We often feel hatred for good reasons. Hatred comes from anger coupled with powerlessness to change or avoid what makes us angry. But hatred is also a primary ingredient in so many cases of abuse and harm.
What I want to address is whether hatred from below toward oppressors above should be applauded and encouraged: is some hate more virtuous than other hate?
A lot of people who are angry think that appeals to “stop the hate” are directed at them. But pure anger, even when it is fiery and all-consuming, is not hatred. Here’s a rundown of how these two are different:
|Is a feeling or emotion||Is an attitude or mentality|
|Can develop and resolve quickly||Is chronic and does not resolve easily|
|Is often felt at people you respect||Is felt toward people you don’t respect|
|Is about fairness and justice||Is about loathing and disgust|
|Appeals to some form of compassion||Rejects compassion|
Anger at injustice is a good thing. When we feel anger about things, we are compelled to act. Think of all the struggles for rights, liberation, and equality in our history: Anger has always been a driving emotion in them. Without anger, wrongs don’t get righted.
Anger is an emotional admission that we are not indifferent to injustice. When we are angry, we are paying attention. We care.
It’s true that people can get angry over stupid things. And sometimes people act destructively out of anger. But the point is not to eliminate our angry feelings; it’s rather that we need to examine them and channel them into constructive, collaborative pursuits.
Anger cries out for answers to the problems that bring it about. Hatred is imminent when we stop caring about these answers.
“Hatred” or “Hate”?
These words aren’t quite interchangeable. While hatred is an extreme feeling of disgust or ill will, hate is more of a synonym for the act of hating.
In other words, you can feel a latent hatred of something or someone without engaging in active hate. It becomes hate if you dwell on and grow your hatred – or if you act on it.
Hatred is not desirable, but it is unavoidable sometimes. Hate, however, is a choice. Let’s look at a couple of hate-motivated statements:
- “All cops are bastards”
- “Islam is a religion of evil”
These are fixed generalizations that reject all nuance. Mindsets like this show a commitment to hatred – an assertion that our hatred is right and justified no matter what the details may be. This willful commitment to hatred is what is usually meant when we speak of “hate.”
Why does hate sometimes feel good?
It’s bad enough when unpleasant things are happening around us that we can’t avoid. It becomes all the more dreadful when we lose our sense of control over our own internal emotions because of these unpleasant things.
Having one’s emotional state hijacked like this can feel like being invaded – violated, even. So much of the stuff that leads to hatred has to do with this internal ripping away of our ability to say “NO, I will not let you in. I will not let you mess with my mind.” There is an element of psychological non-consent involved – of being messed with despite repeated protestations.
Hate acts as a devil’s salve on this loss of control. The hater gets back a sense of control by closing off those parts of themself that are open and vulnerable – thus the broad generalizations that leave no room for nuance: If “all cops are bastards” or “Islam is pure evil,” for example, one no longer has to be bothered with the humanity of cops or Muslims. One no longer has to spend brainpower thinking about how individual cops and Muslims have families and loved ones, and feel pain, and do good things as well as bad, etc. Even though these things are true, thinking about them is a barrier to getting back psychological control, so they can’t matter too much.
Human Rights or Hate Rights?
You can have all the best reasons for hating a person or group of people: they are oppressive, they harm people, they have no remorse for the harm they cause, they delight in destroying, and so on. That feeling-hatred will show up sometimes. But the minute you embrace willful hate and deny the dignity of even the most terrible person, you open the door to the denial of others’ dignity as being legitimate.
After all, if all cops are bastards, why aren’t all prison inmates bastards? All drug users? All undocumented immigrants? Why should anybody have to think about the feelings and families and hopes and dreams of members of these groups, if we can deny that respect for individual circumstances to cops? We cannot aim to restore respect for the humanity of those who are so often dehumanized if we condone attempts to dehumanize people we don’t like.
You don’t have to say “all cops are bastards” in order to point out that police forces protect a horrifically unjust and unequal status quo. Nor are the fears and anger of those who have had bad experiences with the police unfounded. But if we really want to overcome the scourges of violence, dehumanization, and hate, we have to opt out of that cycle of hate ourselves.
You can’t hold people accountable for their actions if you negate their humanity
A lot of people say that it is individuals in repressive organizations that take the actions that oppress people. To which I ask: Do we want these individuals to change their behavior? What incentive does a person have to change their destructive behavior if they know they’ve already been completely written off?
I’m not asking you to love war criminals or anything like that. And yes, some people may never change their destructive behavior. But that’s not for you and me to decide. That is for them to decide.
I want everyone who engages in harmful behavior everywhere to know that they can always do better. That I always expect them to do better. Just like I always expect better of myself. But we cannot call people to take responsibility for their actions once we have decided to hate them; Hating somebody lets them off the hook, because it is a disavowal of any sense of possible mutual respect with them.
