Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why We Hate...and How to Stop

The worst side-effect of our polarizingly partisan politics is how it makes us feel about each other. Or, more precisely, how it makes us feel about the Other - those from social groups to which we do not belong. The further we are divided from one another, the easier it becomes to hate the Others.

We've seen it throughout history, all the way back to Cain and Abel. People have hated each other on the basis of race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexuality, and innumerable other aspects of social location we think we can judge based on appearance or behavior (clothing, car, weight, education, profession, etc, etc). This kind of hatred has led humans to commit all kinds of atrocities in the name of their own "tribe" - think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and multiple more recent say nothing of all the smaller-scale ways we damage each other's bodies, minds, and spirits. 

While there have been...interesting...studies done on how people can be convinced to take part in torturing others (e.g., Milgram's famous study), I am more interested in  how we end up hating and harming each other in our daily lives, and by extension, through our politics (or is it the other way around?). 

The biggest reason for hatred seems to be that we feel threatened by the Other. This dynamic is visible whenever a group of people declares that their whole way of life would be threatened by letting the Other group vote, or marry, or attend the same schools, or whatever the issue happens to be. Most recently, for example, conservative groups have declared same-sex marriage to be a threat to the integrity of heterosexual marriage. I am baffled, myself: how does recognition of one sort of relationship negate the value of another sort of relationship?

Perhaps it has something to do with the dynamic captured by Jewel's song, Pieces of You:
She's an ugly girl, does it make you want to kill her?
She's an ugly girl, do you want to kick in her face?
She's an ugly girl, she doesn't pose a threat
She's an ugly girl, does that make you feel safe?
Ugly girl, ugly girl, do you hate her cause she's pieces of you?
She's a pretty girl, does she make you think nasty thoughts?
She's a pretty girl, do you want to tie her down?
She's a pretty girl, do you call her a bitch?
She's a pretty girl, did she sleep with your whole town?
Pretty girl, pretty girl, do you hate her cause she's pieces of you?

It seems like our group memberships/identities are so important to us that the recognition of similarity with the Other - even a small glimmer of commonality - threatens our whole understanding of who we are and how we fit into the world. We get the sense that, if the Them/Us dichotomy is false, then much of how we understand the world might also be false, and the whole thing might just topple like a house of cards. We get anxious and fearful, and almost instinctively try to distance the Other from us in some way - often a way that is cruel.

The solution to this kind of hatred is both simple and difficult, because it involves no more or less than approaching (rather than distancing from) the Other. By getting to know one another, recognizing the similarities born of our common humanity, and the differences that enrich rather than threaten our society, we gain mutual respect, and lose our willingness to tolerate cruelty. 

Whom will you choose to approach? What hatred will you challenge?

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