WHEN WE HATE
by Loretta J. Williams
Is it increasing? Is it intractable?
It is our creation and the creation of our ancestors.
Acts of hatred come out of a culmination of factors, not merely the private quirks and demons of individuals. Hate stems in part from our U.S. "creation myth" as explained by historian Patricia Nelson Limerick. She lists elements of the myth:
The United States was founded on a terrible contradiction: on the one hand, ideals of liberty and equality; on the other hand, appropriation of the land and power by white males with property. In looking at our society today and historically, we see that the United States is a race- and class-divided society, and we see opportunities where things could have gone differently. We have the ability to manipulate symbols in language and thought. We abstract, distort, and amplify -- all with words. We create enemies in our minds by putting labels of difference on others.
Psychologist Sam Keen, in a study of wartime posters worldwide, noticed a pattern in the graphic drawings: a repertoire of us equals good versus them equals bad. Each country drew the enemy as rats or insects to be destroyed; as faceless hordes, cruel barbarians, warlike Arabs, the evil empire.
Compare that to the Internet talk today of Jews as the descendants of Satan, Blacks as "mud people," women as "bitches" and "whores," homosexuals as destroyers of family and civilization, immigrants as freeloaders.
Ordinary folks construct enemies by transforming other persons into dehumanized objects -- "others" -- creatures for whom morality does not apply. Recall Stanley Milgram's experiment where volunteers were told when and how to electric shock others. Most persons obeyed authority without question, overriding moral concerns.
The stuff of hatred is not the sole province of crazies and extremists. It is comforting but illusionary to view the perpetrators of hate crimes as sick deviants. Many are people with rigid patterns of thought. Many are ordinary folks trying to project outward their own fears and insecurities.
James Aho, author of This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, says the most important tools used in building enemies are: courtrooms, mythologies, schoolhouses, pulpits, altars and the media.
Deeply-rooted, judgmental hatred can be seen in today's advertising campaigns naming homosexuality as negative and perverse. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter in an Oct. 20, 1998, column challenged the "constant degrading of homosexuals [as] exacting a toll in blood. Violence against gays is a fact of life and a national disgrace."
Many people fail to see through the camouflage of poisonous bigotry. Our meaner culture, characterized by such things as attack comedy and hate-filled music lyrics, is part of the problem. In-groups dehumanize out-groups in the violent sexual and cross-racial themes that are marketed disproportionately to young white males by rappers such as 2 Live Crew, and heavy-metal artists such as Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses.
But there's more. People's minds absorb messages and too readily devalue others. Hitler's regime, we must remember, was one of the most popular governments in German history.
Think of our history as people of faith. Religious leaders of the past have legitimated anti-Semitism by placing blame on Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus, for the Bubonic Plague and for rapacious capitalism. Anti-Catholicism, too, has long roots in Protestantism.
Subtleties camouflage negative judgments. For example, words we use in our religious tradition -- Christian purity, Christian fairness, Christian whiteness and lightness -- have problematic uses like use of white and black as synonymous with goodness and evil. We are the problem, and we are the solution.
We must soul search about acts of hatred in our society:
The litany could go on and on. There are acts of terrorism occurring daily, saying to each member of the victimized group, "it can happen to you, too."
There is a delegitimation battle going on over the legacy and consequences of the mid-20th century African American-led freedom movement. Code words disguise racial issues and shape public discourse.
Phrases such as illegal aliens and special interests have become wedges used to block alliances. Such language appeals to those disinclined to embrace overtly racist politics but inattentive to power imbalances.
Overt bigotry is back in fashion. The Internet includes hate-filled propaganda from Christian Identity on Line, Skinheads U.S.A., SKIN-NET, Women for Aryan Unity, the Aryan Crusader's Library and others.
The White Aryan Resistance encourages its members to use racist music to recruit new believers. It's good propaganda, and can influence more people than a speech, says the White Aryan Resistance. One can purchase the culture of hate as portrayed in movies, on TV, on the radio by shock jock DJs such as Howard Stern and Don Imus.
Some purveyors of hate argue they do not intend to injure anyone. But intentions are not the sole issue. What harm is caused? Who pays the costs? Who benefits?
