This post was originally published in 2018. As we head into even greater division, I feel the message bears repeating.
Some days I feel discouraged by being human. While we have great capacity for good, we seem to have endless capacity to hate deeply and profoundly. We all hate, and that unfortunately includes me and you. And no matter how many lessons history offers us, we have not eradicated the most egregious forms of hate – terrorism and genocide.
I believe that all human beings must consistently be in touch with their ability to love, but also the ease with which we can submit to hate. No one is immune to this possibility, but we can prevent it. One of the most important aspects of this awareness is the study of prior example.
Two of the world’s most tragic events were the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. While these complex events cannot be summarized or boiled down to one cause, they do share two frightening traits.
First, while both events were led by a hateful leader or government, many of the perpetrators of the killings were good people who ended up committing unspeakable crimes. Studies are filled with countless personal histories of people who prior to the genocides had been living decent lives, helping their neighbors, and raising their children. Those same people ended up participating in mass killings, torture, and other heinous acts. And most terrifying of all, many perpetrators of both of these tragedies killed their friends, spouses, and relatives.
How could this happen?
As author Sally Kohn writes, “Such mass atrocities can happen only because many fundamentally decent human beings participate and many other decent people fail to intervene. When we take that in, we realize that genocide is terrifying not only because it happened to them but because it could also happen to us – and that we could just as easily be the victims or the perpetrators.”
The second trait that the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide have in common is the normalization of behavior that had previously been considered inconceivable. Genocides do not come out of thin air. They are the result of several slow-growing factors including propaganda, the dehumanization of specific groups, and the loosening of societal restraint on violence.
Over time, during both of these events and many others throughout history, people were slowly conditioned to accept and even condone what they had thought wrong their whole lives. Many studies and experiments from all over the world have confirmed these tendencies as common to almost all human beings. While there are courageous resisters in every genocide, research shows they are a small number compared to those who were complicit.
Why am I sharing this with you? This may be old news to you, or perhaps not. But as I research the causes and cases of hate, I am reminded of my responsibility to check hate in myself.
As human beings, we do have it within us to shift our capacity to compassion and civility, but only if we are aware of the potential in all of us for their opposite.
What can you do? I will be presenting more strategies in future blogs, but here are a few seeds for thought:
- When you vehemently disagree with someone, stand firm but try not to lash out. As author P.M. Forni says, “It is possible to be civil and true to one’s beliefs at the same time. The issue is not whether to stand firm or compromise, but how to express our firmness.”
- Raise your awareness of the words “they” and “them” in your thoughts and expressions. The object is not to stop saying those words, but to ask yourself who “they” are. Our brains automatically place people into in-groups and out-groups, and then trigger circuitry away from out-groups. But with a pause and a thought before we act on “us and them,” we may be able to shift this seed of hate to a more appropriate response.
- Be willing to see hate in yourself, even in small ways including partisan incivility, demeaning someone from a particular group, or stereotyping. We need not feel shame at this hate, but see it as a human trait which can grow destructively without awareness.
- Seek out different points of view and news from multiple sources. Fact-check articles before spreading them on social medial.
How do you check hate in yourself? How do you deal with hate in others? We welcome your comments.
While hate is a difficult subject to discuss and to face in ourselves, we must continue to do so. Our future depends on it.