If you’ve been paying attention over the past few years, you might have been alarmed by the cruel spirit that’s taken over politics around the world. It’s not just the usual spectacle of pols denouncing each other in speeches: It’s demagogues targeting refugees in Europe and a ruling political party in India demonizing Muslims. It’s a movement in the U.S. that boasts of racial superiority and marches with torches to assert it.
It’s angry rhetoric from political leaders and unsponsored violence in places designed for solace or recreation: a black church, a gay dance club. It’s massacres at synagogues and a gunman in El Paso who kills 22 people because of what he calls “a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
It’s not easy to quantify something as abstract as hate. But the FBI has charted a steady rise in hate crimes since 2015. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 1,020 hate groups in the U.S. in 2018, with 2019 likely to set a new record. Many of us shake our heads, wonder where this has come from and ask how it’s emerged not only in nations with histories of ethnic hatred but in reasonably stable, affluent democracies.
There’s at least one discipline, though, less startled by the current divisiveness. Its practitioners see the same things we do and lament them no less. Talk to social psychologists, and one thing you may hear, again and again, is an utter lack of shock. “As someone who studies these issues,” says Adam Fingerhut, associate professor of psychology in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, “I’m not surprised.”
Most assessments of our angry age consult historians, political scientists or experts in international relations — thinkers who look at how changing borders, political trends or shifts in technology lead some nations, and some eras, to be hotter or cooler than others.
But social psychologists differ from these groups in one important way: What they study — the human mind — has not changed significantly in many thousands of years. What we’re seeing now, they say, has been with us a very long time.
“Social dominance theory,” Fingerhut says, “suggests that pretty much every society in history has existed with some kind of hierarchy.” People at the top work to keep themselves there. “And when the status quo is threatened, they resort to prejudice to justify their place at the top.” This also leads to “legitimizing myths” — notions that blend true and false but are designed to keep things from changing.
We saw this process at work, he says, with the backlash around same-sex marriage: The move toward marriage equality provoked hostility as well as the Defense of Marriage Act, as if gays and lesbians were attacking a vulnerable institution rather than trying to be included within it.
Social dominance and prejudice cross all political affiliations, Fingerhut says. “This is not just the Right: This is a human phenomenon, that we want to protect our identities, that our sense of self-worth is tied up in them. We become irrational in this sense.”
Of course, all of these human tendencies express themselves differently depending on conditions in the outside world, and that’s where a historian’s perspective proves useful. What we’re seeing now, says Elizabeth Drummond, associate professor and chair of the Department of History in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, is a convergence of several trends, some of which take human nature and bend it into especially ugly shapes. “There are particular political contexts,” she says, “where hate is mobilized.”
Drummond, who teaches a course on Nazi Germany, knows all too well how political rhetoric, economic uncertainty and other forces can push people to act more harshly. We are not seeing a reprise of 20th century fascism today, she cautions, but this is a period of instability for a lot of people. The refugee crisis in Europe, the shock of a black U.S. president, a global recession that left permanent wounds and changing demographics have all raised temperatures. Throw in politicians who know how to engage anger, social media that thrives on nastiness, and the ability of extremists to meet and collaborate on white supremacist and hate-driven websites, and the fervor is amplified.
We are also, Drummond says, emerging from a pause, a relaxation of aggressions, that was historically specific: After the Holocaust and World War II, both Axis and Allied nations committed themselves to a period of healing. It has become clear where ethnic hatred could lead. But despite an official rhetoric of tolerance and cooperation, the resentful side of human nature didn’t disappear.
The human mind, then, can be tipped into rage, hatred and stereotyping fairly easily, especially when the right conditions are met. In the totalitarian world of George Orwell’s “1984,” some characters practice what is called Two Minutes Hate, a daily period of outrage aimed at various enemies, some of whom may be imaginary. This — or the rage and stylized hatred we see at a professional sporting event — may seem like a slide down the evolutionary ladder. But it’s actually sapiens at their most human.
Hatred, luckily, is not all the mind does: There are ways to soften our harshest instincts even if we cannot eradicate them completely.
“Intergroup contact tends to bust the prejudice, reduce the sense of us vs. them,” Murphy says. A meeting of, say, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers can ease tensions, but it has to be done right, with a sense of a shared goal and two sides coming together on equal footing.
It also helps to be aware of our prejudices and to become self-critical. “We need to have cognitive space to do it,” Murphy says. “It’s like a muscle you need to work.”
Similar exercises can enhance our sense of empathy. Studying the social sciences — which are about reason and discerning credible from uncredible sources — can undercut tendencies to intolerance.
None of it is easy, Fingerhut says. “These phenomena, from a social-psychological perspective, are hard-wired into our brains even if the categories — the in-groups and out-groups — change.” As for the larger dynamic, he concludes, “That ain’t going anywhere.”
Scott Timberg, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, passed away Dec. 10, 2019. A highly regarded commentator on arts and culture, he was the author of “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.” His work appeared in many media outlets and publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and Los Angeles magazine.