Hate graffiti and vandalism is showing up more and more on college campuses, public and private. At Boston College in October 1998, electronic mail spread the message that the school belongs to white males, not black, brown or yellow people. In Athens, W.Va., also during fall 1998, letters declaring "open season on Blacks" were sent to Concord College students.
These have been treated as isolated incidents. Wrong.
The meanness mania has eclipsed the moral fervor of the mid-20th century freedom movements. The social movements of the 1960s challenged existing power relations, but failed to consolidate a new, radically democratic politics. Ironically, what was created was space where the right wing incubated an intentional strategy of making illegitimate the stated dreams and goals of people of color. The backlash appropriated and reinterpreted the dreams for a pluralist power-sharing society as in the cry of reverse discrimination.
It appears to be politically expedient to fan the flames of bigotry.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) successfully maintained his seat in Congress following a series of racially incendiary TV advertisements portraying a white man being rejected for a job because of the hiring of an African American.
Recall the Willie Horton/violent rapist theme advertisements used by candidate George Bush in the 1988 presidential elections?
Hate acted upon is a demonstration of power. It is also a refusal to share power. Outbreaks of hate attacks often occur in periods of transition as in the time of the ending of legalized slavery, and, later, the ending of Jim Crow segregation laws. The attacks typically have resulted in changes becoming more cosmetic than substantive.
Think how the media portrays the increasing diversity in many communities across the country: "the browning of America." Time magazines April 9, 1990, issue asked, "What will America be like when whites are no longer in the majority?"
Denial is woven into the fabric of our society. The comforting illusion for many non-targeted groups is that bigotry stems from a few weirdos residing on the margins of society. Truth is many people are complicit with the maintenance and perpetuation of hatred. Hate-filled attacks on people who are different are based on judgments about skin color, national origin, the ability to speak English with or without an accent, religion, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability.
Children learn early upon whom they are to vent their anger. They learn what categories of people are devalued as less than human as they listen to their parents and caregivers.
Think also of the photo shared nationwide of people standing outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard shouting epithets and waving signs saying, "God Hates Fags!" The righteous mindset is displayed that "I'm a better Christian for standing up against this perversity."
The church has been too silent about hate for too long. More is needed than commiseration with those victimized. We must do more than voice our sorrow from time to time.
Too many treat each tragedy as an aberration. Why is it so difficult for so many to see that all of these atrocities are connected, they are all grounded in hate?
When will those of us in the faith community learn to treat difference as God-given? How do we interpret that God's righteous wrath results in divine acts of vengeance in favor of the oppressed? Is speaking out case by case the answer?
The outcry around hate crimes is necessary but not sufficient. We can deal with individual incidents for hundreds of years and not make a dent in the armor of hate.
Is keeping statistics the answer?
Again, necessary but not sufficient. The arithmetic of discrimination still leaves intact systems of domination and oppression. But we must support the keeping of hate-crime statistics and expand hate-crime provisions legislation.
The term "hate crime" is new. Community groups advocated for federal action and in the early 1980s Congresspersons John Conyers (D-Mich.), Barbara Kennelly (D-Ct.) and Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) responded with hearings and later legislation. The Hate Crime Statistics Act passed in 1985. In 1990, the Hate Crime Statistics Act mandated federal compilation of the number and nature of hate crimes reported.
Categorizing hate crimes and enhancing punishments if bias is a factor in the crime is coming under attack.
The Right is attacking what they perceive as the extension of identity politics into the domain of criminal justice. Some critics claim the term is too expansive and imprecise -- a smokescreen for maintaining systems of domination. Let us actively support expanded federal and state enforcement of hate-crime prevention legislation.
Reducing hate-filled individual attitudes is noble, but insufficient in dismantling the scaffolding of social institutions: schools, the media, our congregations and communities. We must stop psychologizing those who hate as deviant, different from ourselves. There is not a "black problem" or a "gay problem" but a human problem too often misnamed.
Let us promote authentic diversity and strengthen the bonds of authentic community.
In addition to the traditional concept of true commitment that means you are willing to die for what you think is right, make equal space for the womanly concept of commitment that means you are willing to live for what you believe.
With God's help, we will be social architects of the future.
Loretta J. Williams, Ph.D., is director Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights and Bigotry at Boston University in Boston, Mass.