorical force of Ms. Harris’ remarks speaks to a difficulty in managing an apparent contradiction: that persons can disagree – even deeply – and still engage in constructive interaction. Understanding a political opponent doesn’t mean agreeing with them. Seeking to create some sort of common ground with an opponent doesn’t mean endorsing views we might find morally repugnant.  Even having compassion for the human needs that motivate a political opponent doesn’t mean affirming their beliefs. Making contact is the first – and often painful and difficult – step to bridging political divides.

The Importance of Engaging the Political Other

People tend to think of their moral beliefs as having universal application.  When partisans moralize their ideologies, they run the risk of thinking that they have it right – and that the other side simply has it wrong.  This leads us to dismiss our political foe as immoral, inferior or inhuman. Under these circumstances, to engage the “other side” risks being seen as a tacit approval of the other’s position.  The partisan who reaches out becomes tainted by contact with the evil other.

The various isms — racism, sexism, LGBTQ bias, bias against people with disabilities – do not go away by dismissing and humiliating the bearer of these beliefs. They are mitigated when people who hold prejudices work together toward common goals with the people with whom they are prejudiced against. When this occurs, the bearer of the ism comes to see the other as human. We diminish bigotry by forming relationships, by asserting what is right without violence, by exposing the effects of the other’s bad behavior to the view of the world – by following in the footsteps of King, Mandela, Tutu, Gandhi and Thoreau.

The partisan tendency toward moral purity breeds moral disgust and dehumanization of the political other.  When this occurs, we become the very entity that we moralize against. Perhaps, however, we might consider putting our rectitude on hold. It might be helpful to temper our moral righteousness with a degree of moral humility


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