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Understanding the Psychology of Hatred

N.C. Asthana
Mar 03, 2020
The viciousness haters display comes from their ability to morally disengage from their actions and create excuses for the hatred they feel or the suffering that they consciously cause.

The current level of hatred in Indian society is fuelling such malignant divisiveness that it is seriously affecting the nation, besides debasing our sense of humanity itself. A study of the psychological aspects of hatred does not disregard the role of various socio-political, economic or historical factors responsible for this complex emotion. However, all of them are eventually processed in the mind of the hater and hence the importance of psychological study.

Scientific literature divides hatred into seven types, namely – accepted; hot; cold; burning; simmering; furious; and all-embracing. In the current Indian context, however, burning hatred is the most relevant – which entails hatred towards a group. They are seen as sub-human or inhuman and threatening, and a something must be done to reduce the ‘threat’ they pose.

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Agneta Fischer, Eran Halperin, Daphna Canetti and Alba Jasini conclude that people hate persons and groups more because of who they are, than because of what they do. Psychologists José I. Navarro, Esperanza Marchena and Inmaculada Menacho add that hatred is based not just on a negative perception of others, but also depends on one’s personal history; its effects on one’s personality; one’s feelings, ideas or ideologies, beliefs, and their identity. In his ‘duplex theory of hatred’, Robert J. Sternberg also argues that hatred, like love, has its origins in personal stories that characterise one’s emotions.

Frustration at personal under-achievement

All those who spew hatred, including jingoists and the hyper-nationalists are often under-achievers in life. This leads to a deep-rooted inferiority complex and frustration. They must blame something for it, which also becomes an object of resentment and later, hatred. However, in an effort to salvage some of their sagging self-esteem, they try to compensate for it by latching on to something, which, in their perception, is visibly, tangibly an ‘achiever’ – such as a political party or some well-known organisation. By associating themselves with that organisation, they feel that the prestige, recognition or glory of the organisation will ‘rub off’ onto them and compensate for what they could not achieve individually.

Precisely for this reason, the most fanatical supporters of political parties anywhere in the world which make hyper-nationalism their plank are generally found amongst those people who, on an individual level, have not been able to do well in life. Donald Trump’s first victory in the US presidential elections, as the New York Times analysed, was based largely upon low-income white Americans without a college degree. Trump attacked undocumented immigrants and Muslims vehemently and thus addressed their hidden fears directly, something which they themselves had been reluctant to give expression to for fear of being derided as non-liberal and thus inconsistent with the very idea of America. Trump unabashedly said what they always wanted to say and captured their hearts. You can apply the same logic to the Indian context and you will understand the phenomenon of communal hatred. 

File Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a campaign rally at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 10, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Tom Brenner/File Photo

For under-achievers, adversity or difficult times can act as a catalyst too. Navarro et al conclude that adversity in life can trigger and intensify hatred as well as jealousy. In my view, the explosion of hatred in India proves that we are indeed passing through very difficult times, any claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Hatred and extreme violence

One of the pre-requisites of perpetrating violence is the lowering or elimination of moral consciousness. Fanaticism, characterised by blind adherence and uncritical thinking, dilutes empathy, awareness of others’ suffering, and feelings of guilt towards the object of hatred. Haters thus acquire the ability of morally disengaging from their actions and create excuses for the hatred they feel, or the suffering that they consciously cause. That is how a mass murderer can, after an act of ethnic cleansing, be found to be a loving husband and a good father to his children. A phone tapping operation by Croatian Secret Service revealed Slobodan Milošević to be a loving father and husband! Indian readers can find their own examples.

In a classic illustration of ‘selective exposure theory’, fanatics prefer to live in a ‘niche’, where they exchange only those inputs, which reinforce their pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information, thereby establishing positive feedback. This explains how, emboldened by anonymity, they foster and spread increasingly virulent hatred over say, WhatsApp groups.

