The Dynamics of Hate

Recently, a friend wrote, “We can’t fight hate with hate. We can only dissolve hate with inclusiveness.” Another friend replied:  “Wishful thinking?”

Hmm. . . a good question.  Is inclusiveness enough?  Do we understand enough about hatred to respond appropriately?

When questions like this arise, my mind turns to spiritual teachings and my own Jewish tradition.  I first think of prohibitions against hate in the Hebrew Bible: “Do not hate your brother in your heart… Do not bear a grudge against the children of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 17-18).

Those commandments are interesting for two reasons.  First, unlike most biblical commands, they aren’t legislation against bad behavior (as we have for “hate crimes” today); they were directions about spiritual development: “in your heart.

Second, the commandments are directed at problems with people you know – “your brother,” “the children of your people,” “your neighbor.” In our current social conflicts, we tend to think of hatred by one group toward another group – antisemitism, racism, and the like.  We are told that people “learn to fear” and are “taught to hate others,” because their group is different, “other,” and therefore dangerous. So it’s interesting that, while the Bible also has many references to enemies and many universal commands, its prime directives about hatred point inside – within the family or in-group itself.

Do we have examples?  Definitely. One is Jacob’s wife Leah who was “hated” by her husband because he had been deceived by Leah’s father, Leah herself, and probably her sister Rachel (Genesis 29: 20-31).  Another is Joseph being “hated” by his brothers because he reveled in his father’s favoritism, arrogantly telling them his dreams of ruling over them (Genesis 37:4ff).  An example generalized into a law was:  if a man had two wives and “hated” one of them, but she was the first to bear him a son, he still had to give the required double inheritance to that child (Deuteronomy 21:15). That might be the first law to prevent a hate crime.

Hatred, in other words, is seeded deeply within our most intimate relationships. It generates a fierce anger that often must be repressed because it threatens the whole group.  (Joseph’s brothers stopped just short of murder.)

“Ordinary” anger is situational, and can be addressed through correcting the situation, apologizing, and better behavior. On the social plane, inclusiveness is an important part of the solution. Legislation is another.

Hatred derives from a deeper core of intimate pain. The repressed emotions it generates become a fertile field for fantasy, and at the same time need an outlet so as not to destroy the primary group (family, workplace).  The outlet is often another group to blame.  This is how hatred becomes a political tool and, because of its emotional roots, people motivated by hate are willing to believe almost anything about the groups they have identified as the culprits.

We’ve been on the cusp of an inflamed situation like this due to the rabid rhetoric of the election, particularly on the part of one candidate. This gave an opening to movements that have long been using hatred as a tool.

In this situation, inclusiveness can seem almost patronizing.  By saying, “Sorry we left you out, we’re going to be more inclusive now,” liberals unintentionally reassert their claim to power – the power to define who “we” are.  And the response might have been predictable:  “You don’t have the power anymore.” Revenge is in the air.

Political action can’t resolve the emotional roots of hatred, but can prevent terrible outcomes. I’m looking to our strong democratic institutions to tame this wave of hatred as they have before. For those institutions to work, we have to step up as democratic citizens in the best sense – aware of events, educated in the issues, and deeply committed to liberty and justice for all.

Lowest Denominator or Highest Ideals?

I listened today to a podcast conversation that took place about a month ago between two eminent journalists and commentators, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, representing different faiths, on the relation between religion and politics.  I want to talk about one point they made.

Both sides in the recent presidential campaign were caught up in a depiction of Americans as primarily concerned about the material sides of their lives:  The economy, the cost of health care, the recession and technology that took their jobs, and also the wealth of donors, the paid lobbyists, not to mention the wealth of candidates themselves.

Brooks and Dionne posed the question, do we think so little of our citizens that we imagine all they think about is money?

What about ideals and greater goals?  What about the future we want for our children?  What about values like love and compassion, giving and receiving?  Dionne wished for a campaign to “make America empathetic again.”