And who defines when hate is virtuous and when it’s not? Lots of hate-driven movements all over the world have started out as predictable responses to legitimate grievances, only to swell into toxic, grudge-driven mobs that have lost all sense of basic decency. The line between “good” hate and “bad” hate is not always drawn in the same place for everybody. Who gets to decide where it gets drawn?
Hate is a function of relative privilege – even when it’s supposedly “from below”
From what standpoint does a person declare another person’s humanity to be less important? Hate is not just about putting someone down; it’s also about the implied sense of superiority the hater feels in comparison to the person / people they hate.
Who is most accustomed to having attitudes of superiority? Members of relatively privileged social groups, of course. And here I’m not talking necessarily about open “I’m better than you” attitudes, though that plays a part; I’m also referring to the relative comfort that those with privilege can enjoy in situations where value judgments of superiority and inferiority are being made about people.
Those whose sense of self-worth is generally affirmed [or at the very least, undisturbed] by the appearance of these value judgments will have less of a problem with the superior/inferior dichotomy itself – and thus less of a problem with hate that appears compatible with their beliefs.
On the other hand, those who have suffered negation after negation of their dignity are more likely to be concerned about the value of dignity itself. They know that when hate is whipped up against one person’s dignity, everyone’s dignity is potentially at greater risk of being attacked – especially theirs. Despite often having to wrestle with some very real internal hatred, these folks are much less likely to enthusiastically endorse calls to willful hate, because they know nothing good will come of it.
This is why, while hate can fester in anyone, it is most likely to actually proliferate in relatively privileged groups of people: dominant ethnicities/races, men, straight folks, cisgender people, the non-poor, those with homes, normative abilities, legal status in the countries they live in, and so on. Prejudices exists all around, for sure – but prejudices are different from hate. Movements of sexual minorities don’t advocate hate the way homophobic and transphobic movements do. The homeless don’t foment hate toward people who live in homes. And while a lot of uncomfortable things are said in the realms of race and gender, the chances of a person being the victim of a truly race- and/or gender-hate-motivated action are still so much greater for women and people of color than they are for men and white people.
Of course, a lot of hate disguises itself as being an upsurge from below, and that’s part of its attraction. But take a look, in any of these environments, at who is most committed to the hate and who is least committed to it; you will find time and again that those who have the least to lose are the most eager to bare their “hate from below” – while those who have the most to lose, when they break their silence, are much more likely to share their feelings through self-descriptive revelations that are analogous to “this is me” or “I am somebody,” instead of “you are nobody.”
Let’s rehumanize ourselves
What does it say about us when trying to dehumanize another person or group becomes more important than strengthening our own dignity and humanity? I would argue that it’s not possible to do both at the same time; we have to choose.
“Hate from below” reinfects our communities with the heritage of supremacy culture – and it centers the object of hate as being primary, instead of our and our communities’ own feelings and healing.
Moreover, rather than excommunicating the worst people from our conception of humanity (yes, even people like Hitler), we should remember that these are human beings, and that they learned their hate from somewhere. Hate doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; it is a predictable result of cruelly unequal societies that normalize the evisceration of people’s humanity.
We are not suffering because we haven’t yet cut off those parts of humanity we don’t like; rather, we are suffering because we desperately need to rehumanize ourselves. We need to fight for and re-establish that sense of basic peer-to-peer respect for each other’s dignity, so that we all can start to feel safe to talk about what is hurting us and why we sometimes act in destructive ways. If that became normal, we could liberate many more of those caught up in cycles of harm and hate, and prevent a lot of violence from taking place. In other words – catch future Hitlers before they become Hitlers.
Many of us are already doing this work – have been doing this work – all along. I’m talking about the most patient ones among us, the ones who soothe, who de-escalate tension, who hear everybody out, who bring people together, who cultivate mutual support networks, who channel the wisdom of elders, who avoid conflicts that aren’t therapeutic or restorative. This work often appears silent, but it is hard work that takes just as much time and willpower, if not more, than the quarrelling and combative activity always shouting for our attention.
It is this work that the rest of us need to learn – and learn to value. When we choose to feed our feeling-hatred into willful hate in the name of justice, we are also making a choice not to use and improve our ability to listen, to de-escalate, and to heal. Those of us who do have identities of relative power often get a free pass from developing these skills – because our lives and livelihoods don’t depend as much on our ability to develop and deploy them.
Choosing to hate instead of heal is merely a confirmation of a privileged, power-driven existence that so many don’t have access to. Choosing to learn from and follow in the footsteps of those who heal in the face of hate is the true positive challenge to the status quo. And it’s not an easy, straightforward skill; you can easily mess it up. But that’s why we’ve got to remember that there are role models out there for us. We just need to find them and learn from them.