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the abcs of hate

Hate arises somewhere in between reasoning and emotion. It’s a long lasting sentiment, not a burst of anger. Someone who hates, holds an unshaken belief that the target group is defective, immoral and evil in its nature. Such “essence” cannot be changed and therefore the only possible solution is annihilation. Victims are terrorized for who they are and so will be repressed irrespectively of their behaviour.

Hate is also a defense mechanism motivated by a feeling of helplessness and lack of control. Economic problems and low social adaptability are the leading factors when it comes to the frequency of hateful incidents. The belief in a just reality forces to search for explanations of misfortune (such as immigrants taking over jobs) and social paradigm shifts are a threat to the ontological safety of an individual (the loss of traditional values, lifestyles and the general order of things). Negative sentiments are enforced by narrations of multigenerational oppression by outside forces (most effectively spread among family members and friends). The feeling of worthlessness and the uncertainty of being forces a defensive psychological stance which aims to eliminate the threat. Finally, hate becomes a reality in favourable social conditions: strong respect for authoritarian figures, nationalism and the slow process of normalising the devaluation of out-groups in public discourse.

The emotional goal of hate is not to hurt, but to completely eliminate, not just an individual, but the whole targeted group. The destruction takes place in three areas: psychological (through humiliation), societal (social exclusion leading to disappearance) and physical (using violence to torture and kill).

People who use violence, do so thinking their actions are just. Violence is a logically reached conclusion meant to enforce morality. This theory is proposed by Tage Shakti Rai and Alan Fiske in their work titled Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End and Honor Social Relationships. According to the authors, violence is used to maintain social hierarchies, relations and morals (e.g. violence targeted at women is meant to preserve and honor the patriarchy). Moreover, the use of violence is also traumatic for the perpetrators. Yet, they choose to commit it, being sure of their moral superiority (e.g. heroically fighting invading forces). They act accordingly to the possessed folk morality.

Where did social hierarchies and morals come from? Ancient Greece, from Plato and Aristotle who established the “great chain of being” (a vertical hierarchy of being), which places gods at the top, humans in the middle and animals, plants and rocks at the bottom. From sacred texts, which dictate how to behave in our everyday lives in order to be granted an afterlife. From laws stating forbidden acts. From representations created by the media and from many other places that shape our perceptions of reality. It is ever changing, constantly revised and interpreted, easily manipulated and its neurological presence can be visualized.

The team led by Nafees Hamid conducted a study (Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Sacred Values and Vulnerability to Violent Extremism) which illustrates the relationship between value sacredness (sacred and secular values which participants were not willing to trade off for material benefits) and the willingness to kill and die for said values. The willingness escalated when the participants were subjected to social isolation. Suddenly, people exhibited the willingness to kill and die even for non-sacred values (values which participants were willing to trade off for other benefits). This behaviour is visible in neuroimaging. Social exclusion made individuals prone to extremism even in regards to values that were not part of a person’s identity prior to the experiment. Drastic changes in the brain were observed in parts responsible for anger and sadness, thus explaining the use of violence as a way to elevate one's self-esteem and self-worth after experiencing humiliation.

At this point we reach an uncomfortable conclusion. Empathy and compassion forces us to identify with the victims, while demonizing the perpetrators (which is ironic, considering the same process constitutes the mechanism of hate, but maybe because of this closed loop effective action seems impossible). So far we can specify the characteristics of people who hate. They struggle with poverty, come from conservative backgrounds, are manipulated with threats of imminent danger, are socially excluded, exhibit low self-esteem and experience humiliation.

Driving through a small town, I had to stop to get gas. It was friday, late evening. Driving to the gas station I noticed a group of about fifteen young people sitting on the curb of the checkout and shop of the station. They were drinking alcohol and talking. At this time of the day, the gas station was the only open and lit establishment in the area. This is an adequate metaphor illustrating inequality. To demonstrate the makeshift nature of resources some people are predestined to, the gas station can be substituted with education, jobs, healthcare, housing, access to the media or entertainment. While we have the opportunity to spend evenings with friends at fashionable clubs and pubs, are serviced by waiters and drink colorful cocktails, the majority has to make due with 24 hour gas stations. As Didier Eribon writes, if the church is the only institution in the region offering a way to spend time and strengthen civil bonds, we shouldn’t be surprised participating people conform to specific world views. If the far right is the only political party offering a program dedicated for working people (according to the author the misunderstanding of the need for representation was branded “populism”), it’s hard to be surprised by the rise of xenophobia. If people are forced by poverty to quit education (a system thriving on elimination rather than inclusion and engagement) to start contributing as early as possible to the home budget on which the family’s survival is dependant on, we shouldn’t be surprised by low figures of educational attainment and the prevalence of folk morality. If modern societies are constructed by corporations establishing an individual’s worth based on their capacity to display engagement with bought goods and services, we shouldn’t be surprised by the low self-esteem of people who cannot afford to participate in pop culture. The lack of access to alternative perceptions of reality and social engagement opportunities for the most underprivileged (not only economically), seems to be the biggest catalyst of hate.


Human behaviour can be referenced in other social animals. We are not the only beings capable of culture, e.g. tradition (passing on specific behaviours through customs). One of the characteristics of most social animals is xenophobia. Chimpanzees which become disabled are beaten by other members of their group. The same happens when you oddly paint or spot a hen’s comb. Violence is directed towards individuals which do not abide by behavioural or presentational norms. Such behaviour is distinct from other forms of violence, like hunting. Xenophobic behaviour involves a lot of posing, choreography and loud noises meant to intimidate.

Biologists explain such behaviour through the theory of evolution. An individual can spread its genes in two ways: spawning offspring and helping relatives reproduce. That is why evolution rewards kin altruism (behaviour supporting individuals that appear similar, therefore seem to share genetic material). On the other hand, animosity towards others is meant to eliminate the threat of competitive genes.

We are inherently hostile towards people different from us. Human behaviour is easily manipulated by creating particular social circumstances and using propaganda. When George Gallup polled Americans about their opinions of the Chinese in 1966, their answers swayed around such adjectives as “treacherous”, “cunning” and “warlike”. After Richard Nixon’s visit to the country, which was favourably portrayed in the media, the Chinese suddenly became “hardworking”, “intelligent” and “practical” in the eye of USA’s public opinion.


Hate is a process entwined in structural injustices and cognitive susceptibility. As Iris Young Marion states in her essay Political Responsibility and Structural Injustices, exploitative mechanism are not located in a singular institution or person. The system needs to be corrected in many areas simultaneously. That is why a new model of responsibility is needed. One which doesn’t focus seeking blame for injustices already perpetrated. Marion proposes a model of responsibility which shifts its efforts towards the future and aims to prevent exploitative behaviours which currently constitute the norm. She asks us to look at our everyday lives and plan our actions having in mind our: connections (to the structural injustices), power (influential people and institutions profit from exploitative systems and will do everything to maintain them, thus individuals and organizations should take responsibility and pressure for change), privilege (people indirectly benefiting from injustices should allocate part of the resources thus obtained to organized actions correcting them, not because such people are to blame, but because they can contribute to meaningful change without drastic changes to their quality of life) and interest (people who suffer from injustices should be part of governing bodies aiming to fix them, as they possess the necessary insight, experience and determination). The end goal of political responsibility is not to point out scapegoats and acquit others. We all function in a system which needs change and we should all contribute to it.


Agneta Fischer et al., Why We Hate

A. Fiske & T. S. Rai, Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships

David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims

Iris Marion Young, Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice

Nafees Hamid et al., Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Sacred Values and Vulnerability to Violent Extremism