I’m enjoying the new Veronica Mars novel. It picks up in Neptune after the action of the movie. But that’s not what this blog is really about. It’s about a familiar phrase that occurs in the novel, “mutual loathing.” Unfortunately, the phrase resonates with me.

It’s a great word, loathe. I’m not sure if it’s technically onomatopoeic, but it sure does sound like what it means to me. I’m not proud of it, but there are people I loathe. I find them despicable. Some of them, I suppose, loathe me right back. There are also other people I do not loathe but who probably loathe me. Fair enough.

A student of mine has written an excellent paper on forgiveness from the perspective of Christian love, and that got me thinking about life, love, and loathing. By contrast with my student, I tend to approach forgiveness from a Buddhist perspective. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Because everyone is suffering everyone is worthy of compassion. Hurt people hurt people, and so when someone hurts me I try to look at them as suffering and worthy of compassion. They don’t need to ask for forgiveness. I just forgive them, without saying anything to them about it (of course). I do this not so much for them, but for myself. If I resent them and don’t forgive them I only increase my own suffering. This policy takes care of a lot of problems, but not all. Not loathing, for instance. 

Some of those I loathe have wronged me, and I have forgiven them. Some have done me no wrong and don’t even know I exist. Actually, I’d prefer it if I didn’t know they existed! In fact, if they were out of sight, or out of earshot, I would not loathe them. A former coworker, a politician, and a guy at the gym come to mind. I once loathed these people, but now that they are out of my life I never even think of them. This is different from the kind of hatred and resentment that some people feel for an ex-spouse, a deceased parent, or a past abuser. Such phantoms haunt people even when they are gone from their lives.

I’m glad to say that I don’t have any such phantoms at the moment, but alas there are flesh and blood people I loathe. I don’t hate them, I don’t resent them (not all of them, not all of the time, anyway), but I do loathe them. I detest them. They inspire feelings of disgust. And here, I think, is the main difference between loathing and hating. Loathing is closely tied to feelings of disgust or annoyance, and it does not necessarily involve resentment. Additionally, loathing seems to be triggered by direct stimulation whereas hatred can persist without direct stimulation. I loathe roaches, but I do not hate them and do not resent them. As long as they aren’t around me I have no problem with them.

In the case of certain loathsome politicians and pundits I can deal with them by just changing the channel when they come on and realizing that once they have had their 15 minutes of fame they will cease to occupy space rent free in my head. People who I encounter in the flesh, however, are more difficult to handle. I can hope that like my former coworker and the guy at the gym they will eventually go away, but that is insufficient as an action plan. They are like a mysterious odor (disgusting) or a dripping faucet (annoying). Who knows when they will cease?

I try my best to employ the Buddhist approach and realize that those I loathe are suffering and that through their suffering they cause others to suffer, but honestly that doesn’t work very well. So I try to remind myself that there’s a subjective and irrational element to loathing. Not everyone finds roaches loathsome, but I do. Not everyone finds the same people loathsome. I try to remind myself that some people find me loathsome, and there probably is not a person on the planet who is not loathed by someone. Do you doubt it? My mother loathes Tom Hanks. For all I know, you loathe Kristen Bell (aka Veronica Mars).

Forgiveness doesn’t seem to be the way to overcome loathing because there may be nothing to forgive—just an ongoing, insufferable experience of annoyance or disgust to endure. So what’s the solution? Tolerance? Get over it? Combat irrational thoughts? Loathe and let loathe? Obviously, I don’t know. Let me know if you have any ideas. 

Copyright William Irwin 2014

About the Authors

David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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