Brenda Berger Ph.D.

Hearts and Minds

Hate: Learning and Unlearning It

Hate, while both instinctual and taught, can also be transcended.

Posted Mar 06, 2017

You've got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You've got to be taught

From year to year,

It's got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught…

So go the painfully sad lyrics from the splendid 1950's musical South Pacific. Simply and deftly Oscar Hammerstein linked together hatred and fear, putting forward the idea that innocent children come to hatred through the business of being actively taught. Although the song is about cross cultural love affairs during World War II, it highlights issues alive today in our divided America, where tolerance of differences among people is ever more challenged, and fear and hatred are on the rise.

To keep a minuscule number of potential terrorists from entering the country, suspicions are raised about all Muslim immigrants. To exclude a relatively small number of criminals from Mexico, plans are made to build a multi-billion dollar wall and deport people who have spent their lives as hard working contributors to the American economy. The language used to describe immigrants bristles with contempt, yet millions have leapt on this bandwagon.

How does hate happen? Is it instinctual, inborn, or indeed taught like the Hammerstein lyric says? Who teaches it, which forces make it stick and which inflame it further? How do some people get beyond hate to create open-hearted lives? 

Much has been written in the psychoanalytic literature about aggression resulting from pent up rage, and also about hate which is the amplification of such hostility.  Early in psychoanalytic theorizing, Sigmund Freud wrote of hate as an instinct, a natural inherent aptitude present in newborns at the moment of birth. He postulated that as babies receive pleasure and satisfaction, love is incorporated into their egos, while in the case of babies who are frustrated through repeated unpleasurable experiences, hate grows.  

Later in 1976, another psychoanalyst Dr. Walter Bonime wrote of America as an “angry culture” and listed some of the reasons why: “the daily difficulties of getting about, getting ahead, getting fed, getting enough time to rest or to think, deprivations both material and emotional.” He believed that as a culture these forces frustrate many people as they strive for autonomy and create a desperate struggle for what he called the “pseudo-safety of dominating.” 

But hateful adults shaped by culture, are not simply inevitable. Incorporating Freud’s developmental ideas, what happens in the family clearly seems to matter, and to shape outcomes. Well nurtured children who are encouraged toward their optimal potential generally develop healthy senses of self. They have egos buoyed by love rather than insides swirling in fury and disappointment. But millions more whose growth is thwarted or exploited can become hostile within their families. 

Without intervention, many hold on to anger as an armor against the outside world.   Fairbairn, writing on anger, quoted a patient who said “when I’m very frightened I can only keep going at all by hating.” There are also millions of other people who experience “healthy” anger in response to being scorned or denigrated as women, blacks, unemployed, immigrants, young, old, unemployed, disparaged, or gay.   

Into this stew, we can then add the ideas of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who studied unconscious irrational processes in groups. He wrote about ubiquitous beliefs in even large populations that arise because powerful, regressive emotions get activated within the group’s members, in instinctual, instantaneous and inevitable ways. One such group Bion called “fight-flight” and he described it as having an emotional tenor of being endangered; it feels it must fight against something, or run away from it. The leader of this kind of group only succeeds if he or she believes and supports its sense of being at risk.

Unchecked and unexamined this black-and-white thinking in groups or even countries, can become very dangerous and actually amount to the stuff of fascism.  This phenomenon was carefully studied by a group of researchers headed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer who created an infamous psychological scale in their attempt to understand authoritarian personalities and explain racism and the atmosphere that led to the Holocaust. The measure they created was called the F (Fascism) Scale. On it were statements designed to assess people’s tendencies toward “good us” and bad “them” kind of thinking, the kind that results in dangerous scapegoating.

When we hear terms like “enemy of the people” describing news reporters, or suggestions that some Americans want to make America great while others should not even belong, we might wonder if America is operating these days in what Bion would have called “fight-flight” mode. With the impacts of understandably perplexing forces like globalization, terrorism, and rapid technological shifts, the pulls to divide along “them” and “us” lines are very strong, to meet aggression with counter aggression, hurt with revenge. 

So if indeed the hate deck is so heavily stacked, if it is inborn and its flames get fanned by frustrating families, cultures, and within irrational groups, how can we humans possibly surmount our pulls towards aggression and enhance  kindness instead? This is a profound challenge, not easily answered.

Perhaps first and foremost we can acknowledge our own personal hate and admit that it does not simply reside in other people who are different than we are. In this way we can attempt to take conscious control over backward pulls, present in all of us, and hopefully move away from festering anger before it erupts in dangerous ways. We can speak and do things in ways that affirm both ourselves (when we feel scared or attacked) and others as well. Often people need help with this, from therapists, clergy, organizations or supportive friends. 

Exemplary human models can also guide us in this struggle, lives that pulled hard against hate and toward open heartedness and inclusion. Nelson Mandela for me is most moving because I grew up in apartheid South Africa. It was indeed a fight-flight culture encouraged through fear and hate which brutally disenfranchised people of color. It finally ended some 46 destructive years after it began. Astoundingly, despite his first hand experience of decades in jail, and enormous humiliation and cruelty, Nelson Mandela negotiated with Frederik Willem de Klerk (South Africa’s president at the time) the peaceful end of apartheid. Mandela has been heralded internationally as an exceptional example of leadership which favors forgiveness, reconciliation and unity rather than revenge. There are other such examples, many who drew their inspiration from their religious faith: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, St. Benedict, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi dissident. 

Clearly we cannot all lead human rights movements, but we can actively think about hate, how we learn, and must unlearn it. It’s particularly important in abrasive political times, to sustain respectful debate, particularly around our differences. Hate disorganizes thinking and ideology exacerbates the problem. We need to challenge ourselves, to unlearn what we have learned, to struggle against hate’s pull, especially now, when many of us are so frightened with our cultural identities deeply shaken and at sea.