Confronting Dehumanization and Baseless Hate
Nuance is necessary, but we also need love.
Posted September 22, 2019 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
If you don’t read Frank Bruni’s columns in the New York Times, you’re missing out. Where others paint people as villains and victims, Bruni writes with nuance. Where others churn out hot takes, Bruni gives the cold truth. Where others delight in promoting shame, Bruni takes pains to maintain journalistic honor. Where others hasten to impugn, Bruni struggles to understand. He has a gift for interpreting the human experience and is able to articulate profound realizations that, with his help, become immediately apparent.
In psychological jargon, he and I are part of the same “cohort.” We’ve been affected by the same historical events at about the same ages. And we’re both over 50, so it’s not surprising that he has begun writing about aging and infirmity—both his own and others’.
“Sustained gazes, casual glances, and solicitous words go disproportionately to the young,” he has observed. “To age is to feel as if pieces of you are falling or fading away, so that you somehow take up less space in the world. So that you’re harder to see.” (In all honesty, I could have done without that profound realization.)
In an August column, Bruni shared some heartbreaking emails from readers about being gay. Not stories about his readers’ experiences, but their horrific attitudes toward him. One reader blamed Bruni’s vision loss on his homosexuality. (He has a type of optic neuropathy.) Another predicted that his afterlife would be “disastrous.” And she told him she felt sorry for his mother.
Despite its apparent ubiquity, I continue to be astonished that people can treat others with such inhumanity. “They’re strangers,” Bruni wrote in that column. “They’ve never met me, never taken the measure of my generosity, kindness, loyalty, or lack thereof. For them, I exist in a category, as a type. That type is all they see, and that type is contemptible.”
One reader, part of that 37 percent, later wrote to him.
“I do not hate you. I disagree with you.” he explained. “Unfortunately, in the hyperpolarized world of today, the distinction between the two is often lost; you’re either for me or against me.” He continued, “I disagree with you, but I respect the choices you make for your life based on your life experience and the dictates of your own conscience… I also pray that you will continue to write your frequently insightful and thought-provoking opinion pieces.” Bruni shared the reader’s feedback in his newsletter.
The difference between hate and disagreement is as vast as the difference between lightning and lightning bug. A courteous reader’s objection to Bruni’s views is not in the same category—not in the same universe—as the hateful emails he receives. “I painted the 37 percent with much too broad a brush,” he admitted in the newsletter. “I disappointed myself.”
When I interviewed him about this episode, Bruni reminded me that it was in 2013 when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage and only 2012 when “someone as self-consciously enlightened as Barak Obama” openly supported it. And yet, by 2014, many on the left began treating those who weren’t yet supportive as “hideous human beings.”
Meanwhile, those who were openly supportive of marriage equality also encountered backlash. In 2013, for example, Rabbi David Wolpe, Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, faced opposition when he announced that he would perform gay marriages in his Conservative Jewish congregation.
Bruni told me, “if I look at the timeline here, and if I look at the culture, to say that not supporting my right to marry means that someone hates me is going too far. I cannot indulge in the sorts of political caricatures that seem to be so popular right now. Those caricatures pain me because I know them to be wrong.”
Bruni’s inbox was flooded with responses to his newsletter. “People were so grateful that I’d admitted my sloppiness,” he told me. “The way we are talking to and about each other in this country is flatly unsustainable.” He paused and mused, “Why is it so hard to say that we’re wrong? I think there’s a real danger in asking everyone to be so damn certain.”
That conversation reminded me of one of my favorite works of Jewish literature, the philosophical and mystical treatise I and Thou by Martin Buber, which I had the good fortune to discuss with Rabbi Wolpe. In contrast to a world of I and Thou in which people profoundly connect with one another's humanity, in a world of I and it, human beings show up for one another as objects. If you've ever thought you were making a friend and realized you were being used, you will immediately grasp the basic concept. And if you’ve ever watched a relentless self-promoter operate, you've seen someone create a world of I and it.
The world of I and it doesn't have to include hatred, but it always contains some amount of dehumanization. To be approached the way Bruni was approached, as nothing more than an example of a category or a type (and in many cases, a contemptible one at that), is a painful kind of I and it experience. While writing the column in question, perhaps what Bruni referred to as his “sloppiness” was an example of momentarily entering that world of I and it and relating to others in the same way—as “a category, as a type.”
Rabbi Wolpe* shared with me that in response to the effects of “baseless hatred,” Jewish mystic Rav Kook taught that the way to restore ourselves and repair the world is with “baseless love.”
I began to wonder about the difference between baseless love and love that makes sense and realized that it is easy to love those who love us reliably and unreservedly. It is easy to love those who love us exactly as we wish to be loved. It is easy to love those for whom we hold no resentment, no bitterness, no disappointment, no disdain. These are people it makes sense to love.
But what about those who take us for granted or disappoint us? What about those whose love is shallow or unreliable or uncertain or insufficient? What about those who fail to love us the way we need to be loved, or whose love is unavailable? Or those who disappoint us again and again, and for whom we hold resentment, bitterness, or even disdain? Perhaps with them, we can only rebuild the world of I and Thou with our own baseless love.
And what about people who mischaracterize or malign us? Do they deserve our love?
No, they don't. That’s what makes it baseless—and perhaps with them, all the more necessary.
In that August column, Bruni quoted Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” He added, “Hate is the thing with tentacles.”
Well, as it happens, love is the thing with people. ♦
Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky.
* Any inaccuracies regarding I and Thou or Rav Kook are a result of my own interpretations and are not attributable to Rabbi Wolpe. (Any wisdom may be properly attributed to the Rabbi.)