Defining Yourself by What You Hate

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Personality tests put us into categories: introversion/extroversion, thinking vs. feeling, etc. Today I’ll suggest a different method of evaluating yourself: what do you hate? And, by the way, what is the value of hatred?

Dating sites ask you to list your interests, loves, and desires: the types of music, activities, and vacation locations you favor. But wouldn’t you want to know what your prospective lover dislikes? Especially those things that make him red in the face when he speaks of them? What might be on such a list if he were honest?

  • People who are “over-emotional.”
  • Those of a different political party.
  • Humanoids of another religion, or particular ethnic or national group.
  • Children or pets.
  • Fans of a rival sports team (or the team itself).
  • The rich or the poor.
  • The homeless, the elderly, the infirm.
  • Elitists or populists.
  • New York, the West Coast, Texas, etc.

There are two qualities we should consider for each item on the “hate” list:

  1. What is the rationale given for the intense enmity? Does it seem reasonable to you? Is the person open to new information and reconsideration of his opinions or is he closed off?
  2. What is the degree of intensity to his emotion? Sure, most of us possess pet peeves, favor the home team, and wish a particular political party behaved itself. But some people hold such strong dislikes that any mention of the object of their distemper risks causing their heads to explode. Why? More worrisome, what might that tendency predict when they find something troublesome in you?

As Jonathan Haidt notes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we tend to form opinions and beliefs intuitively — that is, before we evaluate the facts. Our reasoning brain is not only a step behind our intuitions, but inclined to act as a defense attorney or public relations specialist to justify the instinctive stance.

Haidt likens us to riders and elephants, both within the same person. You might believe your rider is in charge, directing the elephant. On the contrary, Haidt says the elephant — the intuitive and quick acting part of our emotional/intellectual being — is the one who determines beliefs for us most of the time. Only then does the rider get engaged and try to rationalize our convictions. To Haidt, we are 90% elephant-like and 10% rider-like regarding the extent to which our instincts or our capacity for thoughtful analysis, respectively, are in charge.

Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, and other social scientists point to the historical survival value of being able to come to quick decisions, decide who is a friend and who is a foe, etc. Moreover, strong dislikes and hatreds have been a necessary part of staying alive since the dawn of man. Even today, a too-rational soldier might question why he is about to kill another man who, in the abstract, deserves to live just as much as he does. The propagation of our species demands the capacities to love and to hate — the latter, at least, in extreme circumstances.

Now I’m going to throw you a curve. I will offer a thought experiment, meaning a hypothetical scenario, to help us understand the “role” of hatred. What would happen if we erased every dislike in the world and any recollection of those dislikes? How would we be different? Would we all live in peace?

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Well, to some extent we can already observe a variation of that thought experiment in the USA and other so-called “civilized” countries: political correctness (PC), an idea not yet in the culture in the 1950s. Back then it was not difficult to find people who were proud of stating their bigoted convictions about various racial, religious, and national groups. I’m not suggesting folks like those disappeared, but public discourse is more careful to avoid frank prejudice. Even some of the most intolerant main stage figures attempt to deny their bigotry, however obvious to the rest of us.

How successful has the PC movement been at tamping down outrage? While there are fewer cross burnings and lynchings, I imagine you’d agree we haven’t wiped out indignation and those who feed on it. Moreover, I believe a real life version of my thought experiment would reveal the invention of new hatreds to fill the role of those eliminated. Kind of like a spring-loaded Pez candy dispenser, once you remove the top object, an ill-willed person will find something else popping up to chomp on.

Those of you old enough to remember the ’90s will recall that once the USSR fell, US religious fundamentalists who could no longer rail against godless communism changed their focus to homosexuality. Their hell-fire and brimstone sermons were directed at “those people.”

Some of our fellow humans — not a small number — are better described by what they hate than what they love. Indeed, one might argue that in the absence of the hated “other,” the angry ones wouldn’t know who they are. Without “sinners” who must go to hell, there can be no humans who are given a heavenly reward because of their goodness — the opposite of whatever they deem bad and deserving of harsh judgment.

Anger is part of our nature; something too handy (necessary?) to completely discard. We bind ourselves together as much by the things we hate (such as, the Chicago White Sox) as the things we love (the Chicago Cubs). Not every sports fan is a maniac, but if even athletic teams can trigger out-of-control partisan riots, as sometimes happens in European style football (soccer), no wonder we are prone to other corrosive divisions: people of color vs. whites, Democrats vs. Republicans, Turks vs. Greeks, etc.

The human race turns with ease into good guys and bad guys, as demonstrated by psychologists like Stanley Milgram in his work on obedience to authority, and Philip Zimbardo in his prison experiment.

For a fictional view of whether hatred would be suppressed by my memory-wiping fantasy, I urge you to read Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel, J, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. J presents us with a world without recollection, where history books and mementos are absent and one’s lineage is almost impossible to trace. Ancient enmities and prejudices are forgotten. Proper etiquette requires regular apologies to others in the face of even the small possibility of offense.

This sounds serene, but J describes a world inhabited by metaphorical ghosts who reside in a past never fully described. The negative afterimage of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is always in the background — a distant, dark event so terrible (if it occurred, since no one is sure) discussion is discouraged. The book suggests our animal nature is not easily suppressed by laws or political correctness.

