We've been told that love is the answer to violence and hate crimes. But we can also fight hate by cultivating indifference.
We’re often taught that love is the solution to hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” There is some wisdom here. But King’s vision of brotherly love is quite demanding. And love can be a dangerous emotion.
Love can cause us to do unreasonable things. Indeed, racism, ethnocentrism, and hate are often connected to a perverse and pernicious form of love.
So, instead of focusing on love as an antidote to hate, we might also consider disciplining our emotions and learning to leave each other alone.
As hate crimes continue to haunt the headlines, our culture is plagued by violent emotions that are encouraged by social media and advertising. There is too much anger and too many guns. We would all benefit from an effort to encourage emotional maturity and keep passion under control.
Modern hate crimes in historical contexts
The shooting in Buffalo and other recent hate crimes repeat a pattern that is too familiar. Racism is not a modern invention; nor is mass murder. Modern technologies abet evil and amplify atrocity. But the cause is found deep in the human heart.
The first word of Homer’s Iliad is “wrath” or “rage.” Achilles is a broken-hearted lover. When his best friend is killed, he goes on a murderous rampage.
The ancient Greeks suggested that the problem is passion itself. Hate and love are both too vehement. They can each cause us to do unwise things. And while love appears to be on the side of the angels, it can easily become its opposite.
The ancient Stoics proposed a useful solution: cultivate indifference. Passion needs discipline. Once the passions are subdued, it is easier to leave other people alone. Racists and murderers are obsessed with those they hate. It is too much to ask that they should learn to love their neighbors. But perhaps we can all learn to be less obsessed with other people.
Cultivating indifference does not mean that we’re indifferent to hate. Hate crimes are wrong. And it is right to condemn them. We should analyze the cesspool of white supremacy and other hate groups. And we should work to control easy access to deadly weapons.
But we also need a general reassessment of the role of powerful emotions in our spiritual lives. Hate disrupts rationality. This is why haters are not deterred by threat of punishment. Instead, like Achilles, they are consumed by passion, which propels them toward atrocity.
Hate as a spiritual problem
Hate has many causes and occasions. We could blame inequality and insecurity, or the dog whistles of certain parties and politicians. We may also want to look into the psyches of those who commit hate crimes. Perhaps something went wrong in the hater’s upbringing. We might look to blame parents, peers, or teachers. Biographical and psychological details are important as we diagnose specific causes.
But if we probe even deeper, we see a perennial spiritual malfunction. Achilles is not the only example of passion run amok. Among the haters of ancient literature is Medea, who murdered her own children out of hatred for her husband. In Robinson Jeffers rendering of the story, Medea says, “Loathing is endless. Hate is a bottomless cup; I will pour and pour.”
Hatred has an ugly tendency to fester and grow. The bottomless cup of cruelty has a long and sordid history. It extends from the atrocities of the ancient world through the genocides and holocausts of modernity.
The obsession of hate
Willard Gaylin describes hatred in his book on the topic as “a sustained emotion of rage that occupies an individual through much of his life, allowing him to feel delight in observing or inflicting suffering on the hated one.” He continues, “It is always obsessive and almost always irrational.”
Gaylin points out that most of us have never really experienced the depth of emotion that leads the hater to commit hate crimes. That’s good news! We mostly control ourselves and rarely succumb to rage and irrational obsession. But notice that this shows that it is not love that cures hate but, rather, self-control and emotional maturity.
At one point, the recipe for moral and emotional education included a healthy dose of religion. But as our world becomes more secular, we need other sources of spiritual insight and guidance. Literature and philosophy can help.
Aristotle suggested that a lack of moderation and an imbalance in the emotions was the problem. Importantly, Aristotle did not condemn hate. Rather, he encouraged people to learn to hate the right things, in the right way, and to the right extent. The ancient Stoics were more critical of the overwhelming power of strong emotions. They encouraged people to subdue their emotions.
The emotional dog of extremism
Modern thinkers provide further insight on hate and the emotions. David Hume famously said that reason is the slave of the passions. This suggests that our judgments are rationalizations that come after the fact. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, the emotional dog wags the rational tail.
The point is that we won’t be able to change people’s minds until we help them subdue their passions.
