Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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WHY DO WE HATE?

Sermon given by Rev. Emily Burr on 5/7/06

at Kearsarge UU Fellowship

Why do people hate? Not just get angry but really hate someone or something.  What is it we mean by “hate”?  How is it different from “anger”?  Webster’s Dictionary defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure or animosity” and hate as ”an intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger or a sense of injury.” One on-line dictionary definitions “hate” as “a feeling of dislike so strong that it demands action” (wordnet.princeton.edu) another defines it as “a desire to avoid, restrict, remove, or destroy its object.” (Wikipedia) (emphasis added).  

Human beings are animals, but we seem to be the only animals that hate enough to kill one another for reasons other than direct physical threat to our lives or the lives of those we love.  I had a cat, Alexa, for six years who was the queen of all she surveyed . . . until I was convinced to take in an older cat, Ana.  Alexa was not pleased!  She was angry at the new cat who I had hoped would be a pleasant companion for her.  Alexa avoided Ana whenever possible and if Ana managed to get too close, Alexa would hiss and occasionally take a swipe at her, but, as much as she disliked this interloper with whom she was forced to live, she did not try to kill Ana.  What makes humans different? Why can we be driven to a hatred that brings us to the point where we torture and kill other human beings?  Why do people, who must live in occupied territories, become suicide bombers who kill the people they see as interlopers? 

In his book, Why We Hate, Rush Dozier sites scientific evidence of brain activity to explain the origins of human hate.  Human brains are different than those of other animals.  Research has shown that a highly developed part of our brain called the amygdala plays a major role in violent rage and hate.  Other animals besides humans have an amygdala, but in less complex brains the amygdala is not as connected to other parts of the brain as it is in humans.  After operations that deactivate the amygdala, uncontrollably aggressive monkeys become tame and docile, other animals coexist peacefully with natural enemies – vicious dogs coexist peacefully with cats, and cats with mice.  The amygdala in humans is part of our highly complex limbic system. This part of our nervous system is key in human emotions and automatic responses.  A person’s amygdala is linked to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.  Interestingly, our amygdala is also linked to the area in our speech center that controls obscenities.  It is because of this link that some of us swear when we hit our thumb with a hammer.  This link is also the reason that hateful rage often includes extensive use of obscenities. 

Although this part of our brain is extremely important it does not dominate our behavior as it does in other animals.  In humans who experience brain damage to the amygdala, emotions are diminished but not completely eliminated. The most advanced part of the human brain, the neocortex, contains the orbitofrontal cortex that is a bridge between the newer and the more primitive emotional centers of our brain, including the amygdala.  This bridge allows humans to bring together our emotions and the higher functions of our brains that enable us to make meaning and to reason.

Humans are not born with instincts that help us survive by telling us how to find or build our shelters, or what we should eat.  Instead the meaning we make of our experiences drives not only our behaviors, but our thoughts and emotions.  We derive much of this meaning from cultural information we receive in childhood and throughout our lives.

I found Dozier’s book absolutely fascinating.  I recommend it to anyone who would like more background, examples, and scientific detail than I can possible give in a sermon.  One particular passage from Dozier’s book helped me understand how all this neurobiology can facilitate our understanding of why people hate.  He writes,

 

Meaning rather than instinct is so overwhelmingly important to our species – and to our distinctive toolmaking cultures – that our limbic system has evolved a powerful tendency to blindly interpret any meaning system that we deeply believe in as substantially enhancing our survival and reproduction. Someone who wholeheartedly converts to a particular religion or political ideology, for example, is likely to experience strong primal feelings of joy and well being coupled with an exiting new sense of purpose. This is true even if the belief system has elements that are bizarre or self-destructive.  Because of this unusual feature of the human brain, strongly held meaning systems are capable of decoupling our behavior from the objective criteria of survival and reproduction. If a particular group’s strongly held meaning system calls on it’s members to be celibate and suicidal, their primitive brain areas will tend to presume that this is the best way to ensure their survival and reproduction, even though rationally, of course, it is not.  At the end of WWII, there was no lack of kamikaze pilots willing to die by crashing their explosive-laden aircraft into American warships. These young Japanese airmen were guided by a meaning system centered on emperor-worship, which placed a high value on dying for the emperor.

