A week and a quarter before the midterm elections, a man broke in to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s house screaming “Where is Nancy?” and attacking her husband with a hammer. David DePape was charged in the attack. He had posted a series of rants which included references to a conspiracy theory called QAnon. It claims that Democratic Satan-worshipping pedophiles are trying control the world’s politics ..
Several hours before, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson interviewed right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who claimed drag queens participating in book readings were trying to “sexualize children.” The people who support these events, he said, want to create “a sexual connection between adult and child, which has of course long been the kind of final taboo of the sexual revolution.”
With former President Donald Trump support, the pedophile conspiracy theory has contributed to a widening cycle of violence and threats including the deadly January 6 Capitol insurrection . An revival by the “groomer,” of the attack on the LGBTQ community (a reference towards a pedophile), has accelerated the aggression. Right-wing media personalities, activists, and conspiracy theories have been created or amplified about Pelosi and Bill Gates.
Dehumanizing and vilifying a person or group of people can provoke what scholars and law enforcement officials call stochastic terrorism, in which ideologically driven hate speech increases the likelihood that people will violently and unpredictably attack the targets of vicious claims.
Stochastic terrorism exploits disgust, one of our strongest emotions.
In my new book Flush, I describe how psychologists have come to view disgust as a kind of behavioral immune system that helps us avoid harm. Disgust can be triggered by feces and rats. This can cause us to become physically sick. However, this emotion can also be used against people if it is excessive.
Propagandists have fomented disgust to dehumanize Jewish people as vermin; Black people as subhuman apes; Indigenous people as “savages”; immigrants as “animals” unworthy of protection; and members of the LGBTQ community as sexual deviants and “predators” who prey upon children.
This horrifying history is being repeated as political extremists infuse hatred and contempt with new levels. During the COVID pandemic, there has been a surge of racism and xenophobia, as well as violence against foreigners who are baselessly blamed for importing disease and crime.
Even though disgust doesn’t cause violence, it can still cause damage. Clinical psychologist Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics, told me that the ongoing monkeypox outbreak has further amplified bigotry. He says that the disease’s transmission via close physical contact and its symptoms (pox-filled sores) make it an ideal vehicle for inducing disgust. Its name and origins in Africa have stoked racist misinformation about how it spreads, and its link to men who have sex with men has fueled stigma and homophobia as well.
People who are trying to outlaw gender-affirming care for transgender kids and purge pro-gay books from library shelves have stirred up disgust by invoking the specter of sexual “grooming”; others have made the same accusations against those speaking out against such legislative efforts, and some have used the idea to fuel disinformation about the cause of scattered pediatric monkeypox cases. Another round of moral disgust has been sparked by the manufactured grooming mythology.
In response to Rufo’s diatribe, Carlson–who has an average of over three million viewers–explicitly linked drag queens to pedophiles: “Why would any parent allow their child to be sexualized by an adult man with a fetish for kids?” Rufo then suggested that parents should push back and “arm themselves with the literature” supposedly laying out the child sexualization agenda. Carlson replied, “Yeah, people should definitely arm themselves.”
Some people do. Researchers have estimated that transgender people are more than fourfold more likely to be the victims of violent crime than their cisgender counterparts, and while not a direct link to violence, other scientists have linked disgust sensitivity and authoritarianism to a higher opposition to transgender rights. Over the past few months, assailants repeating the groomer slur have threatened to kill drag queens and LGBTQ people, as well as educators, school officials, librarians, parents and lawmakers who have come to their defense.
In the lead-up to the midterm elections, a blitz of far-right radio ads targeting Black and Hispanic stations in swing states has repeated falsehoods about transgender people and a QAnon warning that the Biden administration will make it easier for children “to remove breasts and genitals”–an attempt to evoke disgust. Others advertise to white audiences that minorities are the real aggressors or destroyers of social norms. One decries “anti-white bigotry.” Another warns ominously, “Stop the woke war on our children.”
The cynical appeal for protecting children by attacking minorities has revealed a bitter irony. While disgust was an emotion that evolved to keep people safe, people have long misused the emotion to inflict cruelty or catastrophic harm.
No single intervention can reduce the boiling point of this toxic stew. We can turn down the heat by understanding how disgust works and how our feelings of revulsion can be used to manipulate us. Taylor stated that disgust can be overcome just like our fears can be overcome. Its power can be reduced by habituation and desensitization. Other research suggests that interventions based on compassion, empathy and trust-building can help weaken its contribution to prejudice. Awareness and education can uncover unconscious biases and expose the tactics of those who weaponize it, like those inciting the current wave of ugly antisemitism.
A day after the attack on Paul Pelosi, Hillary Clinton reacted to the suspect’s apparent far-right influences by tweeting, “The Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories. It is not surprising that violence is the result. As citizens, we must hold them accountable for their words and the actions that follow.” In response, new Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted a hateful conspiracy theory by a notoriously misleading news site that blamed Pelosi’s attack on the LGBTQ community; Musk later deleted the tweet, but then joked about it.
What can be done to stop stochastic terrorist acts and end the cycle of disgust-fueled violence, threats, and vilification? It is possible to turn off the fuel source. Programs to counter violent extremism, particularly those that emphasize early intervention and deradicalization, have yielded some successes in at-risk communities. Other programs disrupt the ideological ecosystem that creates radical conspiracies through counseling, education and other community interventions. Beyond understanding how our emotions can be exploited to demonize others, we can refuse to buy into “both-sides” false equivalence and the normalization of dangerous rhetoric and extremism. We can do more to enforce hate speech laws and incitement towards violence. We can also disengage from media platforms that make money by making us angry, fearful, and forgetful about our own decency and shared humanity.
This is an opinion and analys