Why do we hate? (by )

About a decade ago, I wrote a blog post about how people forget the humanity of others when they hate them. I find hate really interesting - it's not an emotion I'm particular prone to, but the world seems full of it, so it interests me. And it's usually very harmful, so I'm interested in ways to mitigate and eliminate it.

Since writing that post, I have pondered how we start to hate somebody in the first place, and I've noticed a pattern that seems to underlie a lot of hate. I've not seen it called out explicitly before, which is really interesting.

In summary: I think we hate in others, that which we fear in ourselves.

I mean, the obvious example is how the most angry and frothing-at-the-mouth homophobes seem to have a strong tendency to turn out to be closeted homosexuals. But I've also noticed that people who call others lazy tend to be people who overwork themselves out of a fear of not getting enough done, some of the loudest voices complaining about immigrants coming here and taking our jobs are established immigrants, and so on.

You might think that somebody who is struggling with some aspect of themselves (consciously or not) would feel empathy, even admiration, for people who share that attribute, but when you are trying to fight/suppress/change that aspect of yourself, and they are proudly flaunting it, a strong visceral hate reaction seems to kick in.

Why do people get so up in arms about how other people live their lives, what they do in private, how to conduct themselves in public when the only effect it has on you is that you witness it from afar? There's definitely a strong emotional reaction. Weirdly strong, to cause them to devote their lives to hating those people, and become unable to appreciate them as fellow humans. And I've realised that shame is a surprisingly powerful emotion, and that "vicarious shame" (as I call it) is a powerful, yet confusing, emotion. We don't often talk about it, and I think most people aren't even aware of it; they just feel horrible when people do things they'd feel embarrassed about doing themselves; and, not recognising that emotion for what it is, project it into a feeling that the other person is, somehow, bad.

I first noticed this in myself. I worked out that part of the confusing blast of horrible feelings I get when people are/talking about being drunk is because I have an internalised feeling I am expected to remember everything, be responsible for everything, figure everything out. To be a confused, fumbling, stumbling, idiotic person would be so deeply shameful to me. And so to see somebody else unashamedly be that, and for others to sympathise with them? It instantly brings up this huge feeling of wrongness, and it's so easy to feel angry with the person causing it, and to angrily shout "No! No, this is not something to sympathise with! That person is wrong and stupid and should be punished!".

And I realised that reaction I felt looked similar to the emotions I pick up from people who are judgemental of the actions of others, ranging from homophobia to cultural xenophobia. It can't explain racism or misogyny/misandry, but even then, it's often related - those people often associate behavioural characteristics to their hated group, and I think that in many cases their hatred of that group is, in fact, a reaction to something they're ashamed of in their stereotype. A big driver of misogyny in men is the fear that part of themselves is feminine in some way. And I've certainly observed misogyny in women centering on hating traits deemed as "traditionally feminine" (often perceived as "letting the side down"). So might racism largely arise out of a combination of a racial stereotype, and vicarious shame about aspects of that stereotype we fear in ourselves?

The weird thing is, I think this might actually be something we evolved as a protective urge. Imagine you're a human being living in a highly repressive society, where authority figures will kill/ostracise/etc you if you exhibit a certain characteristic. It's drummed into you that this characteristic is bad. There's an obvious pressure to make a show of picking out that characteristic in others and denouncing it so show how aligned you are with the authority and parade your conformance with the norms in order to avoid punishment - but expressions of hatred are often private, bullying performed in quiet corners. Perhaps, I wonder, is this a desire to "beat it out of them"? If our bullying of somebody is enough to scare them into conformance, while much less harmful to them than the consequences of being outed in public, then perhaps we have evolved to feel that rage in order to protect the people around us who aren't as clever at working out the norms of whatever new warlord has conquered our tribe?

So perhaps, when the haters are hating, the best response would actually be to turn back to them and say "Thank you for your concern, for caring about whether I'll be seen as a pervert/freeloader/whatever; but it's fine for me to be who I am. And it would be fine for you to be like me, too".

1 Comment

  • By andyjpb, Tue 6th Dec 2022 @ 1:06 pm

    I think it's true that human's ability to fire their neurons in a similar way to someone they are observing perform a task is (partly) responsible for our ability to learn.

    Perhaps this mechanism can sometimes internalise an observation of a trait in someone else that you dislike in yourself?

    After being internalised it's easier to have a visceral reaction and that leads to your observation "we hate in others, that which we fear in ourselves"?

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