The history of hate in this country is a sad 500-year old litany of discrimination against and persecution of “the Other,” whether these be the Native Peoples, African Americans, Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Irish, the Italians, the Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTs, women or people with disabilities.
This hate is once more on the rise. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of hate crimes in this country nearly doubled from around 600 to over a thousand along with a steep increase in the number of hate groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports: Ku Klux Klan 130, Neo Nazi 99, White Nationalist 100, Racist Skinhead 78, Christian Identity 21, Neo-Confederate 43, Black Separatist 193, Anti-LGBT 52, Anti-Muslim 101, General Hate 100.
Where does all this hate come from? How did it start? Well, it began not long after we began as fully-fledged Homo sapiens some 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, hunting and gathering our food in small groups.
Imagine you are in one of these groups along with your wife and your children, your brothers and sisters, your father and mother, your aunts and uncles and cousins, and so forth. Let’s say 20 or 25 of you, all of whom you know intimately and can trust implicitly. These are the only people you have ever known, they are your whole world. In fact, as far as you know, they are the only people in the whole world.
Then one day, the unimaginable happens. You come across another group of people you had no idea existed, had no idea could exist. People you don’t know at all, who don’t look like anyone you’ve ever known in your entire life. You know nothing of these people, you are completely ignorant of them, and this ignorance instantly triggers a fear in you that you’ve never experienced before, even when threatened by the most dangerous wild animal.
In its turn, your overwhelming fear of these strangers, these Others, triggers an emotion you’ve never had before: an overwhelming anger and desire to hurt these alien people, to attack them, to inflict violence on them, to destroy them before they destroy you.
You have just unleashed the strongest emotion of all, you have just unleashed hate, which is born of fear, which is born of ignorance, all of which generates violence. What we might call “The Chain Reaction of Hate”:
IGNORANCE –> FEAR –> HATE –> VIOLENCE
Now let’s skip forward 100,000 years to look at this chain reaction from a very different point of view, at a very different stage in the development of mankind.
In 2005, neuroscientists at University College London exposed a number of subjects to images of fear – photographs of the faces of extremely fearful-looking people. As the researchers performed fMRI scans of the brain of each subject, the amygdala or “fear hub” of each person that triggers the fight or flight response in the oldest part of our ancient reptilian brain responded Danger! in 12 thousandths of a second, over 40 times faster than the speed of thought, which lagged behind at a snail-like 500 thousandths of a second.
This phenomenon explains why we lash out at the object of our fear/hatred even before we’re conscious of what were doing.
Hatred can also be stirred up by those we might call “the midwives of hate,” from 20th century monsters such as Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler, to a particularly noxious recent example in our own country.
“…by the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian – that is, a creature acting by instinct.”
So wrote the French psychologist, Gustave Le Bon, in his 1895 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon went on to say that this man in an organized crowd “possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity… of a primitive being.”
Le Bon then detailed three key processes that create the “psychological crowd”: (i) Anonymity, (ii) Contagion and (iii) Suggestibility.
Anonymity provides rational individuals with a feeling of invincibility and the loss of personal responsibility. The individual becomes unreasoning, and emotional. This lack of self-restraint allows people to “yield to instincts” and accept the instinctual drives of their “racial unconscious.”
Contagion refers to the spread in the crowd of particular behaviors that drive individuals to sacrifice their personal interest for the collective interest.
Suggestibility is the mechanism through which the contagion is achieved; as the crowd coalesces into a single mind,” rather like the swarm intelligence of herds of animals or schools of fish or flocks of birds.
“At this stage, the psychological crowd becomes homogeneous and susceptible to suggestions from its leaders…” Le Bon goes on, “The leaders we speak of are usually men of action rather than of words. They are not gifted with keen foresight… They are typically recruited from the ranks of morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness.”
But how do such sociopathic, narcissistic monsters, who will say and do anything to advance their own demented agendas, do it? How do they transform a crowd of normally inoffensive, law-abiding citizens into a raging mob out for the blood of some defenseless targeted group?
According to Cherian George in his 2016 book, Hate Spin, they do it by the skillful alternation of fear-mongering and hate-mongering, or as George puts it, “by orchestrating the taking of offense and the giving of offense to promote their own agendas.”
This is George’s Hate Spin: “a double-sided technique that combines hate speech” (we have to destroy these criminals, rapists, child molesters, etc.) “with manufactured offense-taking and righteous indignation” (they are threatening our economy, our families, our entire way of life).
You might call it using people power against itself: the ultimate delivery of hate speech brought into this world by the midwives of hate. Without its credulous audience having the slightest idea of what’s really going on.
We may not always know the names of the American demagogues who at various times in our history have worked their followers into a sufficient frenzy to dehumanize and persecute the Other. But make no mistake: they were – and are – there.
That is one America. But there is of course also its polar opposite. This America is the epitome of the world, the ultimate melting pot where members of every single race, ethnicity and religion on the planet are stirred together to form the very essence of humanity. America is not white or red or yellow or black or brown, it is the richest possible mixture of every shade on earth. With the notable exception of our Native Peoples, everyone in this country came from somewhere else. That is the whole point of America, and its whole glory.
As Ronald Reagan put it in a 1980 speech, “I wonder if you’ve appreciated how unusual – terribly unusual – this country of ours is? I received a letter from a man noting that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan, and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.”
After all, the very motto on the Great Seal of the United States – as well as on its humble penny – is E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.”
David Stansfield is the author of the book Get The Hate Out Of America.