After New York Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino announced his plan to save us all from Ebola, we were curious whether he’d get any traction with this whole banning-all-travel-from-West Africa thing. Turns out the response to his words might be…biological.
Astorino spoke only a day before the death of Thomas Edward Duncan, an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control regarding increased screening at airports, and news that a man in Frisco, Texas, showing Ebola-like symptoms, had been taken to the hospital out of “an abundance of caution.”
Some studies suggest contagious diseases can actually have direct effects on what societies consider to be moral, and on how people feel about outsiders. It’s something University of British Columbia professor Mark Schaller calls “the behavioral immune system.”
“There is a lot of convincing psychological research showing that people become more xenophobic when they perceive that they are more vulnerable to infectious diseases,” Schaller writes via email to the Voice. “In a context like this, one would expect there to be an increase in the extent to which people are feeling freaked out by the possibility of infection, and this is likely to lead them to be less keen than usual to be in the presence of anyone who seems ‘foreign’ or ‘different.’ ”
Duh, right? When Ebola is raging, people aren’t comfortable around strangers — especially those whom they suspect might have come in contact with Ebola. But wait! Here’s where Schaller gets interesting. He says when people feel vulnerable to infectious disease, they’re not just more afraid of outsiders. They actually can become more socially conservative in general.
“They are more supportive of maintaining the existing status quo. They are more leery of new ways of doing things,” says the professor. “They respond more favorably to people who maintain existing traditions and respond less favorably to people who deviate from — or seem likely to deviate from — existing traditions; they are more obedient to authority figures and expect others to be obedient as well.”
Maybe that’s why Astorino isn’t alone. His comments about a flight ban are nearly identical to what’s coming out of the mouths of the right wing’s top pundits. Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh have called for the same thing while bashing this country’s response as being governed by “political correctness,” and Donald Trump connected the scare to Republican grievances about Benghazi and the IRS. “I mean, we have virtually incompetent leadership,” Trump said on Fox and Friends. “So why would anybody trust our government to handle this crisis?”
Schaller says that while social conservatism and xenophobia might seem like a bit of a leap, it actually comes from the same instinct.
Before newfangled technologies like condoms or hand sanitizer, he elaborates, groups tried to protect themselves from disease with familiar rituals around food, sex, and daily life. “For a long time, eating was a dangerous activity,” Schaller explains. “Now we [still] prepare food in a certain way.”
When people feel vulnerable about pathogens, they become more interested in protecting those traditions.
“The heart of conservative attitudes is, ‘We’re going to do things the same way we’ve always done it,’ ” Schaller says. “If I come along with my newfangled liberal ways of doing things…I might poop not near the outhouse but in the source of drinking water.”
Bottom line: If you find yourself in JFK waiting for a temperature check and suddenly feel like listening to Glenn Beck’s radio show, remain calm. Unless you’re actually capable of influencing public policy, you’re probably OK.