Dear Dr. Brian

Dear Dr. Brian,

Why does it increasingly seem like people can’t just disagree, they have to hate each other too?


Sad in Soho

Dear Sad in Soho,

Good question. I recall sitting in Catholic-school history class learning about wars between Catholics and Protestants and thinking, “If you thought you knew how to get into Heaven, and you told others, and they disagreed, why would you hate them? If they never get there, you tried, more room in Heaven for you then, right?”

Having since studied it, visited many historical and present-day flashpoints of it, written about it…I confess that I still don’t fully understand (most) hate. What I do know is that disagreements seem to give rise to hate particularly when they arouse or expose uncertainty about the haters’ own identities or ideas.

For example, when I learned about World War II, I struggled to understand anti-Semitism, which seems to be having a frightening resurgence in the USA—in fact, it’s by far the most prevalent ethnicity-related motive for violent crime today, and it isn’t confined to neo-Nazi “white supremacists” (as you can see if you just do a simple Internet search for the most recent major incidents and take a look at photos of the suspects).

By almost any measure, Jews seemed to me to have been among the more successful groups wherever they settled—industrious, educated, family/faith/community-oriented…—so I never grasped why anyone hated them until I realized it often was rooted in haters’ feelings of inferiority and jealousy. (And by the way, contrary to some truly-insidious demonizers in the media, it has nothing to do with the President, who’s the most pro-Israel president since Reagan, maybe ever.)

Similarly, as a young, heterosexual male, I struggled to understand homophobia. I never felt threatened by gay males—I always figured I had enough competition for female attention as it was, so I never grasped why guys hated gays until I realized it often was rooted in haters’ lack of complete confidence in their own heterosexuality.

Fast-forward to the present. If I write, “Most Americans are better off today than they were three years ago,” and a reader who disagrees then also hates me personally, it may be because hate is easier than introspection—because he worries that I may be correct, which calls into question his identity as a “resistor” and his idea of the President as a bad president.

We should be able to distinguish persons from positions. For example, I have friends who disagree with my pro-life position, but I can still be friends with them because I know that they truly don’t believe unborn babies are persons. I can think their logic is bad without thinking they are bad.

If a friend said, “I think it’s a person, but I still think it’s okay to kill him/her,” that would be different—not because I’d then feel uncertain about my pro-life identity or ideas, but because that would essentially be condoning infanticide, which is hate-worthy (some things and some people are!)—yet, no one ever has said that to me.

Fortunately, relatively few people are truly hate-worthy sociopaths and psychopaths whose intentions truly are bad. Most people’s intentions are good, so it’s important to consider those intentions when reacting to their ideas and actions.

For example, there is a difference between a racist who wore blackface to mock and demean blacks a century ago and an eight-year-old girl who tried to use tanning spray to look like Beyoncé on Halloween. While the former clearly was wrong, the latter didn’t even know that such racists ever existed.

Should I really have counseled her parents to punish her when her intent was not to mock or demean, but to emulate a black woman whom she deeply admires (which arguably reflects how much progress we’ve made in race relations)?

And if not, should I have counseled her parents to explain to an eight-year-old that, while there was nothing inherently wrong with what she did, racists in the past darkened their skin to mock and demean black people, so what she did was wrong because it could’ve reminded someone of those past offenses?

See, intentions matter, but many people today infer ill will and destructive intent and react hatefully when others simply think and act differently. That’s about as irrational as hating an entire group because some members have exhibited ill will and destructive intent—for example, hating all Muslims because some are jihadists.

Like much of the hate throughout history, much of the hate that I see today is irrational. If others’ disagreements with us upset us, we should ask ourselves why. Are they really evil? Or have they perhaps just called our own identities or ideas into question? And if we then proceed to engage in debate, we generally ought to be able to do it with goodwill.

Hope that helps, and don’t let the haters drag you down!

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.) 

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