In July, a New York Times op-ed, “The Clinton Contamination,” went nearly viral, as it were. In it, columnist Maureen Dowd presents the Clintons as having a particular moral failure: an inability to be truthful.
The piece is replete with purity rhetoric. Sometimes the treatment is subtle, Dowd describes Clintons’ behavior in a way that hints at pernicious contagions: “Their vast carelessness drags down everyone around them, but they persevere, and even thrive.” Hillary “could be getting fired…Instead, she’s on a glide path to a big promotion.”
Other times the treatment is unambiguous: “arrogant, selfish actions by the Clintons contaminated three of the purest brands in Washington.”
There’s a grade-school style zinger: “Hillary’s goo got on Obama.”
Then the piece culminates with a shift from icky to eerie: “the Clintons operate in shadows”… dealings with them are described as “dancing with the Arkansas devil in the pale moonlight.”
This week, matters related to truth and transparency have been hot topics in the 2016 Election coverage. Columnist Nicholas Kristof lambasted Republican candidate Trump for his free-wheeling speech style that involves lots of hyperbole. We learned that despite Trump leaving out more facts from his sentences, people perceive Trump as more transparent than Clinton. A survey released this week revealed that 55 percent of likely voters say Clinton is not honest enough to be president (43 percent say she is). Likely voters are split on Trump: 50 percent say he is honest enough to be president and 48 percent say he is not.
It is impossible that a single op-ed, “The Clinton Contamination,” even such a vivid one, could have produced this perplexing pattern in public perception. But purity rhetoric is powerful. What if we were served the “The Trump Taint”?
Moral philosophers have argued that disgust makes a great vehicle for moral condemnation (Nussbaum, 2006; Kelly, 2011). But what does it mean for a human being to be “tainted” or “contaminated”? Is it really different from that person being “hurt”, “wounded” or “injured”?
In moral psychology there is an ongoing debate about whether impurity really just boils down to harm. Evidence marshaled for an account that collapses impurity down into harm indicates that when people are asked why “impure” acts that appear on the surface to be victimless are wrong, they reliably cite the capacity of these acts to harm people. They even identify “victims” of these purity violations (Gray, Schein & Ward, 2014).
We have a remarkable capacity to materialize potential victims out of thin air. We also erase victims, for a number of reasons. But does having mental agility that allows us to see and un-see harm warrant closing the book on the purity domain as its own important, powerful moral domain?