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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Miley Cyrus and Moral Outrage

The reactions to Miley Cyrus's latest attempt to distance herself from Hannah Montana have been many and varied. One feminist blogger argued that it was disgusting, not because of its sexual innuendo, but because it was racist ("What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting: But Not for the Reasons You Think"), an argument that struck me as a bit of a stretch. Others attempted to point attention away from the specifics of Miley's performance, toward our highly sexualized culture, and encouraged us to resist being so judgmental ("Miley Cyrus, the VMAs, Sex, and Moral Outrage"):
It's easy to take "the high ground of conscience" toward Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke for their hyper-sexualized performance at the VMAs, but it won’t solve the bigger sexual problems facing our culture. Sex scandals and blame will continue with each of our cultural rituals. Who will scandalize us at the next awards show? Who will scandalize us at the Super Bowl halftime show? Who’s the next politician to have an affair? Who’s the next celebrity to attend drug rehab? I don’t know, but I do know that we will love feeling morally outraged and enjoy taking the “high ground of conscience” as we imitate one another in uniting in animosity against whoever is caught up in the latest scandal.
The most common reaction was feelings of disgust, however. For instance, Robin Thicke's (Miley's dance partner during part of the performance) mom, Gloria Loring, appears to have been overwhelmed:
I just keep thinking of her mother and father watching this. Oh, Lord, have mercy. … I was not expecting her to be putting her butt that close to my son. The problem is now I can never 'unsee' it... I don't understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to do. I just don't understand. I think she's misbegotten in this attempt of hers. And I think it was not beneficial.
And then there was Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
That was really, really disturbing… That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed… probably has an eating disorder… That was disgusting and embarrassing… I feel terrible… That was really, really bad. They [MTV] should be ashamed of themselves… She is a mess… I don’t want to see that ever again on this show… It was pathetic.
And while some may want to dismiss these feelings as simply remnants of our puritanical roots (although as Rod Stark points out, the Puritans weren't very puritanical -- "America's Blessings," pp. 78-80)), feelings of disgust actually go much deeper and much farther back in time. As moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt  ("The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics") has noted, they are products of our evolutionary past and something we are probably born with.

Haidt and his collaborators have run a series of experiments in which they ask people to imagine a variety of scenarios in which the subjects do disturbing things but harm no one in the process, such as imagine "eating your dead pet dog,” “cleaning your toilet with your nation’s flag,” or “someone having sex with a dead chicken before cooking it for dinner,” and in almost every case, his subjects felt immediate disgust. But when asked why, seldom could they provide a reason. They just did.

What’s more, they have run these experiments in a variety of settings, from the slums of Brazil to the universities of the U.S., and found that across cultures, people share similar moral instincts, which suggests that they come before culture, not after, that they’re deeply embedded within our psyches, that they’re something we’re born with. This is not to say that they found no moral variation across cultures. They did. But it appears that most of us are born with similar moral intuitions that are modified through our interactions with the societies in which we are born.  In fact, Haidt and his colleagues have identified six moral intuitions with their possible evolutionary paths:
  1. Care/Harm -- This moral intuition evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of carrying for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need and despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering. 
  2. Fairness/Cheating -- This intuition arose in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications to whether another person is likely to be a good partner for collaboration. It also makes us want to shun or punish cheaters and reward people in proportion to their good deeds (law of karma)
  3. Liberty/Oppression -- This one arose so that groups could shame, ostracize, or kill anyone who behavior threatened or annoyed the rest of the group. This gave rise to a variety of norms, sanctions, and occasionally violent punishments for those who strayed too far from a group's interests. This intuition feeds the egalitarian and antiauthoritarian impulses liberals and "don't tread on me" and "give me liberty" antigovernment impulses of libertarians (and some conservatives).
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal -- This moral intuition evolved in response to the challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that someone is or is not a team player and leads us to trust and reward those who are and want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us.
  5. Authority/Subversion -- This one evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies; it makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or aren't) behaving properly, given their position
  6. Sanctity/Degradation -- This intuition arose in response to the challenge of living in a world full of pathogens, parasites, potentially lethal food; that is, it developed in order that we were repelled (i.e., felt disgust) from from noxious or unsafe food. However, it has evolved into a moral component that drives us away from all sorts of contamination.
These intuitions are not unmixed blessings, however. They can lead to good or ill, but in general all necessary for a healthy society.  Interestingly, Haidt discovered is that conservatives score high on all six of these intuitions, while liberals and libertarians score high on only the first three, which gives conservatives, according to Haidt, a built-in advantage when it comes to politics (but that's a topic for a later post). It also means that people on the left often have a hard time getting their head around the 4th, 5th, and 6th intuitions, leading them to dismiss them entirely or to reframe them in terms they understand (i.e., in terms of the first three moral intuitions).

It's the sixth moral intuition that interests us here, however. It generates feelings of disgust. For example, University of Pennsylvania students were asked what it would feel like to wear Hitler's sweater; "they said it would feel disgusting, as if Hitler's moral qualities were a virus that could spread to them" (David Brooks, "The Social Animal," p. 287).

Which brings us back to Miley Cyrus. I suspect what most people felt when watching her performance was disgust, a completely normal reaction that has been a part of us for millennia.  However, because liberals and libertarians tend to score low on this moral intuition, they found it difficult to fit their feelings of disgust with their moral universe, and this led them to strained criticisms, such as the feminist blogger mentioned above who tried (without success, in my opinion) to squeeze them into the care/harm foundation. Even her article's title ("What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting: But Not for the Reasons You Think") betrays what she was probably feeling.

P.S. In the TED talk below (19 minutes long), Haidt briefly outlines his moral intuition theory. Please note that Haidt and his collaborators initially identified five moral intuitions. The liberty/oppression intuition wasn't identified until later. In this talk, he only mentions the first five.

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