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Law and Crime

Hate Is Not a Symptom of Mental Illness

Hate crimes are driven by ideology, not pathology.

When disturbing events, such as violent outbursts, occur, it is tempting to attribute them to individual characteristics of the actors rather than situational factors. In social psychology, the tendency to attribute the behavior of others to internal factors (but our own to situational factors) is known as the fundamental attribution error. What explains this tendency? People are inclined to employ short-cuts such as the fundamental attribution error because they provide comfort that certain events result from individual failings, rather than systemic processes or injustices.

When violence is motivated by prejudice toward a specific group, it is known as a “hate crime.” The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” while the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks bias crime in the United States, defines a “hate group” as an organization that “vilifies others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.” At the heart of the ideologies that undergird hate crimes and hate groups is the idea that members of specific groups are inherently inferior, evil, or cursed. Ideology provides the justification for violent action by allowing that universal moral prohibitions against violence do not apply.

Hatred of another group can be facilitated by a number of factors, but dehumanization seems to be a common thread. One of the most horrific recent instances of hate crime on a mass scale occurred in the African nation of Rwanda in the early 1990’s, when members of the Hutu group slaughtered hundreds of thousands of members of another group, the Tutsis. (Some scholars consider these groups to be ethnicities, while others note that they emerged out of historic social class divisions.) Hutu leaders urged ordinary people to commit atrocities by comparing Tutsis to “cockroaches.” In trying to understand how ordinary people can become involved in the perpetration of such horrors, social psychologists such as Phil Zimbardo have emphasized the need to understand the situational and systemic precipitants such as dehumanization that can lead “good people” to “turn evil.”

This brings us to the widely-publicized hate crimes that have occurred in the United States, including the murder of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and the murder of 9 people in a Charleston, SC church. While news reports have appropriately focused on the role of hateful ideology in impelling these crimes, there has also been a tendency for news outlets and members of the public to speculate about the role of “mental illness” (diagnosed or undiagnosed) in these actions.

I will here note why this is problematic on three accounts:

First, it is likely that mental health concerns can be identified for almost anyone if one tries to find them. Epidemiologic studies (which survey a representative sample of the general population to estimate how common certain syndromes are) find that the “lifetime” prevalence of any diagnosable (though not necessarily diagnosed) mental disorder in the United States is roughly 50 percent (current prevalence is roughly 25 percent). Thus, one out of any two people will be found to have some evidence of mental health concerns in their history if one cares to look.

Second, hatred (much less hatred of any particular group) is not a symptom of any mental disorder. Some disorders include symptoms that may be associated with diminished impulse control which could plausibly be related to reactive violent outbursts (e.g., “snapping” when someone makes a disparaging comment), but this does not plausibly relate to highly planned actions such as hate crimes. Other disorders include symptoms which can lead one to believe that one is the target of a plot or conspiracy, but this does not apply to widely-held conspiracy theories such as the ones that hate groups endorse. As I have previously noted, research has determined that when people diagnosed with mental illnesses do commit crimes, symptoms only plausibly relate to the actions in 10-15 percent of cases. Therefore, just noting that someone has a history of mental health concerns likely does not provide any useful information about what motivated a given criminal action.

Finally, focusing on the relationship between psychiatric status and hate-crime perpetration obscures the fact that people diagnosed with mental illnesses are themselves victims of hate crimes, advanced by the ideology (which Nazi Germany endorsed) that such individuals are “unworthy of life.” In a recent report, The Southern Poverty Law Center detailed cases of horrific crimes committed against people with psychiatric histories that were found to be motivated by hatred, such the torture and murder of Jennifer Daugherty in Pennsylvania. An ideology of hatred toward psychiatrically disabled people also motivated the largest mass killing in Japanese history in 2016, when Satoshi Uematsu killed 19 people at a residential setting after espousing a mission to “rid the world of disabled people.”

Hate crimes may be perpetrated by individuals, but they are driven by ideologies that dehumanize others and are advanced by groups with a specific agenda. Attempting to explain them on the basis of individual pathology distracts from the need to address the all-too-common belief in these dehumanizing ideologies.

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