On hatred

Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;

Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, canto xiii

Hatred gets a very bad press, and on the whole deservedly so. It is often opposed to love, and given how depressing it would be to suppose love other than a good thing we see hatred as unequivocally bad. This has not however made it go away. Murder has been illegal for a long as there have been laws, and that hasn’t gone away either.

In his often-referenced novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell – Eric Arthur Blair, but as far as I know unrelated to Tony – describes an institution called the Two Minutes’ Hate. As so often, Orwell’s prediction seems laughably tame nowadays. With the advent of social media, we now have the Twenty-four Hours’ Hate. Ah, progress.

We might reasonably ask why this should be so. Is there more hatred going around now than there used to be? Or is the (perceived) safety and anonymity of online discourse simply removing our inhibitions, uncorking a reservoir of hatred that was already seething within us? Is there perhaps something in John Michael Greer’s view that hate is the new sex? – that is to say, that hatred has become for us as sexual desire was to the Victorians, a powerful emotion that was widely felt but which could not be expressed in a socially acceptable way.

In last week’s post, I talked about the importance of having a historical context in trying to understand the modern world, and this would seem to be an ideal candidate for that approach. For hatred is caused: not necessarily in a straightforward way, but something happened in the past, a transgression, or something that was perceived as a transgression. And probably not once, but many times.

I won’t get into specific examples here; goodness know there are plenty to choose from – Palestine, Ireland, Cyprus, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and the list goes on – because my point here is not to identify the rights and wrongs of the particular case so much as the fact that the people involved believe, with at least some cause, that they have suffered undeservedly. This will lead to anger, and frustrated anger will eventually express itself as hatred.

The target of that hatred may not necessarily be what you would expect. In the aftermath of the First World War, Germans had a very hard time of it, due in large part to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (The famous hyperinflation in the 1920s was at least partly caused by the need to pay exorbitant reparations to the Allies.) It would have been natural for this to have been expressed as hatred for the French, who were largely behind this, but France was too powerful. Instead, the hatred was transferred onto the Jews, who were close at hand and vulnerable.

This choice also had historical roots, as anti-Semitism was already a well-established tradition from medieval times (and not just in Germany, which we prefer to forget). Part of that was due to the association between Jews and usury. Lending money at interest was forbidden by the Church, so Jews were a convenient workaround. As they were often excluded from other ways of making money, they became money-lenders under the precarious protection of the local aristocracy, who could cash in at any time by simply withdrawing that protection, confiscating the money, and abandoning the Jews to the mob.

Inter-war Germany looked to the average German very much like another version of the same debt-trap with which their peasant forebears had been all too familiar. It was therefore easy for their anger and resentment to turn into a familiar channel, with the results we all know. Even though the Versailles settlement was not in fact a Jewish plot, it is quite comprehensible that many Germans might have wished it to be; and it is a short step from wishing something to be the case to believing that it is.

There is something delusional about all hatred. Those that we hate are never as purely evil and loathsome in reality as out hatred needs them to be. This is true of individuals, and more so of groups. As social primates, we have a strong need to differentiate the in-group from the out-group, and we readily confuse this with moral judgement. But once we have a delusion, the only way to preserve it is to keep contradictory evidence well away.

Hence the need to see those we hate as something other than people. The whole apparatus of Nazi “racial science” was created for this purpose. But consider equally the dehumanising of native Americans by the Conquistadors and later by European settlers in North America. If you are going to work someone to death in the silver mines of Potosí, you are not treating them humanely, that is to say, as a fellow-human. Slavery in general is a dehumanising process. A thing for sale cannot really be a person.

This gives us a clue to the abundance of hatred online, with which I began. There is a fundamental qualitative difference between relating to people online and in the real world. If you are talking to someone face to face, then (unless one or both of you is on the Asperger’s spectrum) there is a great deal of non-verbal information passing between you, and doing so immediately. It requires an act of will to overlook the personhood of the other party. (This can be done, and people do it all the time, but it is not the default level of interpersonal communication.)

In an online forum there is none of this. All you know about the other party is their bare words. Even without malice, it is easy to misconstrue what someone types. If you are looking for a fight – and a great many people are, as I will discuss in a moment – a fight is always available. And unlike the real world, there are no real consequences. If I smack someone over the head, I can expect retaliation and probably the intervention of the police. The worst thing that can happen to me online is a ban, and throwaway accounts are easy to make.

Moreover online communities are classic in-groups. The likes of Facebook and Google and Twitter are interested in ad traffic and data harvesting, and to keep you hooked they will ensure you get a constant diet of what you seem to like, or perhaps a little more so. A great many people imagine this is a balanced picture of the world, because Facebook, Google and Twitter certainly aren’t telling them any different. If you want a different point of view you will need to go and look for it proactively, and most people won’t do that: it’s time-consuming and uncomfortable and it may even oblige you to develop skills in critical thinking that nobody in power wishes to encourage.

People like to think of themselves as right-thinking and good. This goes equally for Joe Biden and Mao Zedong and Heinrich Himmler and their many admirers. We all prefer to sleep well at night. There is a warm glow of satisfaction to be derived from feeling that we certainly showed that Trump-loving bigot/capitalist running dog/Jew-lover what’s what. We may even feel as if we are pursuing a moral crusade.

But crusades are a two-edged sword. It is not for nothing that the original Crusades still rankle in Muslim eyes. Many of the most appalling things that people have done, and do today, are done in the sure and certain conviction of righteousness. It was after all a Cistercian abbot who uttered the cheerful advice “Kill them all, the Lord will know His own,” resulting in the deaths of thousands of people, at least some of whom were certainly not the heretics he was trying to get rid of. No doubt he genuinely believed he was saving souls.

Remember him the next time you’re about to click Send.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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