Is part of our pain, anger, fear, shame, or defensiveness – pick one or more depending on where you are in the post-election spectrum – that we don’t want to show we care about higher ideals or we’ll be laughed at?  We don’t want to say we care about the folks on the other side (who sometimes are our own families, right?) lest we be rejected?

What if we could forget the statistics and the groupings just for a little while – take a break from all that?  The United States of America was built on ideals, not calculations;  if candidates are trying to target the lowest common “denominator,” they are turning us all into “numbers.”

This nation was driven by dreams, not dynasties – despite names like Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, and Trump.  The dreams live in each person’s heart, not in programs and policies.

This country was built on the new (in the 18th century) idea of the individual.  Based on the biblical view of human beings as each created “in the image of God,” it promised equality to all.   Admittedly, it took a long time to extend equal rights to everyone, not just of free speech, assembly, and religion, but of owning property, owning their own labor, being allowed to vote, rights to marry and to privacy.  “Details to be worked out later” — but we still live by that bold vision.

Inherent in that notion of individuality is that each person has a soul, if you accept the spiritual terminology, or perhaps a “unique constitution,” if you’re a humanist.  When you begin to open to the inner reality of another person, says Brooks, “you see what each soul longs for.”

Jewish homiletic tradition (midrash) tells it this way:  When a person walks down the street, he is accompanied by a band of angels proclaiming, “Baruch ha-ba!  Blessed is this one coming down the street, made in the image of the Holy One!”

Everyone, without exception.

Can we translate that into our public life, our common life, after the enormous turmoil and trauma of this season?  Actually, yes, through what Dionne calls our “capacious imagination.” Expand your view.  Next time you see someone on the street, imagine him or her being accompanied by a couple of angels announcing this person’s beautiful soul.  Next time you watch someone on a video a news show, imagine a chorus of angels around them.  And watch your own reaction.  You may laugh or shudder, but also think about it.

When, on occasion, you can feel that amplified presence of the other, you may recognize something else that David Brooks identified:  “The message is the person.”  More important than speeches or arguments, good qualities are trying to find expression through that holy presence.

When we can feel those good qualities together, communities start to form. First around support, then around common needs, shared gifts, common purposes.

Dionne said something else, quoting political philosopher Michael Sandell:  “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”  I suspect we have more work to do before politics can go well again.  Still, we can set ourselves on a path to discover dimensions of goodness that we could not have discovered on our own.

Thanks to my friend and spiritual colleague, Dr. Connie Kaplan, for recommending this podcast to me.

When They Go Low, We Go High

A vote of thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama for her example of grace and strength, including the memorable phrase she taught her children and her country: “When they go low, we go high!”

We know what that means in social interaction and communication:  When we hear a degrading comment, we don’t respond by trying to degrade the speaker.  When people engage in name-calling, we zip our mouths or simply say, “No. That’s not appropriate.”  When we read messages and even “news” that seem to be lies, we don’t reply with alternate lies, but we investigate the truth and correct untruths when we can.

I’ve been thinking about other ways to “go high” when they go low. Continue reading When They Go Low, We Go High

Finding the Right Names

Our crisis has taken another nose dive.  We are descending into name-calling and scapegoating on all sides.  We have to stop this, and it begins with each of us.

First, a framework:  A biblical story tells of Adam “naming” the animals. Interpretations of this story abound, but I think the story is about language.  The unique gift of human beings is expression of experience through language, in an immense range of communication. Indeed, there are many languages:  expression includes the arts, music, mathematics, and so on.

In that pure state of first creation, Adam was able to find the right the name for each animal. Like all the Edenic stories “before the fall,” this was an ideal.  After the expulsion Continue reading Finding the Right Names

In Recovery – from Moral Trauma

In public writings and private conversations since November 8th, we’ve been trying to come to terms with shock and awe (whether you think it is awful or awesome). It’s more difficult for those whose side lost, but we should not underestimate the effect on all Continue reading In Recovery – from Moral Trauma