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.

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