Plugged int Hater
Doris Lessing had an interesting notion about hatred. In her novel, ‘The Four-gated City’, she writes, “you discover hatred is a kind of wavelength you can tune into…plugged into Hater.”
If hate was the faint cosmic microwave background (the annoying radio waves that your hear as static on radio or see as black & white noise on your TV) that we experienced occasionally, medias have in a sense, appended large Arecibo-sized radio telescopes on our foreheads, tuning in hi-definition hate and streaming it into our consciousness 24×7.
Logging into Facebook, turning on the news channels on Television, or starting a conversation on WhatsApp about politics – now there are numerous ways to plug into Hater. In the post-modern times, where we question everything and there is no one true god, there is no one true meaning to life, but there certainly are many ways to plug into Hater. We live in a world where there simply aren’t enough ‘wavelengths’ dedicated to compassion, but there are many to hatred.
Us v/s Them.
This is the easiest wavelength to plug into – the ‘us v/s them’ Hater. You wear purple jersey, the ’other’ wears yellow. You have brown skin, the ‘other’ has black. You are heterosexual, the other is homosexual. You like hip-hop, the ‘other’ likes Carnatic classical. You eat pork, the ‘other’ eats mutton. There are so many ways to ‘other’.
The whole point is to find ways to connect with ‘our kind’ by hating on the ‘other’. The tribal humans divided by geography ensured their survival with this hatred, keeping the unknown at bay. The Modern connected human is unravelling the progressive project with this hatred, holding itself back, harming itself in the process.
An ‘experiment’ conducted by a schoolteacher in Iowa in 1968 showed just how easy it is to divide a people, to discriminate.
One day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Jane Elliot decided to demonstrate the reality of discrimination to her seven-year old students in a predominantly white town. She divided her third-grade class into groups on the basis of eye colour – ones with ‘blue eyes’ in one group and the ones with ‘brown eyes’ in another. As an authority figure, she said the ‘blue-eyed’ ones are superior and deserve special privileges. The ‘brown-eyed’ ones had to wear a collar around their neck to help identify them. Soon enough, the thoughtful young children turned on their classmates, calling them stupid, actively excluding them, turning ‘brown eye’ into a slur. On that day’s test, the blue-eyed kids pumped up with newfound superiority, performed better in tests.
The next day, she turned the table. Brown-eyed ones became superior. The collar that designated the inferior ones was gleefully removed from the necks by the brown-eyed ones and tied over the blue-eyed children. They got to feel superior, got longer recess and got access to playground. This day, the brown-eyed children scored much better than the blue-eyed ones in tests.
Arbitrary notions of superiority made children mean, dominating and helped them become more confident. Within a day, ‘thoughtful children’ became “miserable little Nazis”. When discriminated, they felt the pain of being rejected by their own friends. They felt hurt.
At the end of the experiment, they realised the power of discrimination though and the absurdity of it too. They realised how corrosive discrimination can be. They realised what African Americans & Native Indians had to experience in their country. At seven years of age, they realised what most of humanity never gets to understand: discrimination is absurd, but it causes real harm. It must be rejected.
I highly recommend you watch the PBS Frontline Documentary “A Class Divided,” which chronicles this experiment.
What can we learn about hate from this?
- Hate creates a new zero-sum game where one group gains power, while another loses.
One of the kids in the experiment said this, “I felt like I was a king, like I ruled them brown eyes, like I was better than them, happy.”
It propagates a culture where to gain happiness, someone else has to lose it. It doesn’t have to be this way in reality. But hate turns it into a zero-sum game. It manufactures an unhealthy competition.
- Hate can be cultivated easily. All we need is an artificial bogeyman that people can pin their insecurities, their fears, their concerns on.
“All your inhibitions are gone. And no matter if they were my friends or not, any pent-up hostilities or aggressions that these kids had every caused you, you had a chance to get it all out.” One of the kids in the experiment recalled this incident, as an adult many years later.
Life is not fair. We all have been in situations where we felt weak, where we were wronged, when we were made to feel insignificant. Hate creates a bogeyman to direct that anger.
There always exists enough pre-existing conditions that a hate-monger can leverage to rile someone up. One needs a convincing fiction that dissolves the dissonance that lived experience of unfairness, ignorance, luck, inequality etc. creates. In a sense, hate is made out of a psychological cocktail of,
- Wish-fulfilment: Promise of gaining privilege, righting wrongs, etc.,
- Certainty of narrative based on untruths: Real life is messy. It’s hard to pin point sources of worries, our fears. When someone builds confidence about whom to blame, it gives you sense of certainty that you needed. Conspiracies essentially serve the purpose of crutches against existential angst in a deeply uncertain, unfair world.
- Objectification of the victim: It’s not easy to hurt someone else. We need to ‘other’ the person, make them appear alien so that we may not feel guilty of hurting them.
- Hate spreads rapidly.
Once the cocktail is drunk, the transformation in worldview is immediate and conviction is strongly held.
Logical things spread slowly. It needs comprehension, appreciation and advocacy. But unreal conspiracies and notions can grow faster than cancer, because they appeal to our inner psyche.
