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The psychopathology of hate

Luis Dias

“They’re all like that!” Are we all guilty of, at some point in our lives, having made such a sweeping generalisation?

It could be something somewhat playful and seemingly harmless, like the endless memes on social media about gender differences. “Men are like this, women are like that.”

It gets much more sinister when opinions get entrenched about differences based upon anything, be it gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, or the “outsider”.

When this morphs into hatred, it can actually transform our brain as well. This was the subject of a recent article (31 October 2018) in the New York Times titled ‘The Neuroscience of Hate Speech’ by a psychiatrist, Richard A Friedman.

Friedman was reacting to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October 2018 by 46-year- old Robert Bowers who told police he “wanted all Jews to die”, and that “they [Jews] were committing genocide” to “his” people.

While neighbours and acquaintances described him as “normal” (one neighbor even said “The most terrifying thing is just how normal he seemed”), his trail on social media reveals a totally different picture. Here, he had hurled all sorts of abuses at the Jewish people, ranging from “children of Satan”, “an infestation”, to “filthy” and “evil.”

Does this sound familiar? Any of us who spends even a little time on Facebook or Twitter or other social media sites here in India will find such vitriol directed variously at women, Dalits, people from minority faiths, the differently-abled, or those holding sexual orientations different from theirs, or anyone deemed “anti-national”, that very amorphous group.

It is mind-boggling how, under cover of cyber-anonymity, often using fake profiles, but sometimes not even this fig-leaf, the most hate-filled venom can be spewed with seeming impunity. And while the establishment can swing into action at the most innocuous posts devoid of any hatred but deemed “seditious”, the hatred of others is allowed to thrive and fester.

As Friedman says in his NYT article: “Of course, it’s difficult to prove that incendiary speech is a direct cause of violent acts. But humans are social creatures — including and perhaps especially the unhinged and misfits among us — who are easily influenced by the rage that is everywhere these days.”

It’s already happened, much further than anyone could have imagined. Nigeria has used current President of the US, Donald Trump’s threat (to open fire on the migrant caravan approaching the US southern border) to justify its own fatal shooting of rock-throwing protestors.

Three 2017 Polish studies by Soral, Bilewicz and Winiewski explored ‘the effects of exposure to hate speech on outgroup prejudice’. Their conclusion? “Frequent and repetitive exposure to hate speech leads to desensitisation to this form of verbal violence and subsequently to lower evaluations of the victims and greater distancing, thus increasing outgroup prejudice.”

Part of the problem is the ‘normalisation’ of what is usually socially condemned behavior. A relevant example is the attitude towards lynchings or mass murder through ‘rioting’ here. It is disturbing to note how many, even within our own circle of acquaintances, otherwise ‘normal’ people in every other respect, just brush this off: “These things happen from time to time. What can one do?”

Friedman in his NYT article also touches upon the effect of hate-mongering politicians (and we have our own home-grown counterparts here in India) on their supporters and those who are roused to a frenzy by their hate speech. He was responding to the attempted bombing of critics of Trump by “an ardent supporter”.

He cites another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienceswhich demonstrated that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala (the almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain and shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions), making it hard for people to “dial down their emotions and think before they act.”

When Friedman asks whether Bowers and those implicated in the bombing attacks against critics of Trump were roused by the latter’s inflammatory, paranoid hate speech, it is worth looking at parallels closer to home.

In a paper titled ‘Us versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm’, Cikara, Bottvinick and Fiske discuss how distrust of an “out-group” is linked to anger and impulses toward violence. Not surprisingly, this is especially true when a society faces economic hardship and people view ‘outsiders’ as competitors for their jobs. Again, this strikes a chord with us in India, where violence breaks out in one state targeting people from another state who are viewed as the ‘other’ for precisely such reasons, and politicians take advantage of such feelings of vulnerability for electoral gain. This also explains the exaggerated paranoia towards Rohingya Muslims, stoked by almost rabid, hysterical television anchors of some irresponsible TV channels.

Cikara, psychologist and co-author of the above paper, said as much to Friedman: “When a group is put on the defensive and made to feel threatened, they begin to believe that anything, including violence, is justified.”

Trump, in dehumaniding immigrants (“These aren’t people; these are animals”) could have taken lessons from Adolf Hitler himself, who called Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and vast swathes of people from Eastern Europe “untermensch” (“sub-human”). The Hutu regime used similar language in the run-up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi minority.

Thinking of a group of people as sub-human leads to little or no empathy for those people. Both these psychological conditions are conducive to violence. A call to violence by a rabble-rouser in such a tinderbox situation can result in mass violence on an industrial scale, as history has shown us. And when such violence is sanctioned by a higher power, it is easy to “rationalise” it as “merely obeying orders.”

Another co-author, psychologist Susan Fiske, in an article in the Greater Good Magazine, ‘Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life’, writes: “Both science and history suggest that people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers, or receive approval from authority figures to do so.” But although prejudice is hard-wired into our brains, “the good news is that we can still learn to override our prejudices and embrace difference.”

MRI brain imaging by British neuroscientists has shown that hatred activates the regions of the brain associated with aggression and the motor regions that would translate this aggression into action. “The hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise extract revenge.” The cold-blooded logic and planning in these “calculated moves” surprised even the researchers.

The findings (‘The Neural Correlates of Hate’) are so specific and unmistakable that they might even have possible legal implications, for example in places where hate crimes face tougher sentences.

Hatred is more than just a runaway emotion; it is a pathological condition that can transform our brains, harm others immeasurably, and consume us as well, as inexorably as a cancer.

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