Contempt and Hate

I don’t think most of us understand hate.

I know I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever actually felt it.

We use the word often; I use it all the time. I hate voluntary ignorance; I hate violence and war; I hate BBQ potato chips. But we also say “love” more than, I think, we mean it: I love my dog and I love my wife, but I also say I love Ren and Stimpy (Ren more than Stimpy – though I still love Stimpy, the big goof!), and I love Cheez-Its. Obviously, the feelings aren’t the same, aren’t even similar, and I have written before about the absurdity of this language, with its incredible vocabulary and the multiple nuances and shades of meaning available in the specific words and the specific uses we can put them to, having only one or two words for a positive feeling – I “like” this, and I “love” that. Now, that actually isn’t true, we have a ton of words to describe good feelings; and it would make me ecstatic if we could start saying adore and cherish and esteem – I am fond of funny T-shirts! I hold napping in high regard! – but that’s probably not going to happen.

Considering, however, all of the talk that has been flying about regarding hate “lately,” with Charlottesville, and with the alt-right administration currently abandoning the White House like lice fleeing the comb, I think this particular word requires some serious attention. I fear we are misusing it, and therefore making a mistake in how we handle the people, the groups, and the actions to whom we apply it.

Now, as I am unsure that I’ve ever genuinely experienced the feeling of hate (which doubt makes me think that I can actually be sure that I have not, because I think if I had, I would know it), it would seem that I could not write about it; but I can speak from observation, and also from the similar emotions I have felt, as hate is on one end of a spectrum, and all of us have been somewhere on that spectrum. I also have expert testimony to draw from: because I talked to my wife about this subject, and I asked her, “Do you think you’ve ever experienced real hate?” She said “Yes” before I could even finish the question. Without hesitation, without equivocation. I don’t intend to air her dirty laundry here, but suffice to say that one of her parents is one of the best people I’ve ever known, and the other one is very much the opposite of that. (For those reading this who may actually know my wife and her family, be aware that you have never met the shitty parent; you know her step-parent, who is a fine person as well.)

Here is how she describes what she feels for that parent. Every time she thinks of this person, it makes her angry. Angry enough to do harm: to punch, to kick, to attack. Every single time. It follows her around, she said, this anger; it is a part of her, and it never goes away. This is partly due to the fact that the object of her hatred, as one of her biological parents, is also a part of her; she knows this, and she hates that it is so. Everything that she hates about this person, reflects in some way on her, either because of their connection, or because of how it makes her feel. Which just makes her angrier.

That is hate. Hate is anger that lasts, and that never goes away. Violent, intense anger, anger that taints everything around it, including one’s own self: to have something or someone in your life that you hate would make you upset with yourself for feeling this way, particularly in this culture that teaches forgiveness and resolution and closure. My wife cannot force this to heal, cannot close this wound; and so it festers and aches and weeps. This, of course, intensifies her negative feelings, because then she feels saddened that she has to continue dealing with this, that she can’t find a way to get over it or get past it; and then she naturally blames the source of that hate for bringing these other terrible feelings on her, as well, for being so hate-worthy that now she has to carry all the rest of it along with the hate.

(A final note: she is right. That parent is worthy of hate. It’s the closest that I feel to hate, as well, because of what my wife has had to suffer, and continues to suffer. The cultural trope that my wife should forgive and forget is nothing but nonsense. That person does not deserve forgiveness. Those of you who may feel the urge to say that she should turn the other cheek, that her feelings are only hurting her and will go away if she forgives: shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.)

I have felt anger that made me want to do violence. I have felt it several times for a single person or event, so I think I have felt some level of hate; but my hate, my anger, has always faded, and I’ve always been able to feel better afterwards. That fact has enabled me to call myself a pacifist, to say that I oppose violence in all forms at all times. Because I have always been able to escape my desire to do violence, so I have the luxury of thinking that people can always do that, can always turn the other cheek and just – calm down. (Also, I have never had to fight for my safety or my life, and so I can think that people never really need to do that.) This has made me incapable of understanding people who are members of what we blithely call hate groups: why, I think, can’t they just calm down?