“They (masses) do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt was talking about Totalitarian state’s strategy of using ‘mysteriousness’ of conspiracy theories (as in the case of Jesuits and Jews in Nazi Germany and ‘plot of Trotskyites’ in Soviet Union) as propaganda to gain and maintain their power. These mysteries might be based on some kernel of truth or be completely fabricated. As long as it paints the ‘other’ as villain and ‘us’ as righteous heroes, any inconsistencies in truth and logic can be papered over with new mysteries. As a matter of fact, the dissonance with truth, requires a certain level of faith in these mysteries that enable rapid agreement and spread of these mysterious conspiracies. Masses have to believe in these mysteries to not feel guilty.
As she identifies, this mysteriousness had an inexhaustible supply. “Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
21st century digital networks have accelerated this whole system of hate peddling disinformation. People might have more voice now, but their manipulators (corporates lobbies & brands, and political parties) now have even greater power, more access, more intelligence and more capability to mould preferences, beliefs and behaviours too.
In a sense, social media platforms have become the open hunting grounds where citizen are fair targets for interest groups to hunt with targeted missiles of misinformation and disinformation. It’s open season here, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. In these fields, the missile is precisely targeted and moves at the speed of thought.
- The creator of that bogeyman, then gets the key to your anger. You become a tool in the hands of the hatemonger.
The creator of hate can direct your anger against their opponents. You become cannon fodder for their agendas. Right now, could be a good time to examine your own emotions. Who is benefiting from your anger?
- Hate is often directed to an identity – real or imagined. Here it was about an eye colour. But even simply the ‘act’ of hating can lend you a purpose, an identity. The rise of right-wing xenophobia across much of the world is based on this insight. It is hard work to build an identity with our work, with a principled life. It’s so much easier to imagine a glorious past and to attack the imagined villains holding us down from our destiny.
- Violence can’t vanquish hate. In the experiment, ‘brown eyes’ became a slur. Within a day, it became potent enough to cause a fight between two friends. One kid hit another in the gut. And yet he didn’t feel good after doing that. The tag stuck. Violence did not help in making him feel better.
In a sense, it creates psychological weapons in which people keep getting bruised and there’s no recourse from it, until the artifice on which the hate is built is dismantled. Violence does not help, arguing it doesn’t help, ignoring it doesn’t help. It has to be collectively called out – in a sense, all minds in that community have to be disinfected with the sunshine of truth.
- Which means, there has to be a willingness to engage with the truth.
In this experiment, the authority figure cultivated that willingness through the experiment. In real life, that might not be possible. Media and the government’s response to it matters here.
- In reality, having to confront the reality of your actions makes you reflect. The teacher controlled the space in a way that the oppressor and the oppressed saw each other and saw what was being done. Real communities can do that, online communities can’t. Real communities are shaped by consequences of what happens inside and outside the community. Online ‘communities’ can go on spewing out hatred without an iota of inkling of what consequences some of its members have to experience.
In reality, you can see the tears, the bruises that your hate caused. Online you won’t. You could drive someone to suicide and not know what you have done until news breaks through to your feed.
This exploration throws up so many questions,
- How to dismantle zero-sum games that hate engender?
- How can people guard against psychological hacks that partisan groups leverage?
- How to replace the hateful narrative that animates their worldview with a kinder narrative? Appeal to identity? Most cultures have heroic stories to that effect. Can they still be relevant? What stops us from using the non-dogmatic strands of existing cultures?
- How to ensure that people don’t feel that their trust is misplaced in institutions or elites? What mix of regulation, cultural narratives and justice system reforms is needed?
- How to ensure that the ability to mould preference, beliefs and behaviours are not misused? (Advertising often helps problematic organisations build favourable imagery and escape scrutiny. Political entities misuse personal freedoms to push their propaganda. How to ensure privileges afforded to the weak are not misused by powerful entities? How to keep these organisations in line?)
- How do we learn to know if the content we are consuming is in good-faith? how to defend against partisan interests? How to be aware of who is benefiting from my anger?
- How to cultivate empathy towards the other? How to incentivise the act of finding common ground and not things that divide us?
- How do we help people channel their desire for prestige, their sense of injustice?
- How do we puncture conspiracy theories?
- How do we cultivate a shared realisation that violence is futile. How do we ensure that people are heard, their grievances redressed to ensure that they don’t feel helpless?
- How can we create a culture where truth is valued and there’s a willingness to engage with it, no matter how messy it is?
- How can we rewire the algorithm of authority? how can we put trust, service to humanity as levers of gaining status and not simply popularity based on base desires of attractiveness or celebrity?
- How can we create safe spaces for people to engage with each other at multiple levels?
- How can we make consequence of acts more immediate?
- How can we defang partisan forces and profit-seeking businesses and help them become responsible citizen too?
Complicated problems, powerful forces at play and no easy answers here!
The issue operates at multiple levels with manifold strands and many actors.
Yet we see most of today’s efforts are very narrow minded. Fighting explicit hateful content is simply not enough. By focusing only on explicit hate, as big tech and even justice system does, we are essentially responding only to the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’. We must confront the whole lifecycle of hate.
It’s counter-productive to shut down dissent in the name of hate, even as injustices go unchecked. Afterall, hate in media is not just a media issue. It is a broader humanity issue that needs a co-operative approach at multiple scales, in multiple time frames and needs participation of various actors.
I will build a framework for this purpose in the next post. until then, let me know what you think. am i missing something? is my perspective skewed? what can be improved in this line of thinking?