Hatred Close To Home

  by  |  May 21st, 2009  |  Published in Blog


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I live in the Bronx, where yesterday a horrible terrorist plot was foiled.

Domestic terrorists. They were angry about Afghanistan so they decided to kill some Jews. Only a terrorist sees the logic in that. One of the two synagogues they planned on blowing up houses a large preschool which is open to the entire community. How killing Bronx three year olds will solve a problem in Afghanistan is something beyond my imagining.

Can science help explain it?

Evolutionarily speaking, we are built from older, simpler animals. New structures develop out of old ones. Civilization provides ritualized ways to deal with our very ancient drives – to eat, to defend ourselves, to beat out rivals, to procreate. War is even ritualized in many ways. Uniforms, code words, chain of command. The mammals we were when dinosaurs walked the earth had no idea of any of that.

There must be an evolutionary explanation for why people hate so blindly, so fully, and so destructively.

Any hints?

ScienCentral News has touched on the topic with stories on research investigating whether there’s something different about a killer’s brain,  or if it’s something in the genes.  (Of course, one does not exclude the other.)

Sharon Begley, a science writer for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a nice summary of research showing how we are born instinctively classifying other people into “us” versus “them.”  It turns out we can manipulate who us versus them is to a certain extent.

Other research has shown that simply knowing the geography and physical proximity of “us” versus “them” may be all you need to predict when a region erupts into violence and war.

And in brain scanner studies, it turns out that hatred shares neural circuitry with love. (check this out for a brief description of the paper) So once you decide to hate someone who is not one of “us,” that passion can become pretty consuming, like love.

Wars hardens hatred. I spent a couple of years studying what causes political reconciliation after war when I was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Diplomacy Fellow in the mid 1990s. We were worrying about the aftermath of Rwanda, the Bosnian war, and the imminent implosion of Haiti at the time, in addition to all the other usual wars and simmering, not-quite-but-almost wars. We found that when people stopped worrying so much about their safety and security, when they had a reasonable chance of economic survival, and things like that, it helped. But it was not enough. You needed people on both sides to be convinced that the war was over and the other guys were not about to come and get you. You needed to see or hear images that could only happen if peace was breaking out. After that, new ties need to get made.

None of this is shocking, is it? What is shocking is how fragile every step is, and how easily people can fall back into killing each other.

I wondered then and I wonder now – how can we understand each other better, how can we understand our minds and hearts well enough to prevent hatred and violence?

One approach is taken by a couple of Franklin Award winners. Click the links below to see how they use artificial intelligence and other computer technologies to help promote better understanding.

What do you think – how can science helps us understand and combat hatred best?

Links to Franklin Medal winners:
Ruzena Bajscy
Lotfi Zadeh
Judea Pearl

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Responses

  1. ARobinson says:

    May 28th, 2009 at 1:47 pm (#)

    The solution is simple. If you want to eliminate hatred from the world, eliminate love from the world. Without love, hate cannot exist since it turns out that hatred shares neural circuitry with love, and that pretty much tells us love and hate are two sides of the same coin — one cannot exist without the other. Psychological studies have come to the same conclusion a long time ago, my favorite being that of Carl Jung.

    The fact that we have such a hatred for hatred, that is by responding to hate with hate, on a psychological level only exposes ourselves as being one with those we hate. It’s like using water to control a flood or gasoline to control a fire. It won’t work for obvious reasons. Instead of hating hatred, we should learn to acknowledge and understand it. Hatred, like love or pain, is feedback about our condition and that means we need to learn to read the message it is sending us in order to deal with it effectively. Denying we are in love with someone is no different than denying we are in hate — both lead to disaster in the end.

    Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold told us why they hated and killed, but as Seung-Hui Cho demonstrated at Virginia Tech, nobody is listening to their message and history will keep repeating itself until we do. By claiming it is only certain individuals that commit such atrocities or that it is only a random aberration, is a case of being in denial of reality. Studies of social violence and hatred in chimpanzees (our closest genetic relatives in the animal kingdom) has upset that view point to some degree and we only make such claims otherwise because we are born instinctively classifying other people into “us versus them”. But deep down inside we know it isn’t true and merely only hope and wish that it were true.

    Part of the message so far is that we all have a latent Mr Cho or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold inside of us, and therefore we all have a latent domestic terrorist inside of us. So it is not beyond our imagining to understand what problem killing three year olds in the Bronx would solve in Afghanistan anymore than it is not beyond our imagining to understand what problem jilted lovers committing suicide would solve. If love isn’t always logical or rational, why would hatred be any different, yet we claim to have no problem “understanding” love. Knowing and understanding violence and hatred in the world starts by knowing and understanding that same exact violence and hatred within ourselves, and that means to start by stop denying we are all Osama Bin Laden’s with amnesia.

  2. Eliene says:

    May 28th, 2009 at 1:54 pm (#)

    Interesting and thoughtful response – thanks!

    -Eliene

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