On Donald Trump and Our Collective Moral Outrage

OK folks, we need to talk (or, fine, I need to talk!) about our collective reaction to this particular Trump revelation. Because it is not OK.

The degree of outrage about this is noticeably distinct. Though Republicans have refused to support him in the past, there is now a serious conversation about whether he should step down (and within *one month* of the election). And anyone who has been following this campaign on cable news can tell you that the conversations last night and this morning are markedly distinct from the conversations had about any of the numerous other outrageous things Trump has said or done.

It's clear he has crossed some sort of line in our collective moral conscience, and it's worth thinking about what that is (because I think it speaks to how we need to reform our collective moral discourse).

Some have said the reason this is different is because it was "the straw that broke the camel's back." But I don't think that's right. If you listen to the language, it's not "we're tired of defending him; this X number of outrageous revelations turns out to be the tipping point"; it's that this particular revelation is more horrific and disgusting than anything else he has done in the past.

But why? Why is advocating sexual assault so much more horrific than advocating internment camps for Muslims? Why is it worse than advocating "worse than waterboarding"? Why is it worse than advocating killing the families of terrorists? Why is it worse than advocating violence against political opponents? Why is it worse than advocating for unequal pay for women? Why is it worse than colluding with white supremacists?

I'm currently reading Jonathan Haidt's book on moral psychology with my undergrads. It's not perfect, but it gives us a framework for thinking about these intuitive moral reactions that is particularly helpful here.

He argues that we've evolved to respond with moral outrage to six different types of triggers (and that the degree to which these responses are activated can be shaped by culture):

  1. When someone vulnerable is being harmed (mostly physically, but also emotionally)
  2. When we recognize a situation that is unfair (e.g., someone getting more or less than they deserve--a concept that is itself shaped by culture and context)
  3. When we recognize those in power dominating and controlling others (i.e., oppression/denial of liberty/autonomy)
  4. When we feel our group being threatened (e.g., family, nation, country, etc.)
  5. When we recognize others subverting legitimate authority (e.g., parents, teachers, the law, etc.) [yes, like "deserve," the term "legitimate" packs in lots of cultural baggage]
  6. When we recognize something clean/pure/sacred is polluted or desecrated.

It seems to me that, depending on your point of view, we can argue that every time we've been outraged by Trump in the past, it's because his words or behavior have triggered 2, 3, and maybe a dash of 5. He advocates for policies that directly discriminate (unfair), for using American power to control and coerce other groups of people (oppression), and doesn't really care about the "rules" (disrespecting traditional legal authority). And in many cases, the groups he advocates discriminating against are vulnerable (immigrants, migrants, the disabled, etc.) so it also triggers our outrage about harm.

We can also see why the leaked tape would trigger these same responses. "I don't even wait" triggers our outrage about domination; "they let you do it" triggers our outrage about those who dismiss legitimate authority (law); and the fact that this happens disproportionately to women and not to men triggers our outrage about unfairness.

But what I want to argue is that the reason we're responding with more outrage here is related to the fact that 1) sexual assault triggers *all six* reactions when his other comments haven't; and 2) the degree to which #1 is triggered is greater in this case than in others. And I think this is morally problematic.

As some have already pointed out, part of the reason folks have responded more forcefully here has to do with demographic allegiance. That is, #4, or outrage that our group has been threatened, is more likely to arise here than in cases of advocating killing terrorist families or internment campus for Muslims. And as the rhetoric of "my daughter, my wife, my sister" makes clear, the reason it hits everyone is the gut is because it seems like an attack on *my group* in ways his other comments did not (unless, of course, you are disabled, an immigrant, a Syrian refugee, a member of a state that depends on NATO, or a Muslim). But I think this moral intuition to protect one's group, while perhaps necessary from an evolutionary perspective, is one we have a moral obligation to overcome. While it's OK to feel more outraged when our group is threatened, it's not OK to suggest policy/responses that treat that threat as more significant than other threats to other vulnerable groups.

But I don't think that's the only reason this disproportionate response is morally worrisome.

In the first place, it seems to me that the primary reason we seem more upset about the harm being caused in this instance is not that the harm itself is objectively worse (do you really want to say that kissing someone without consent is worse than killing their families without consent? really?), but because we see the victim of the harm as more vulnerable. Haidt shows again and again that our intuitions about harm are far more likely to be triggered the more vulnerable the victim is (which makes sense, given that he thinks this intuition evolved to move us to protect our helpless children). So when we see children being abused, we react with more outrage than when we see adults being abused. He even shows that people react more strongly to harm when it's against cute looking baby animals than it is against bigger, uglier animals.

