Countering Hate

This might seem a strange question to ask, but it needs to be asked anyway.  “What is the greatest problem that our country—no, not just our country, but the whole world—needs to tackle in 2023?”  

Sadly, we have a long list of problems to choose from, but there is one problem that is hardest to face.  In fact, we hate to even mention it.  That problem is hate itself.  

Hate is hard to look at, so we tend to look away and think, “Hate is ugly; hate brings out the worst in us; hate achieves nothing positive.  So, why talk about it?”

Perhaps, when you realized that the theme of this column would be hate, you were tempted to turn to the comics or sports page.  I don’t blame you.  But, rest assured, I’m not going to point fingers at any political group, any nation, or any ideology.  Instead, I’m going to share insights about hate from someone who faced hatred repeatedly in his life in the Deep South of the 1940s and 50s and yet chose to study it.   As I did in last week’s column, I’m going to refer to the works of the theologian Howard Thurman.

Most of us would agree that no one is born hating.  Hate is something we learn to do, and that should mean that hate is something we can unlearn.  But unlearning hate will be hard to do. 

The first important insight of Howard Thurman is that hate won’t be defeated by mouthing platitudes such as “Just be kind” or “Why can’t we all get along?”  Thurman even chastised religions for shedding too little light on the roots of hate and the soil in which hate flourishes.   

In the chapter entitled “Hate” in Jesus and the Disinherited, Dr. Thurman treats hate as a cancer, something that we need to dissect if we want to understand hate’s power.  Thurman’s analysis reveals that there are four stages in the birth and growth of the cancer of hate.     

The formula is very neat: love begets love, hate begets hate, indifference begets indifference. Often this is true. Again and again, we try to mete out to others what we experience at their hands. There is much to be said for the contagion of attitudes (Thurman, 1947).i

Hate begins in something that would seem benign—daily contact between groups or persons.  The problem comes when this contact lacks what Thurman calls “fellow-feeling.”  That is, groups or individuals rub up against each other, but there is no recognition that the other person or group is of equal value to my group or me.  I see the other person, but I don’t see that our desires and needs are the same.

Out of this lack of “fellow-feeling” arises stage two: a flawed understanding of the other person or group.  Haven’t we all heard a version of this: “I’ll tell you the problem with those (fill in the blank).  They spend all their time (fill in a negative verb) when they should be (fill in a positive verb that you believes describes your group)?”  That’s when we find ourselves listening to and repeating stories and jokes that portray others in a negative light.     

From this flawed understanding comes stage three: active ill-will toward the other person or group.  In this stage, we long to see the other—the other group or the other person—getting what we consider is their comeuppance.  “It’s about time they (fill in the blank) got what they deserve.”  

From active ill-will, it is a short step, Thurman argues, to stage four: the full flowering of hate, which is the acting out verbally and even physically against the “other.”  The lack of fellow-feeling, the faulty understanding, and the ill-will that has been building up within us pours out in acts of hate.      

And yet, Dr. Thurman would say, “Hate doesn’t have to be our fate.” 

Let’s return to the fact that hate is born in our daily contacts.  If Thurman is right, we have a choice whenever we interact with others.  If “fellow feeling” exists, if we recognize that the other group or person has the same desire for respect and a life of dignity as we do, hate is nipped in the bud.    

That leaves us with this question: What can each of us do in 2023 for hate to die on the vine?      

-DC