A brief history of hate

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
       Robert Frost, 1920

As a fairly regular user of Twitter, I frequently encounter contributors whose main motivation is clearly a desire to express their hatred of someone or something. They are not of course blazing some new trail. The Bible, classical Greek history, the Middle Ages – all are full of tales of hate and revenge, of senseless feuds and vendettas. Hatred is a recurring theme of Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed the literature of most countries. It came to define a key part of the last century.

Hate is not new. But what has changed is that it has found a much more accessible platform in today’s social media and it is changing who we are, just a little. It motivates voters, it frames argument (even intellectual argument), it feeds conspiracy theories, it destroys reason.

I’m not sure Frost is right, however; at least not about our current age. The hate of the 20th century may have been ice cold, but today’s burns with trivial passion fuelled by inconsequential bitterness. In the academic world, we would do well to keep alive the flame of reason. It is what we are there for.

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5 Comments on “A brief history of hate”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    “I’m not sure Frost is right, however; at least not about our current age. The hate of the 20th century may have been ice cold, but today’s burns with trivial passion fuelled by inconsequential bitterness.”

    I think for Frost it was not an either/or, he knows that for distruction ice is *also* great and in saying that he is alluding to that curious correspondence that exists between opposites, fire and ice, love and hate, after all his awareness of hate stems from what he tasted of desire..

    Also, I’m not sure I would characterise today’s hate as burning “with trivial passion fuelled by inconsequential bitterness”, as opposed to good old fashion hate of the Greeks or the Bible, hate is a human emotion (often understood in evolutionary terms for the purpose of self-preservation) and not a univocal one, in fact psychologists describe it as a cocktail of grief, fear, disgust, rage and resentment.

    When it comes to discussions of hate and social media, it is useful to remember that similar debates played out over content that was delivered via the cutting-edge communication medium of the day, in the 60s for example it was the telephone. Tape recorders connected to phone lines around the US played political messages to anyone willing to spare a couple of minutes and the cost of a local call. Word of such services spread quickly by word of mouth and through printed advertisements, and the worst of the messages quickly earned the nickname “dial-a-hate.” Phone companies at the time stated that it was not their business to police hate on their lines, expressing a similar view to the one held today by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. As media scholars have often observed there is a very familiar pattern with new communication tools, from the printing press to radio to social media, people first celebrate the technology for making it easier than ever to communicate and share ideas, then lament how the technology is used to propagate hateful and distasteful messages.

    Today’s hate is not fuelled by trivial passion, quite to the contrary what fuels it is more significant than that, hate functions like a Geiger counter, it signals serious disruptions of the social fabric or where cultural beliefs are under the most stress — whether it be from a new awareness of inequality, diversity or the radical redefining of gender. There are three types of actions that can be taken to counter hate on social media and the internet more generally: legal enforcement, content moderation, and education (school/universities) the latter is where the ‘flame of reason’, as you put it, should keep on burning.


    • Interesting assessment. I think I’d probably distinguish between disaffection (in turn producing dissent, populist election victories etc) and personal hate that seems to be based on nothing much at all. You are right, there was ‘dial-a-hate’, and indeed there was road rage, and so on. But today’s rage is often instant, personal, groundless, and often poisons discourse where reason would be so much more productive. It’s not just online, but often face to face – like discourtesy between strangers on the street.

      Of course maybe I’m just getting older and observing the clichés of old age. Maybe my next post will be on youthful-looking police persons. 🙂 Although of course they’ll also be unnecessarily angry …

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        “But today’s rage is often instant, personal, groundless, and often poisons discourse where reason would be so much more productive.”
        Ah, if only we would always do what is most ‘productive’, and dictated by reason! Wouldn’t it be boring though? Human emotions cannot always be repressed and swept away, they need to be acknowledged in order to cope with them.
        I suspect that until we characterise today’s hate as ‘groundless’ (even when expressed at personal level) we won’t be able to address its root causes, in my mind it is not groundless at all, it is a response (obviously a morally objectionable one) to what are perceived as unacceptable disruptions in (often nostalgically held) cultural beliefs.
        Look forward to the next post!


        • I suspect you’re right, Anna. Understanding anger and hate in the public sphere is one of the challenges we must face up to.

          As for the next post, no idea yet… 🙂 Youthful looking police might have to be photographic.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I think there are a few aspects to this.
    One, the more people vent the less festering of problems.
    Two, a problem get to be seen as a problem much quicker.
    Three, administrators tend to drag their feet and the tools to view/douse the mood of the people are now useless because margins of error can be as much as 20%, so to cover swings.
    Four, swings can cross in a very short time and so can be nudged. For the quicker the swing the easier to quicken it further.
    Five, where problems are allowed to fester the ‘but for the grace of God there go I’ kicks in and the larger the number that connect the larger the swing and the greater the danger to a stable system. See, Boston Lincolnshire, where an issue easily solved with an increase of basic infrastructure to reflect numbers was allowed to become rancid.
    Six, the old game of closing people out, thereby retaining the decision making and preventing it from being changed by dirty democracy, doesn’t last very long.
    And of course Six.1, the people that content their opinion has a greater import and so it should be taken as holy writ get a bit screechy and start demanding legislation to control the dirty plebs.


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