And the fact that, for so long in our history and *still to this day,* our cultures tell us that women aren't strong, are especially vulnerable, and akin to children, suggests that our outsized reaction to harm against women is no doubt at least partially because we see women as weaker than men (I'm reminded here of what I was once told when an evangelical: that men are like tupperware and women are like fine china. Women are "better" than men, but more fragile and in need of protection). So while, on the one hand, we should be glad that people respond with moral outrage when women are harmed, we should worry if that outrage is disproportionate to the outrage they feel about men in similar circumstances. And even more worrisome, to me, is that collective outrage that is so noticeably disproportionate like this only serves to reinforce the idea that women are particularly and uniquely weak/vulnerable, and in need of special protection (to be kept out of harms way in a special china cabinet, so to speak).

But most importantly, we need to talk about sex and the purity/pollution triggers. I've been talking about this for years, but only now has Haidt given me the language to express this point more clearly.

In my view, the reason this revelation has been so different is not *just* that he was advocating unfair, harmful oppression of those in our group who are particularly vulnerable. Instead, it was that he was advocating unfair, harmful oppression of vulnerable group members via the mechanism of *disgusting/impure/degrading* behavior.

If you read the statements coming out about this leak, almost all of them use the language of "degradation" or its closely allied term "demean." This suggests that the moral outrage here is not *just* everything else in 1-5, but that we have a sense that what he is advocating (sex, sexual objectification, adultery, sexual assault) somehow pollutes or degrades something that is sacred (e.g., the human person, the human body, the experience of sex, etc.).

But because we almost never see this language of degradation used in non-sexual contexts (it is sometimes used when referencing torture, but almost always in situations where sexual activity is involved), it's clear that what is sacred here is somehow the sexual purity of the human body. And because we rarely see this language used to discuss men (though that is changing), I also think it's pretty clear that the base intuition driving this particular outrage about degradation is our cultural belief that the sexual purity of female bodies is something supremely sacred (close, if not equal to, our view that the sexual purity of children's bodies is supremely sacred; see, reaction to Penn State case).

And those of us who study gender relations across history and cultures know that this link is not some ridiculous stretch. In many places and times, the link has been made quite explicit. And while we in the contemporary west like to pretend we have moved beyond "taboo morality" that suggests we can be polluted, our language about sexual assault continues to reinforce the idea that being assaulted sexually (in contrast to other kinds of assault) has deeper spiritual and moral consequences for the victim. When we are assaulted, we are not just harmed; we are permanently changed. Our dignity has been "degraded" in some important way.

And when this gets combined with cultural norms about women being vulnerable, and male group members being responsible for preserving and protecting the group, we see a strongly intuitive drive on the part of men to protect the vulnerable women in their group by keeping their sacred bodies pure.

It is this drive, I want to argue, that is ultimately making this revelation so different from the rest. It's not just that someone is advocating an unequal/unfair distribution of harm and oppression in the face of legitimate laws preventing such behavior (things which, I would argue, we should all be outraged about). It's that we think this harm is being perpetrated on 1) those in our group who, 2) are particularly vulnerable, and 3) via a mechanism that pollutes their sacred bodies.

Above I tried to make clear why this sort of outrage can reinforce the bad behavior of privileging our group over others and perpetuating the idea that women are like children.

But the third unique trigger is just as, if not more, problematic in my mind. To suggest that sexual assault can degrade women is to suggest that their dignity and sacredness is something that can be taken from them. And to suggest that sexual activity is a thing that can take that dignity away is to both reduce women's dignity to their sexual purity and to reinforce the idea that sex is itself something dirty and disgusting that, once experienced, leaves one permanently diminished.

Contemporary progressives in the west deny that they think this way about sex, but when we decide advocating sexual assault against women is unconscionable when *advocating systematic murder of innocents* is not, we're revealing we haven't shaken those ancient intuitions, just as we haven't shaken our intuitions to see women as children and our group as morally superior to other groups.

We can do better than that, and we must.

[Update: On Facebook a good friend asked about how we should think about a sense of *ownership* of female bodies playing a role here, as well (i.e., a negative reaction some might have to someone wanting to take what is ours). I noted that it's a good example of a moral intuition we have that doesn't really fit well within Haidt's model in part because it fits multiple places (I feel the same way about my strongest moral intuition, which is a negative reaction to dishonesty). But I definitely agree that ownership is part of what is at work here. I guess the question is whether that falls under our desire to protect our group or a desire for fairness (i.e., I deserve to be the only one who sleeps with my wife, etc.).]

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