Working in conflict resolution, I get to hear a lot of stories about why some individual or group is worthy of being hated. Without a doubt, these stories are often bolstered by pulse-raising examples with the potential to provoke even the most skilled facilitative mediators into an evaluative stance. At the same time, beyond these stories lay patterns, many of which shed light on the dynamics of why we hate.
In my observations, there are three main reasons we hate others.
Reason #1: We seek a specific and identifiable outlet for our generalized feelings of anger. Contemporary thinker Rene Girard describes this in detail when he explains his theory on the nature of scapegoating and the function it plays in our social lives. Hate allows us to define clearly who is in our group and who is not. When an individual or group feels tension, and they don’t know how to resolve it, they seek out a scapegoat, express their hatred for it, and then expel it from their world. Once the scapegoat is removed, the individual or group experiences a feeling of unity and peace. That is, until the next time tensions rise and a new scapegoat needs to be found. The key to this pattern is that it replicates each time there is tension, and that tension is expressed by hating the scapegoat.
Reason #2: Hate is a simplified method for the difficult task of managing difference. For each of us, there are differences that matter to our community and to ourselves. In some cases it is religion, language, and race. Groups and individuals that manage difference well are often brave and curious, supported by a sense of safety from which they can explore the mysteries and uncertainties of life. However, there are times when the differences around us become too much to bear. These differences threaten our sense of self and our notions of group identity. Such differences become even more acute when they coincide with trauma, violence, and/or humiliation. Vamik Volkan’s book Bloodlines describes this pattern in detail, where he observes how the experience of difference can shift from identity and pride to terrorism and hatred. Rather than accept the instability of a potentially unknowable difference, we choose to hate.
Reason #3: Because hatred is energizing. When we feel helpless, frustrated, or disempowered, hating another becomes a way to climb out of those difficult feelings. We can redirect our personal pain to an external, well-defined target. One who feels empowered, motivated and successful has no need for hatred; they have plenty of energy already. For one who is stuck in listlessness, though, hatred can be a shot in the arm.
Often when I meet with clients who are in the middle of deep anger, I ask them to focus on themselves before thinking of others. The key here is self-care. My father always told me that if I have a problem with one person to talk it out, but if I have a problem with many people look inside me. Most people find greater strength to face their emotions and greater clarity on when and how to communicate problems with others when they take care of their own needs first.
So what do we do when we notice these dynamics at play? I offer these questions for reflection: First, observe where you fit into these patterns. Where might you be scapegoating others? Second, how are you managing differences? Do you feel safe enough to explore the unknown? Finally, What ways are you communicating your emotions to others? How are you caring for your anger and healing your hurts? When do you need to focus on yourself before engaging with others?