Hate and love are tightly intertwined, each a form of passion. And while it is wise to prefer love over hate, love is also problematic. It easily gives rise to envy, jealousy, resentment, and, yes, even hate.
There are perverse and pernicious kinds of love. One recent analysis of extremism explains that radicalization is driven by a mix of emotions including pride, anger, and fear. Love is also in the mix.
Racism is not only a movement of hate; it is also a kind of love. The racist loves members of his own race. The hate-love matrix explains jingoistic patriotism, ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism, and religious zealotry.
The limits of love
Advocates of the Golden Rule and brotherly love encourage us to develop a more universal love. This is a wonderful project. In the ideal world, love would grow and expand. And in its universality, there would be no room for hate.
But the ideal of brotherly love is for saints and mahatmas. In ordinary experience, love is focused and concrete. Love is oriented toward real objects, uniting us with something limited and specific. But in this way, it also opposes us to something else.
Now ideally, the positive affirmation of love should be satisfying and complete. But when the object of love is attacked, we respond and react with anger, fear, and hate. The patriot is outraged by attacks on his country. The mother is enraged by attacks on her children. And the supremacist is furious about attacks on his people.
These attacks need not be actual. It is enough to imagine that the object of our love is under assault for hatred to fester. One way to understand hate is to scratch its surface and see what the hater loves.
The challenge of nihilism
Some forms of hate appear to be divorced from any concrete form of love. There are nihilists who hate everything. But nihilistic hate may also be understood as a malfunction of love.
One type of nihilism emerges from disappointment in a world that fails to love us. Imagine a child who thinks the universe (or God or society) ought to love him. When his ego crashes into the reality of an indifferent world, self-love is warped into hatred. Camus explained the hatred and violence of Nazi Germany in his book “The Rebel,” as follows: “To those who despair of everything, not reason but only passion can provide a faith, and in this particular case it must be the same passion that lay at the root of the despair—namely, humiliation and hatred.”
This kind of despairing self-love may explain the rage and resentment of those who think that society is betraying them. It may also explain the hatred of so-called “incels,” those who are involuntarily celibate. These folks believe that people should want to have sex with them. But when they find themselves alone and unloved, their desire for love is warped into hate. And in a growing number of cases, their rage becomes violent.
Instead of love: The wisdom of Stoic indifference
Martin Luther King’s idea of love driving out hate is a Christian solution. He implies that the hater’s heart can be changed through an infusion of love. This makes some sense. But another part of the solution is to discipline the heart. The problem with hate (and of love) is connected to the vehemence with which the heart is pounding. The danger is passion without restraint. The solution is to get passion under control.
The Stoic sage Marcus Aurelius said, “The mind that is free from passion is a citadel.” Marcus thought it was a sign of weakness to be overcome by anger, hatred, and love. The best life would be one in which we were unharmed by pains, untouched by insults, and indifferent to passion.
It is difficult to live dispassionately, and there are few full-fledged sages. But we benefit from studying the wisdom of Stoicism. This concept is best taught early, perhaps in school. The ideal is a person with a disciplined heart, who stops obsessing about other people. Such an attitude could be helpful in a world focused with the likes, followers, and trolls of social media.
Learning to leave others alone
The haters of this world seem to think that they are manifesting strength in acting on their hate. They are encouraged in this belief by a culture that celebrates passion as a sign of authenticity.
Stoicism imagines something different. It teaches us to be indifferent to what others think of us. It suggests that in giving in to passion, we exhibit weakness and behave in ways that are shameful. The haters are deeply affected by those they hate, but it would be better for them to see this as a weakness that needs to be overcome.
It is too much to demand that haters learn to love their enemies, as Jesus once put it. Perhaps that kind of spiritual transformation works for saints and mahatmas. But it can also lead us back to despair and hatred, when we realize that our enemies will not respond in kind. And so long as we are either loving them or hating them, our enemies remain a focal point of obsession. A more realistic solution is indifference and learning to ignore those things that previously generated hated.
Overcoming hate involves disciplining our emotions and learning to grow a thicker skin. We should realize that other people are not properly our concern. And we should understand that hatred is a weakness. There is strength in the inner citadel. And there is wisdom in learning to leave other people alone.