Who will win? Our better angels or those creatures who fit a Hobbesian vision where “the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” I am rooting for love, but I think our best chance of self-correction is first to look at the human condition in all its imperfection. Jacobson’s J gives us an opportunity to do this. The novel is also LOL funny (at times) and beautifully written throughout.

Nonetheless, the author offers us a cautionary tale of what it means to be different in a civilization full of grievances an inch under the surface. It implicitly asks the reader whether love can triumph over the dark side of human nature — the worm at the heart of the rose.  J will get you thinking about who you are and who we are. The greatest books do.

Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness

Cats in bed 1970    - copyright Lisl Steiner

For some people, life is a choice between kindness and survival, trust and paranoia, generosity and miserliness.

As my mom used to say about herself, “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, mostly intended for amusement, but could be understood as raising a very important issue for everyone: who am I and what is my relationship to my fellow-man? What, if anything, do I owe him?

We see it asked and answered all the time: in response to charitable solicitations, in requests for advice or assistance, and in decisions we make about whom to help (perhaps only family, friends, co-religionists, or countrymen) and those whose pleadings are ignored or disdained.

Most of us aren’t as kind as we could be, but have benefited from the kindness of others. I am certainly one such person who has had the good luck to have been on the receiving end of considerable generosity of spirit. And that, of course, leads to a story.

During my second year in graduate school I was a research assistant. In return for tuition and a stipend on which to live, I coordinated the research data-gathering done by a number of Northwestern undergraduates who worked for my advisor. The latter was a big man in his mid to late-30s. I learned a lot from him about the proper attitude toward social science research and how to do it.

I remember one of the first communications I ever had from him included a line about his intention “to work with me and on me.” That he did, much to my benefit. Coincidentally enough, his work focused on altruism, defined as the quality of unselfish concern for the wellbeing of others that is so highly prized, at least in the abstract, by most of the major world religions.

As I said, my mentor was a big man, with a personality to match. And, in that age just before the concept of “political correctness” became so firmly established as it is today, he would say, and get away with some outrageous statements.

My advisor occasionally referred to himself as “The Chief” or “The Big Chief” alluding to his size (about 6’6″) and his authority over those of us in his charge. But where he really went off the rails, I suppose, was in calling all of us — the undergraduates who collected his data and me as well — his “slaves.” I’m sure he meant no harm by this clumsy humor, but he was a colorful person and, as I noted, said some things that would have been over-the-line for most other people in a university setting.

One day he mentioned, very casually, that there would be a new “slave” coming to his lab the next day at 3:00 PM; he wasn’t going to be there, so he wanted me to greet her and show her the ropes — let her know what she needed to know and do in order to collect his data and to receive the “independent study” credit that would be her academic reward for helping “The Chief” with his research. By now I had instructed and supervised his undergrad helpers for quite some time, so I thought nothing of his request and simply made certain to be in his lab at the appointed time the next day.

Sure enough, at 3:00 PM precisely the following afternoon, I heard a knock on his laboratory door. I turned and saw a very pretty and well-dressed young woman.

“Is Professor X there?” she asked.

“Oh, you must be the new ‘slave.'”

It was then, and only then, perhaps a quarter of a second after I’d said those words, that I realized something especially critical to the interchange and perhaps, to the rest of my life:

She was black.

“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What have I done? What is she going to do?” These and other thoughts flashed through my now feverish brain, as my entire life — my entire unrealized future — passed before my eyes and perhaps out of my reach forever.

I do not remember what precisely I then said. But, I know it was some form of apology and explanation. I’m sure it was inadequate. Certainly I told her how the awful word was used in the context of the Professor’s lab — the bad joke some of us had too readily imitated — as opposed to the world of civil rights, the history of slavery in the USA, and so on.

And then something amazing happened.

This charming young black woman accepted my explanation and apology.

She didn’t complain to my advisor or the Chairman of the Psychology Department, or the Dean or the President of Northwestern University. She didn’t call the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times so that they could run a front page story. She didn’t contact a local or national radio or TV station to report the wrong done to her. She didn’t file a law suit against me and the University. Nor did she contact the NAACP or get her older brother, assuming she had one, to break my legs.

I would have deserved it. Any of it. All of it.

Yes, it’s true, I meant no harm.

It is also true that at the moment I saw her, had I been more racially conscious, my brain probably would have registered BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or worse.

And, in that event, I wouldn’t have said what I said.

But instead, it simply registered pretty girl!

And so I spoke the unspeakable, entirely to my discredit.

No excuses here, just an explanation, but I was certainly wrong and deserved some sort of punishment.

My life could have been irrevocably altered that day. But for the generosity and kindness of someone I didn’t know, someone who owed me nothing, someone who I had just injured, I might be doing something very different from practicing clinical psychology; someone very different from a Ph.D. graduate of a major university.

As my friend Rich Adelstein has written elsewhere, “all of us (who received financial support for our education) have been helped in the course of our lives by many kind and generous people whom we never met and whose names we never knew.”

I sure have and also by one particular person who I did meet and who heard my tactless speech before she knew anything else about me.

As Blanche Dubois says in the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I haven’t always depended on it.

But I am enormously grateful to have received such kindness more times than I deserve; and especially grateful to a pretty Northwestern undergrad for the uncommon grace and beneficence she showed me at precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on a day many years ago.

The above image is Love in the Afternoon 1970 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com