I’m going to try to tackle today a question that I was recently asked by a regular reader of Sixoh6. It’s also a question that I get asked a lot in the context of my scholarly work on hate.
Why are people awful?
Okay, the question is usually more nuanced than that. Sometimes it is about historical events: How did the world let the Holocaust happen? How did whites justify slavery and Indian removal? Why are people violent against others they don’t know? (Violence against people we do know seems a lot more comprehensible, even if we still think it’s wrong.) How so many people continue to vote for those who are clearly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic? How come we’re cruel to people with disabilities? Under what circumstances are people willing to overlook or enact cruelty? Why does this kind of hateful violence seem mostly (but not exclusively) reserved to humans, who, of all the species, you’d think might know and do better?
Why are people making excuses for the tear-gassing of children and babies? Children and babies, for Christ’s sake? (<—not a swear but an honest prayer)
And how can we do this even when we know that our politics are hurting people we claim to love? How can a person justify voting for Trump when they also say that they want to keep women safe from sexual assault? When they say that they’re not racist or xenophobic? When they have queer children or Muslim friends? When they claim to love Jesus but torture children seeking asylum?
Tl;dr—I don’t know, exactly, but I am heartened that we keep asking this question, because it means we want better.
The longer answer is that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking and researching this, meditating on it and working to combat it. It’s a central question for theologians, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and anthropologists. Even biologists ask about it. I will answer from my own scholarly perspective, which is interdisciplinary but leans toward critical sociology and history.
First, people can get to hate via different pathways. Are some people natural born sociopaths? There is some brain research that suggests that there are signals even in infancy that some people struggle to understand the feelings of others—a factor that may predict later violence. My faith tells me that that’s a lousy answer, but I also can’t deny that some people seem to be incapable of empathy and thus at higher risk of being cruel. At the same time, lots of people who are deeply empathetic are also cruel. For some, they can’t seem to extend empathy to everyone (which might explain why a grandmother can be both a loving, gentle model of charity to her white grandchildren and also a raging racist). For others, they are quite empathetic—they understand that their targets are suffering, and they like it. The cruelty is the point.
So there may not be a single answer to explain people’s cruelty. There may be multiple answers that explain a variety of ways that people are hateful.
My perspective tends to focus on the larger scale—not the behavior of individual haters but on how they fit into social structures and patterns. From that perspective, I don’t usually ask, Why is this person hateful? but What about this society at this moment makes this hate possible and even rewards it?
Above, happy Nazis dance along the highway, a merry band of the world’s worst people. A scrapbook picked up by a US serviceman in Germany at the end of the war was donated to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007, and images from it show the normality of hatred. For more, see the program Happy Nazis.
So, for example, white anti-Semitism had long been part of European society, it didn’t erupt into the Holocaust until a number of other factors aligned: the technology of mass execution (which the Nazis borrowed, by the way, from anti-Semite Henry Ford’s assembly line); a leadership team capable of enacting it; neighboring nations too politically weak or unimaginative to effectively counter it; a Western history of colonization in Africa, Asia, and the New World that would made it possible to think about mass murder. (While many Americans were horrified at the Holocaust, we had also waged wars of eradication against the indigenous people of this continent and had within living memory a war of terrible violence against the people of the Philippines. In short, the idea of murdering a whole ethnic group was not exactly foreign to us.)
Another way of saying this is: the potential for incredible cruelty is always there, latent, dormant. Social factors can activate it. This is one (of many, many) reasons why some of us oppose war: once the machinery of war is in place, it is too easily (indeed, it is always) used for hateful reasons. Reducing militarization is one way to reduce the chance that the hate that is always there will turn into state-supported mass violence. And there is also always a chance that it will flow over into non-state mass violence.
But why is that potential always there? Why is hate not abnormal but normative, even if it rarely erupts into the kind of coordinated mass violence that has marked the worst moments in human history?
I’ll say more on this tomorrow, so come back then.