There’s two answers, there, because I think there is more than one type of member in a hate group. Probably there is a spectrum as broad as the number of people in the group, but there are two categories at least we can put them into, and should. One is the group that is actually, genuinely filled with hate: every time they encounter the object of their hatred – let’s say, every time a Neo-Nazi encounters a Jewish person, or every time a Klansman meets an African-American – they are filled with a rage that brings them to violence. That rage never fades; they carry it with them, everywhere, always. It is a part of them. It is possible that they are upset with themselves, and saddened, as my wife is, that they cannot simply let that rage go; I would wager that if they lose loved ones, family members or friends that turn a cold shoulder because of the Klansman’s/Neo-Nazi’s hate, that they wish that they could just let the hate go. But they can’t: and every negative feeling that gets piled on someone who hates, gets added to the list of reasons to hate. The object of the hate receives the full blame for all of the consequences of hate. The Klansman thinks, “If those [African-Americans] wouldn’t be so awful, then my life wouldn’t be so terrible. I hate them even more for making me hate them, and for screwing up my life with that hate.”

This kind of conflict cannot be reasoned with. It cannot be cajoled away. I don’t know that it always lasts for everyone who feels it; surely some people change. But I don’t think there is a pattern to that, not a process that can be prescribed to end real, violent, hate. I think the only thing that can be done about it is my wife’s solution: separation. She never sees the person she hates, and never intends to. It doesn’t make her feel better, it doesn’t make the hate go away; but it keeps her from becoming violent. It minimizes the occasions when she has to think about it. (And I have to say: as important as I think this topic is, I feel terrible that writing this is going to drag my wife back down into everything she feels about her family. I really am sorry. She will of course read this before it is published and so it is possible, if she wishes it, that no one else will ever read it.) That’s the best we can do with the people who feel genuine hatred.

But for the rest of them – probably, I think, the majority of them – what they feel is not hatred. For them, it’s more like me saying I hate when my students ask me the same question three times in a row (“When is this due?” “Friday. It says it on the board.” “Wait – when is it due?” “Friday.” “What’s due on Friday?” “I hate you.”). That does drive me crazy; but it doesn’t make me feel violent, and it doesn’t make me feel sad. I don’t even know that it makes me angry, as such.

I think the word for what I feel at those times is: contempt. Maybe disgust, but I think disgust has a visceral, nauseous element; disgust turns one’s stomach. Students not paying attention doesn’t turn my stomach. What it does do is make me smirk at them, and think mean things about how dumb they are – after all, why can’t they read the due date on the board, right over there? Why weren’t they listening when I explained this to them not thirty seconds ago? They must be idiots. They’re not, not really: I’ve been a teacher for 17 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a student that I would call an actual idiot; every single one of them was either capable of doing what I asked, or had a reason (such as autism or developmental disabilities) why they couldn’t do it. The majority of them have not done the majority of what I have asked, but not because they were idiots. When I think that, it is a dismissal, a belittling, created from my contempt.

That, I think, is what most members of hate groups actually feel for the object of their “hate.” Contempt. I think their ideas are about as valid as my contempt for my students when they don’t listen, and I’d guess that every instance of contempt is similarly unfounded; it may be that their contempt is, like mine, largely projected: I get mad at my students for not listening at least in part because I know full well that I never really listened to my teachers when I was in high school. My irritation with them is certainly some irritation with my past teenaged self, seen reflected in their slack jaws and dull eyes, so like my own. It’s also true that they are most distracted when my class is most boring, and I know that when it is boring, it is mostly my fault, not theirs (though I will note that often the boring things I teach are unavoidable: somebody has to explain commas and apostrophes and the passive voice); when I taught John Knowles’s terrible novel A Separate Peace, boredom was the appropriate response. Maybe even contempt.

But I’m not all that interested in trying to understand why Neo-Nazis feel what they feel, whether it is contempt or it is hatred; I don’t really care. There isn’t a way to feel hatred for an entire race that is justified the way my wife’s hatred is justified, because an entire race of people cannot be guilty of heinous acts towards a single person. Contempt for an entire race is also moronic, as my contempt for my students would be if it lasted more than a few seconds; but after they all know what the due date is, we go back to discussion of George Orwell, and they have intelligent and interesting things to say, and I realize they’re not at all idiots, and I was being a jerk when I thought they were. I don’t understand why Neo-Nazis and Klansmen don’t have that same realization. I kinda think they’re idiots. That is the biggest difference: my contempt is only momentary, and never very serious; a Neo-Nazi feels a long-term, maybe even a permanent contempt for the contemptuous object. Enough to make him willing to join the swastika crowd. The Neo-Nazis that aren’t idiots – and of course there are some such – either feel hate, or they are those who can be turned away from their hate groups, those people who make a friend of a different race and realize they maybe shouldn’t be marching in the hate parade.

