Learning to Hate

Norway’s national tragedy this week can be described as a hate crime. Whatever the details turn out to be, the perpetrator has made statements describing himself and others as persecuted and overrun by people “different” from himself. This is the pattern in all such acts of terror and destruction, where individuals excuse their deeds by blaming the “bad” other people.

It is not only grownups who hate others. Little children are born with the capacities to love and to hate. It is up to adults to help them use their loving feelings to contain and master the impulses to hurt. We can even tell toddlers how “I will remember how much you love me and I love you even when you are so angry that you cannot remember your love. You’re not allowed to hurt me or anyone else, but we will try to use your anger to tell us there’s a problem to fix. Then your loving feelings will bounce back and you will feel good about yourself.”

The emotional muscles of turning an angry state into a signal feeling and holding on to love are crucial building blocks of self-control and good self-esteem throughout childhood and adult life.

When people don’t feel good about themselves, they may try to dump that feeling out on to others. As psychoanalysts we often meet troubled people who have used externalization as a solution to problems instead of taking responsibility for changing themselves so they will feel better. Then they set up a vicious circle of blaming and seeing evil ‘out there’ to justify their own bad actions. They never have to change. And their perceptions of others get more and more skewed in the direction of seeing enemies everywhere or in particular targeted groups.

When people have been genuinely persecuted or discriminated against they have three choices. They can seek revenge in persecuting others, speaking in hostile ways about other people and groups, spreading false information and perpetuating stereotypes, or, in the extreme cases, committing hate crimes. They can turn their rage against themselves and destroy their own productivity and happiness. Or they can use their bad experiences to make sure no one suffers as they have.

When children or their families have been victims, they need our help to learn not to hate or victimize others. Many school systems have excellent curricula for teaching tolerance. But tolerance begins at home, with parents having the emotional muscle to admit faults and failures in themselves and others, model how we all keep trying through life to do a better job, and supporting realistic self-esteem through competence. Hate is not a solution.

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