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Understanding Hate

Why do people hate? How do they disregard, reject, antagonize, and even kill others they know little about and have never met?

Sociologists point out that the meaning of hate has shifted from “intense dislike” to active disdain and contempt for large groups of people. Hate is spreading and intensifying. Liberals hate “Trumpsters” and Trump supporters hate liberals. Environmentalist hate polluters and visa versa. It seems like everybody hates somebody and we wonder why we can’t work together to solve our problems.

How did this happen? What can we do about it?

Exploring why we hate and how it became infused in our culture might point us in a direction where we can see a way out of it.

Hate starts with fear. It deepens through blame, and gets cemented in our hearts by lumping people into single broad categories with a label that triggers dislike, disdain, and disgust.

Seeds of hate begin to germinate in fear of loss or harm. Racism in the South took root after the Civil War when poor whites were told that newly freed slaves would undermine their already limited sense of security.

Trump supporters fear that liberals will undermine the foundation of freedom and democracy and liberals fear that Trump supporters will do the same. Using fear as a political tactic has a long history but it began to set deep roots in the 1960's. It became more prevalent in the 80's and was fine-tuned in the 90's as it’s effectiveness in creating a dependable voter base was recognized. Now it’s a smooth operating

machine. A single well-researched word is enough to trigger disgust toward someone we are taught to see as “them.”

The entertainment industry saw fear as an effective way to get and keep our attention. Violence and conflict began to dominate the screens that grab and keep us fixated on a two-dimensional reality. News has always emphasized the negative, but in the past three decades it’s become adversarial and even downright nasty.

Fear is our most primal emotion. Survival depends on it. Fear is an automatic reaction to the perception of a threat to our health and well-being. Fear in nature is short-term - things return to normal when the threat has passed. Fear in the 21st century is constant - especially to the extent our attention is fixated on screens used to keep us engaged.

Prolonged fear based on repeated fear-based messages locks our thinking into reacting to threats, real and imaginary, distant and diffuse. Our focus becomes more self-centered and oriented to safety and security. We seek control and certainty, adopt an adversarial mindset, and think in terms of win/lose, for/against. Our perception narrows and becomes fragmented as we scan for potential danger and worry that we won’t have or be enough to be able to “make it.” I call it Fear Based Thinking (FBT). There are five features that can be summarized by the acronym SCANS - Self-centered, the need for Control and Certainty, an Adversarial mentality, a Narrow and fragmented perception, and a Scarcity mindset.

Fear Based Thinking (FBT) gradually shrinks our awareness and limits our ability to process information that doesn’t match increasingly rigid beliefs and biases. FBT draws those afraid of losing power and privilege to use hate as a tactic while it produces fertile ground for seeds of hate in the rest of us.

Fear draws us to take action. Blaming others provides a sense of control and certainty - if we could get rid of “them” our problems would be solved. We would be safe and have enough if it weren’t for “them.” Fear makes us vulnerable. Hate gives us a temporaty feeling of power. Fear makes us feel helpless. Hate makes us feel like we’re doing something. Hate provides an outlet for built up tension by identifying an enemy we can loathe. It furnishes an explanation for our fears while providing a sense of agency and a feeling of power and control.

Hate toward an out-group provides a band-aid for an essential human need that becomes even more important when we’re in a state of fear - the need for belonging. Working together against someone brings a sense of connection that’s increasingly missing in a world dominated by screens. Of course, belonging-by-exclusion is not true belonging - we only belong to the extent we hold the same beliefs. The underlying fear of rejection keeps us from asking questions or thinking for ourselves as our biases become more rigid and resistant to change.

Most of the fear that dominates our awareness is man-made. It comes from messages intentionally produced by people who profit by getting and keeping our attention and support. Hate will dissipate when we recognize and reject those messages and learn to transform fear into genuine caution, care, and concern. It involves a process of opening our hearts and minds to each other.

Hate can’t survive in an open heart and can’t be justified with an open mind. Opening our hearts and minds involves restoring and maintaining balance and trying to understand each other in an atmosphere of respect, interest, curiosity, and humility. Courageous Conversations Rhode Island has developed a training and support process to help us do just that. The initial round has been completed and the next step is the Ripple Effect - bringing Courageous Conversations into your workplace, community organization, school, library, or club. Please click on this link for more information and share it with anyone who might be interested in learning how to counter hate and divisiveness.

Bob Van Oosterhout is a Masters Level Psychologist and Licensed Masters Social Worker in Dexter, Michigan and is the author of Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension. His website is He can be reached at


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