Here’s what matters. Contempt can frequently be dismissed as unimportant, because it does not incite violence. Nobody wants to hit someone they feel contempt for; the object of contempt is too pathetic, too insignificant, to go through all that trouble. You might shove them out of your way, but you would never pursue them and beat them; you would never run them down with your car, or hang them from the nearest tree. Those are acts of hate. Hate, obviously, should not be dismissed as harmless. That is not to say that everyone who hates is violent or murderous; but the emotion creates the chance of violence, where contempt does not.

I think a lot of our treatment of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists is contemptuous. We make fun of them, we belittle them, we dismiss them. We feel contempt for them, because we think that all they feel for their victims is also contempt, so we don’t really worry about them doing harm. (Also: they’re idiots. I think.) By contrast, our treatment of terrorists is fearful: because we know that they feel hate, and therefore are they very dangerous. People who would set off a bomb in a crowded place are full of hate. People who would drive a car, or a plane, into innocents, are full of hate. And if and when we see white supremacists marching, at night, carrying torches, chanting “BLOOD AND SOIL!” we recognize that as more than contempt: that is hate. You watch video of police officers setting attack dogs on civil rights protesters, it is clear: that is hate. Hate, genuine hate, must be treated as something dangerous, because it is. Treating a person filled with hate as if they only felt contempt would make us vulnerable; we can turn our backs on people who feel contempt. We can get up in their faces during a rally, we can yell at them, we can follow them playing “Ride of the Valkyries” on a tuba. We can laugh at people who feel contempt. It is dangerous to treat those who hate as if they only feel contempt. That is the first mistake we have made in the past, and hopefully, the events of Charlottesville will remind us that ignoring, dismissing, belittling those who actually hate is never going to make them go away. For them, we must make them go away: we must enforce separation. Which probably means law enforcement.

But here’s the thing. When we treat those who only feel contempt as if they actually feel hate, that is ineffective, too. Because it isn’t justified: a guy who makes racist jokes doesn’t need to be on an FBI terror watch list. Some putz who hangs a Nazi flag on his house, or a Confederate flag on his truck, doesn’t need to be treated as if he is about to explode into violence. And if you confront that person and say, “You’re full of hate!” in whatever way you say that, they will say, “No, I’m not. I don’t hate anybody. I just think racist jokes are funny, and the Confederacy fought for Southern pride and state’s rights.” They may say, “I have plenty of [black/Jewish/female] friends.” And maybe they do, though I think it is hard to be friendly with someone for whom you also feel contempt. But regardless, they do not feel hate. They can reasonably deny any label that they are members of a hate group, or that they are a violent threat to a civil society. If you try to force that label on them, they can turn it around and call you intolerant, and a bigot; they can call you Communist or antifa or the alt-left. They can claim that you are limiting their freedom of speech by keeping them from speaking on your college campus. They can take the moral high ground. Then they can argue for greater freedom for their groups and their causes – and then that means greater freedom for the members of those groups and causes who actually feel hate, who are genuinely dangerous.

Then you get Charlottesville.

So the issue is, we have to make a distinction between those who feel contempt, and those who feel hate. And we have to treat them differently. The hateful must be watched, and prevented from doing harm; the contemptuous we should ignore.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in my plans for how to fix all of this. I do not know how to discern hate from contempt; they probably blend together for the observer, they may both be present in the same person. No reason why a Neo-Nazi couldn’t feel contemptuous of Jews and hate African-Americans, for instance. Or feel contempt for African-Americans and hate black policemen, specifically. A contemptuous person may get angry and sound just like someone full of hate, even if that feeling fades quickly, where it wouldn’t in someone who genuinely hates. But I do think that we will make more progress, and have better results, if we treat the two categories differently when it is clear which is which. That crying Nazi who got banned from OKCupid, for instance? That dude is not full of hate. A man who hated non-whites would hate them more after they got him banned from Tinder. He might lie about it, of course; but I think he probably would not cry.

Though maybe that thought is coming from my own contempt.

I hate that.

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