So much hate fills the air, a thick and sometimes bloody miasma. We talk with alarm about hate crimes, hate groups, hate speech. But what is hate? David Hume pronounced it “altogether impossible to define.” I think of it as a dark, pulsing, amorphous monster I know to flee. But in Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion, the Danish-American philosopher Berit Brogaard draws distinctions that never occurred to me.
Brogaard sees hate as “a complex emotion, built out of the negative emotions: resentment, condemnation, and reprehension.” We tend to fasten down on any one of those feelings, equating hatred with a vicious dislike, cold contempt, or utter disgust. That is too simple. Hate draws its power from the swirling mixture.
As Brogaard begins to break this down, I realize I have never properly defined any of the “antagonistic emotions.” Conflict scares me. My solution is to avoid it—and ignore the unsavory feelings that squirm between my brain’s tight coils.
Resentment, for example. I have seethed with it, watching some guy who does a tenth of the work I do sink into a cushioned deck chair on a yacht, clad in white, martini in hand. Brogaard explains resentment as a combination of blame (He is shallow and lazy!) and anger (How dare he reap such rewards when I cannot?). But then she takes apart anger, too, explaining it as a blend of aggression (How I would love to smack that martini glass out of his hand) and a wail of frustration (Why can’t I achieve such ease?)
Were I to meet the guy on the yacht and find him shallow, cruel, and greedy, my hate would freeze into contempt, which is colder and more callous than hatred. Contempt is not simple, either. Most psychologists see it as a mixture of anger and disgust. If you watch the fleeting microexpressions on my face as the yacht sails past, you will see my eyes darken and my lip curl ever so slightly, anger and disgust overlapping. But Brogaard points out that contempt can also arise from a mixture of condemnation and disgust, when we judge the other person to be vile.
Disgust itself has a layered history: Primitive disgust was useful, Brogaard notes, keeping our ancestors away from pathogens and infection. Snot and blood and feces are disgusting, while tears, salty and sterile, can elicit sympathy and draw us close. Yet I can be thoroughly disgusted with the guy on the yacht even if he is not spewing bodily excretions. That is social disgust, shaped by what we are taught is morally wrong or somehow harmful to us. We in the West, for example, often feel disgusted by old bodies or rotting meat, because our culture fears death—and therefore decay and its moral cousin, decadence.
Brew all these emotions, varying the proportions for the occasion, and you have the volatile substance of hate. It may have begun in primitive fashion, because of some irrational fear that such a person would contaminate or harm us, and it may have then taken on a cultural role, absorbing other fears. And now, here we are, ready to condemn whatever we see as malevolent, evil, and disgusting.
“Hate can be all-consuming,” Brogaard notes, explaining that it jacks up the norepinephrine and dopamine signaling in the brain as effectively as a big hit of cocaine. The physical change raises our self-confidence, encouraging us to act on our impulses. Hate casts out fear as surely as love does: In one study, when people looked at photographs of those they hated, their response was strong, yet it did not light up their fear-processing center. There was a “hate circuit,” and it touched aggression but not fear, danger, or harm. That absence of fear is another reason hate makes us confident (or overconfident). And because hate inhibits part of the brain associated with impulse control and action restraint, it leaves us in less control of our actions.
The emotions related to hate are anger, resentment, indignation, envy, blame, and contempt, and Brogaard argues that a single characteristic creeps across the entire list: disrespect. You have sized up someone’s conduct and found it lacking. That is a rational response. But there is also—and we see this a lot lately—dehumanizing disrespect, the sort that writes off the entire person, not just their conduct, as unworthy of respect simply because of who they are.
We dehumanize entire swaths of people, usually for reasons that have more to do with our own fears than their attributes. This is what puzzles me about the research that finds no link between hatred and fear. When I hate someone, it is nearly always because I find them cruel and feel helpless to change that. Hate is my impotent substitute for action, because the person is too powerful or arrogant to listen and change.
Helplessness feels awfully close to fear.
Brogaard’s impetus for writing was the group hate that riddles our nation. Group hate often acts like individual hate, everyone in one group reacting to another group of people as a single person might react to someone hated. One group resents the other group, assumes them somehow harmful or evil, and condemns them. Again, disrespect cuts in, refusing to acknowledge the basic human dignity of those who are hated. Group hatred holds anger and disgust close to its core.
Some group hate is organized, with its leaders dictating who is hated, and some is coincidental, not necessarily experienced by every individual within the group. The third type of is called “common,” meaning it is held by everyone in the group.
But “groups do not have minds of their own,” Brogaard reminds us. We might talk about ideas that have become part of the collective consciousness, but that is a metaphor; all we are really saying is that those ideas are widespread, lasting, and influential. A collective consciousness is not a real entity, some dark bubbling cauldron that boils up hatred and shoots it into the minds of a group’s members. Nor does a group share a physical body whose physiological changes can indicate certain emotions, the way we learn to read fear from a racing heart or sweaty palms, rage from a hot flush, and clenched muscles. In a group, Brogaard says, the members make a joint commitment, tacitly agreeing that they will all hate certain kinds of people, speak and act accordingly, and hold one another accountable.
There are all sorts of hot, messy reasons for what, in her calm explanation, sounds more like a contract. I still think fear is involved—fear in the sense that one group feels its social or economic standing is threatened by the other group. That leads to resentment (anger plus blame), and all sorts of learned justifications (we have to be carefully taught), and a bit of learned disgust. And then, inevitably, condemnation.
Some people are more prone to hate than others; Brogaard argues hard against Hannah Arendt’s characterization of evil as banal, mundane, a phenomenon we are all equally susceptible to under the right circumstances. The trick is to stop those prone to hatred from dragging others along with them. She suggests policing hate speech not by its content but by its intent. If someone is maliciously trying to force hatred upon others, it is that motive we should condemn and thwart, rather than pouncing upon every bit of questionable phrasing.
She admits that judging intent is complicated and far more subjective, but she insists that it is possible. I would love to believe her. After all, we have managed to consider intent in other crimes and mete out a sentence accordingly, showing far more lenience for accidental manslaughter than premeditated homicide. But the intent behind hatred? Our political system has degenerated into a series of skirmishes in which the candidates lob grenades at each other and we wait to see which one explodes. The motives of various groups I would call hate groups, they would call patriotism or solidarity. How do we take an emotion as complicated as hatred and figure out what drives each instance?
I guess we start by acknowledging the complexity.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.