Propaganda Analysis #6: The Yuck Argument

From Word Spy:

yuck factor (YUK fak.tur) n. A revulsion or discomfort that influences a person’s attitude toward a thing or idea. Also: yuk factor.

The yuck argument is a propaganda tactic which seeks to bypass reasoning and use overpowering disgust in order to elicit emotional sanction from people.

The yuck argument is a widespread tactic. It seems that all major belief systems use it in some form or another. But few people dare to defend it as a valid mode of reasoning in and of itself. The mentally deficient few who do call it “the wisdom of repugnance.” This belief that a “gut feeling” of repugnance is somehow superior to reason is the drum beat of the primitive, of the angry mob. People who follow this drum beat are knuckle-dragging primates who merely need a channel for their unending anger against life.

We see these knuckle-draggers lately agitate themselves against issues such as gay marriage and cloning, but there are many other such issues. What they all have in common is an image that can be used to evoke repugnance. Here are some examples:

* Gay marriage. Gay people should not be allowed to marry because it would attack the “sanctity of marriage” (note the use of “sanctity”, which conveys purity and is opposite to repugnance). Repugnant image: two men kissing or otherwise engaging in sexual activities.

* Abortion. Women should not have abortions because it attacks the “sanctity of life” (same usage). Repugnant image: bloody aborted fetuses.

* Pornography. Looking at pornography is “dirty” (a word which conveys impurity). Repugnant image: pictures of fetish sexuality.

* PETA and meat-eating. The fanatics at PETA go so far as to associate PETA with the Holocaust. Repugnant image: farm animals getting slaughtered (never mind that pretty much all societies have killed animals on a daily basis throughout history).

* Lab-grown meat, Genetic Engineering. Any human manipulation of foods is called “frankenfoods.” That’s solely where the “yuck” comes from: this idea that somehow genetic engineering means putting, for example, “fish genes” into a chicken. But there is no such thing as “fish genes”. There is no such thing as putting an animal’s nature into another animal. But this wrong-headed explanation of genetic engineering is enough to repulse people.

* Smoking. People should stop smoking because “there’s no good reason to smoke” (which of course assumes that everyone has the same value system). Repugnant image: tar-coated lungs.

By its very nature, the yuck argument only applies to specific issues. But within these specific issues, it is very effective at rallying anti-civil liberties advocates. As I mentioned before, the yuck argument aims to short-circuit the exercise of reason. In that view, while its application is limited, the yuck argument is perfectly in line with the ultimate goal of propaganda, which is to submit the intellect to collectivist dogma- in this case, that civil liberties lead to immorality.

It is true that some of our actions lead to ugly results. Most surgeries are not very lovely to look at, either. I also imagine that most of our bodily functions, when considered clinically, are rather repulsive. Yet this does not prompt anyone to take arms against human biology. We live by simply ignoring these facts or laughing about them. Like it or not, there is something to be said for Victorian restraint. Of course, it is not a lack of restraint that moves activists as much as doing anything they can to raise hackles against their enemies.

Repugnant images are highly adaptable. We see them on protest signs, on online videos, on cigarette cartons, we invoke them in speeches and letters. There is really nothing one can argue against such images, as they are pre-rational. That is their power to the primitivist- he sees their power at his pre-rational level of comprehension. They can be used to support utilitarian argumentation (such as in the case of abortion and meat-eating), but they themselves are not utilitarian except by accident- they have no morality except that of the mob.

The yuck argument does not end at repulsive images. Any knee-jerk argument can be included within it. The Greenie religion contains a great deal of those, from “endangered species” to the new bugaboo “global warming.” One nice example is the knee-jerk reaction against “nuclear energy”, which maintains its grip on the religion even though it contradicts their ostensible goal of minimizing pollution.

This last example shows nicely the religious commitment to primitivism in general. Religion, after all, is nothing more than primitivist hedonism writ large. There is no part of it that is not geared to give ebullient pride, comfort or pleasure to the believer, even its sexual asceticism. So it’s no surprise that the yuck argument is a favourite of religious believers: it fits perfectly within their mindset.

If you have a propaganda item you’d like me to look at, just post it in the comments. I welcome all suggestions.

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