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Politics and the Anatomy of Hate

In 1990 the former dissident, playwright and president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, delivered a speech  on “The Anatomy of Hate.”

“People who hate, at least those I have known, harbor a permanent, irradicable feeling of injury, a feeling that is, of course, out of all proportion to reality,” according to Havel. He went on to say:

In the subconsciousness of haters there slumbers a perverse feeling that they alone possess the truth, that they are some kind of superhumans or even gods, and thus deserve the world’s complete recognition, even its complete submissiveness and loyalty, if not its blind obedience. They want to be the centre of the world and are constantly frustrated and irritated because the world does not accept and recognize them as such; indeed, it may not even pay any attention to them, and perhaps it even ridicules them.

Havel then widens the aperture in order to deal with collective hatred. “Anyone who hates an individual is almost always capable of succumbing to group hatred or even of spreading it,” Havel warned. “I would even say that group hatred be it religious, ideological or doctrinal, social, national or any other kind is a kind of funnel that ultimately draws into itself everyone disposed toward hatred.”

There are many states of mind that create the almost unnoticeable antecedents to potential hatred, according to Havel, “a wide and fertile field on which the seeds of hatred will quickly germinate and take root.” They include situations in which genuine injustice has been done, the capacity of the human species to (carelessly) generalize, and the awareness of the “otherness” among people of different backgrounds and cultures. Havel concludes his speech by warning that “the corner of the world I came from could become – if we do not maintain vigilance and common sense – fertile soil in which collective hatred could Fortunately in America today the kind of collective hatred Havel warns about hasn’t really taken root. But his words are nonetheless worth reflecting on in the context of modern American politics. The reason is simple: politics often stirs up intense feelings. This makes perfect sense, given that it involves issues of power and consent, liberty and order, rights and duties, ethics and morality. A huge amount, including our way of life, hinges on how political matters resolve themselves. People are right to feel strongly about these things.

But we all know that political passions can, under certain circumstances and with some people, give way to hatred. I was reminded of this in reading a New York Times Magazine profile of Keith Olbermann, an influential progressive who is about to return to television at Current TV.

After his stormy exit from MSNBC, we’re told Olbermann spent “months nursing grudges on Twitter and plotting his return.” Olbermann’s checkered employment history “is of a piece with his reflexive on-air aggression.” He is “perpetually angry” and “perpetually aggrieved.” Say anything he doesn’t like and he will “fill you and anyone near you with all manner of weaponized rhetoric.” And the first order of business for Olbermann in his new professional home is to “find a suitable enemy, something he is good at.”

“Olbermann is himself an ideologue,” the author of the profile, David Carr, says, “a man who never met a shade of gray he liked and who believes his opponents are evil.”

To be sure, Olbermann is a particularly malicious figure, but his is also a cautionary tale. Vigorous debate, colliding worldviews, and even fierce advocacy are one thing; hatred is quite another. Hatred is easy enough to spot in our adversaries; it’s a good deal more difficult to see it among our allies (where we may pass it off as fiery passion). And it’s hardest of all to see when hate begins to take root in our own heart, which is often divided against itself.

We shouldn’t be naïve about this. Politics won’t ever be confused with a garden party. Even during America’s most impressive political days, when figures like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Adams and Hamilton bestrode the scene, politics roiled people’s emotions. Savage accusations were made. Motives were questioned. Duels were fought. I get all that. But that doesn’t mean hatred in politics doesn’t take a toll on our nation or on those who harbor the hatred.

What’s needed, at least in part, is for political leaders to set the right tone, including calling out one’s own side when it’s warranted. I’m reminded of a story Mitch Daniels tells about Ronald Reagan. According to Daniels, “When one of us – I confess sometimes it was yours truly – got a little hotheaded, President Reagan would admonish us, ‘Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.’”

Reagan himself was on the receiving end of many slanders, yet he remained a model of graciousness and good manners. Those qualities, by the way, never caused him to hollow out his political principles. Civility was not a synonym for weakness. And there’s one other thing that can act as a check on weaponized rhetoric: self-interest. Election defeats and low ratings – and perhaps being consigned to an obscure cable channel like Current TV – will work better than sermons.

We will always have Olbermann-like figures among us. The question is how much they dominate the discourse. So in the end, we have to strive to keep infertile the soil in which hatred can grow. Self-government depends on treating our fellow citizens, even those with whom we profoundly disagree, without malice and even, on occasion, with some measure of charity. “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,” the book of Ecclesiastes says, “for anger resides in the lap of fools.”

As someone who has been involved in his share of contentious debates during the years, I’m the first to admit that a spirit of grace isn’t always easy to attain and a gentle answer isn’t always the easiest one to provide. But during my better moments, I realize it’s important we try.



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