moral taint in language

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?

Outside of political rhetoric, research in clinical psychology suggests that the concept of purity is important to how we feel about ourselves. Feelings of self-disgust and pervasive feelings of dirtiness — referred to as “mental contamination” or “mental pollution” can exacerbate PTSD, suicidality, and OCD symptoms, particularly in victims of sexual violence and people who have experienced combat (see resources in footnote). One study found feelings of contamination exacerbated PTSD by making bad thoughts, like attributing the trauma to the self, more common.

We’ve found that people sometimes judge victims as “tainted” and such judgments trade off with judgments of victims as injured (Niemi & Young, 2016). This suggests further moral relevance of purity —  when we judge people as tainted, it might be harder to see them as hurt people, who deserve our sympathy.

In order to bring more precision into our understanding of purity and harm, we can look at how these morally relevant concepts are actually conveyed in language. In one psycholinguistics study (n=126; online study, results replicated three times, to be presented at SESP2016; SPSP2017), for example, we found that verbs that convey contamination follow different rules than verbs that convey harm.

We asked participants to consider hypothetical victims and perpetrators of sexual and nonsexual crimes and rate how “contaminating” and “injuring” they were — these are “agent-oriented” active participles (adjectival forms of verbs that imply a doer of an ongoing event or agents’ dispositions); and how “contaminated” and “injured” they were — “patient-oriented” passive participles (applied when previous events are assumed to have already affected someone).

The results indicated that people attribute the past participle adjectival form of the verb injure (“injured”) to victims and not perpetrators, and the present participle form (“injuring”) to perpetrators and not victims. In short, injury is intrinsically asymmetric: humans are understood as either actively injuring—in which case they’re perpetrators, or passively injured—in which case they’re victims. Not too surprising.


But when it comes to contamination, active and passive participles don’t play by the same rules. People rated as “contaminating,” were just as likely to be rated as “contaminated.” This means that, unlike injury, when people see someone as having been passively contaminated, they also see that person as actively contaminating.

An important ramification of this difference between the semantics of injury and contamination is that judging people—victims included—as “contaminated” or “tainted” may make them more likely to be judged as blameworthy simply because people infer that being passively contaminated entails the capacity to actively contaminate (i.e., harm) others.

Incidentally, people rated sex crime victims more contaminated than nonsexual crimes victims as well. This additional effect was much smaller, but I was interested in understanding exactly what people thought was more contaminated in sexual crime victims than nonsexual crime victims. Was is potential exposure to sexually transmitted infection? I asked another sample of online participants (n=294) who rated victims of sexual crimes as “contaminated” to “say more” and gave them space to write freely, and select from a variety of targets.

Their responses revealed, first, that they did not consider sexual crime victims’ bodies to be more physically “tainted” than nonsexual crime victims’ bodies. Instead, they considered victims of sexual crimes (versus nonsexual crimes) to be more “tainted” in non-physical ways. These included mind, soul, spirit, relationships, and in their trust of others. And their free text often stipulated the timescale: the bad effects were going to “last a long time”; the person would maybe “never be the same again.”


Taken together, these results suggest that the moral domain of impurity may be distinguished from harm in part because people infer that the result state of being “tainted,” or “contaminated” entails a permanent transformation from passively contaminated into actively contaminating and harmful (an inference that does not hold similarly for “injured”). And unlike typical assumptions about harm-doers, it doesn’t matter if the poor contaminated  soul doesn’t have any intention to do harm…it’s simply not up to her. Taint apparently co-opts some nonmaterial telos, making it seem all the more frighteningly out of our control.

Do we need to distinguish between a harm and a purity domain to understand moral psychology? The role of contamination concepts in coping and in political rhetoric suggests that we do, and moreover, that the scientific exercise is consequential to personal well-being and public life. Mapping the mechanics of language can help get us there.

In fact, in an op-ed in the NYT in June, we described our other findings that people are more likely to blame victims — and consider victims contaminatedthe more they endorse the moral values of loyalty, respect for authority and concern about purity — “binding values” aimed at reinforcing social bonds. And, people are more likely to blame perpetrators — and consider victims injuredthe more they endorse moral values that stipulate universal caring and fairness regardless of which group you belong to (“individualizing values” because they apply the same to every individual). “Binding values” are higher in more politically conservative folks, but results held regardless of political ideology.

Our verb analyses might help explain these puzzling results. People who more highly endorse “individualizing values” see the world more through a lens of victims being harmed, so they see victims as more injured, which has a hydraulic effect of increasing blame of perpetrators.

By contrast, moral violations in the case of “binding values” (loyalty, obedience, purity) include victimless violations (e.g., premarital sex, flag-burning), and even sometimes include being nice (schmoozing with the enemy)! When it comes to enforcing binding values, sometimes harm isn’t even on the table. People high in binding values may rely more on a different sort of ammunition for their moral condemnation: characterizations of a person as “contaminated” or “tainted,” which, the verb analyses show, co-occur with an understanding of that person as “contaminating” to others. This practice may increase in general whenever the presence of harmed victims is hazy and people wish to convey moral condemnation.

Enter the Trump/Clinton transparency paradox, one more time. Could “The Trump Taint” ever really pick up steam? Trump’s apparent transparency may lie in a perception that he doesn’t schmooze with “the enemy,” he points out clearly who he considers his enemy and tries to crush them. This could make him seem loyal (to those who agree with his view of “the enemy”), if not warm and caring. Thus, to people high in binding values, Trump might have the moral goods that matter. Moreover, for these folks — being well-versed in contamination-speak and inoculated to its effects, so to speak — “Trump Taint” would presumably be ineffectual.


Mental contamination scholarly resources: Dunmore, Lark, Ehlers, 2001; Badour et al., 2012; Badour, Feldner, Blumenthal, & Bujarski, 2013; Nijdam, van der Pol, Dekens, Olff, & Denys, 2013; Olatunji et al., 2008. HelpMental Health Resources: National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline (referral service): (800) 950-NAMI (6264), Monday – Friday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.