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How group behaviour leads to greater negativity

In Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Reinhold Niebuhr had established that people are more likely to sin as members of groups than as individuals. Bernard Golden observes that when haters participate in a group, it fosters a sense of connection and camaraderie that fills a void in their individual identity. Hatred comes with an unstated ‘legitimisation of violence’ against the object of hatred because he is devalued so much that he does not ‘deserve’ any empathy. However, an individual restrains the beast that lurks within his subconscious to some extent because he is afraid of the consequences. It bursts forth and becomes more monstrous in groups. The psychology of people hating more virulently when they are part of groups or organisations is essentially the same as that of people committing rapes or other crimes during mass crimes like riots. In both, you have the shield of protection from the group itself or the anonymity offered by the group (the so-called ‘herd immunity’), a belief emboldened by historical record of this country. 

Clashes near Jaffrabad area of New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Thrill seekers, defensive or retaliatory haters 

Daniel Burke cites a study by Jack McDevitt and Jack Levin, social scientists in Boston, who analysed hate crimes. The study points out that many hate crimes are driven by an immature itch for excitement and drama. In some cases, the haters see themselves as ‘defending’ their neighbourhood, religion or the country. Some are, in their perception, retaliatory attacks for some real or imaginary crime committed by the victims’ community. The mission-offenders are those who think that they are ‘ordained’ to wage a ‘war’ against the other community.

‘Resonance’ with a leader 

Generally, even as many people harbour communal hatred, they are apprehensive of giving it a public expression lest it meets with social opprobrium. However, a leader who shamelessly espouses blatantly communal or racist hatred and blames certain racial groups or communities as the source of all evil and all failings of the people of the target audience, immediately strikes a chord in the hearts of those people. Swearing allegiance to such leaders frees the followers from any guilt. Individually, they might be insecure in their convictions; however, latching on to a strong leader ‘hardens’ their beliefs as well as hatred. Political scientist Matthew MacWilliams had found that individuals with a disposition to authoritarianism and a fear of ‘the other’ tended to support Trump. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had told Trump the same thing, “You rely on a frightened America for your plunder.” In the BBC TV documentary ‘The Power of Nightmares’, Adam Curtis observed, “In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares.”

Conversely, a leader who helps bring out the ‘demon within’ the collective subconscious of the people immediately becomes popular. A similar phenomenon has been working in India too.

Religion has been unfairly blamed 

No religion per se promotes hatred. I agree with Santosh Saha that, contrary to what Sudhir Kakkar had suggested, primordial, ancient hatred is not programmed in India’s religion‐based culture. However, modern haters have often made religion or inter-religious differences into an excuse for hatred. At times, they deliberately raise the façade of religion to conceal their subconscious; at other times, they unknowingly become a victim of their own rhetoric. The second possibility becomes stronger for a person who has suffered some adversity or has been an under-achiever. As Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ observed in his poem ‘Haare ko Hari Naam’, God is the only source of hope for one who has lost hope everywhere else. Since for most people God is synonymous with religion, it explains their withdrawing into the ‘shell’ of religion or the trappings of religious practices and seeking solace there.

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Taking ‘revenge’ for wrongs committed in the past

The media factory of haters is overflowing with debatable, if not outrightly distorted, accounts of stories ranging from those of genocide, rapes, and sexual slavery in medieval India to the so-called ‘love jihad’ in recent times. Many of us receive such messages on WhatsApp also. They brazenly exhort us to take revenge for the supposed wrongs committed upon a particular community in the past. By invoking the question of ‘honour’ of the victim community, which cannot be compromised, they leave them with no option other than fanning hatred and seeking revenge.

Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that there is any hope of redemption. Agneta Fischer et al and Amanda Ripley find that haters believe the enemy is irredeemably malevolent, and there is little room for constructive change. Thus, only radical options are left to act upon one’s hate, making its down-regulation difficult. We can only pray, ‘Sabko sanmati de Bhagwan’ (May God grant good sense to all).

N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Views are personal.

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