The immense significance of meaning to human beings and its distinctive link in our species to the primitive emotional centers of the brain lay the groundwork for a primary source of hatred: fanaticism and intolerance. Lacking specific instincts, humans have no innate identity. It is meaning systems that provide us with our personal sense of meaning and purpose.  The tremendous emotional commitment we tend to make to these systems leaves us vulnerable to interpreting differences in meaning as threats to our survival and reproduction. Many of the most savage conflicts in history have involved quarrels over religious, political and cultural systems of meaning. (pg 12)

 

We hate because we feel at the deepest levels of our psyche that we are being threatened.  It is easier to understand a person’s hate when they or their loved ones are directly threatened with harm but harder to understand hate and violence when it is directed at a person or group that is not a direct threat to someone’s physical wellbeing.  Challenges to our belief system, our way of making meaning for our lives, can evoke the powerful primal fight or flight response.  The same advances that link our primal responses to our meaning systems are also what allow us to overcome these responses.  We are not at the mercy of the fight or flight response or the primitive part of our neural system that allows only for generalizations.

Hate thrives when we lose the individuality of the members of a group.  We have an innate tendency, called the binary instinct, to divide the world into us and them. It is a way for us to create “order in a world otherwise overwhelming in flux and detail,” according to Harvard biologist Edward Wilson.  The combination of generalization and us-them mentality interferes with our ability to empathize with those in the “them” group.  This lack of empathy is one of the most surprising and disturbing aspects of hate.  It is what allows humans to engage gleefully in cruelty and torture.  Our ability to reason can overcome this innate tendency.  In a recent article in the Globe, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan contends that the language of neuroscience is not enough.  We will always need to include morality meaning and love when discussing psychological reasons for human behavior.  Scientific information about the functions of the brain cannot alone guide our morality.  Our ability to judge right and wrong, and the systems of meaning and morality that we create can be used to combat hate in ourselves and in others.

One important way we can work against hate is to do all we can to deconstruct the us-them dichotomy.  Getting to know individuals in the other group can counteract the dichotomy that creates dehumanization.  When we get to know an individual and can see how that person is like us, we can empathize with them and our hatred of them as one of the “other” can dissipate.  This was the thinking behind the program that brought Catholic and Protestant youth from Ireland to live, work and play together here in New London over several summers.  Social psychologists have discovered that working with others to achieve a common goal builds trust and helps eliminate the us-them dichotomy. 

We can help create nonjudgmental safe environments for children who so easily absorb and incorporate into their meaning systems the environment around them.  If they are raised in an environment full of violence, abuse and stress, some children are more likely to develop into adults who are quick to overreact to perceived threats with fear, anger, hatred and violence. Other children from these environments may become adults who underreact to threats, including societal punishments.  These are the children who can become violent sociopaths with no empathy for their victims and no fear of any consequences.  I was dismayed by the news of parents who are suing the town of Lexington, Massachusetts because a second grade teacher read King and King to her class without informing parents in advance.  King and King is a fairy tale in which a prince passes up several princesses and falls in love with another prince.  School Superintendent Paul Ash said in a written statement, "The Lexington School system is committed to creating an environment that is warm and welcoming to everyone. Lexington is a diverse community that respects all of its students and parents.”  We can support school systems and families in their efforts to create such environments.

I found this a particularly difficult sermon to write.  Many of my sermons come out of my own experience.  I have been angry with different people in my life at various times, even very angry, but I have not recognized hate as an emotion I have felt.  I have been scared of certain groups of people who want the world or my country to be very different from what I envision the world or my country could be but I do not hate them.  I do not want to destroy them.  I hope they fail in their attempts.  I would like to change their minds, but I don’t hate them.  I know there are people who hate other individuals or groups of people.  It is challenging for me to understand those who hate.  In preparing this sermon I wondered why and how this powerful negative emotion has not been part of my experience.  One thought that crossed my mind was that perhaps I have not experienced hate because I have just ignored, denied or otherwise buried the hate I feel.  I know I am not as in touch with my emotions as I could be.  Who is?  But I don’t think I have unacknowledged hatred hidden inside me.  Is it because I am naïve and think the best of people who I might hate?  I don’t believe that either.  I think there are two components to my lack of experience with hate.  One is that I have led a very privileged life.  My physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing have not been severely threatened.  Neither I nor my family nor my culture has been oppressed by another group of people to the point where my life or welfare has been in danger.

The other reason I think hate has not been something I have experienced is that my belief system is open and accepting of other possible meaning systems.  Belief systems that are narrow and rigid are too easily threatened and those with such belief systems are more open to hate.  It does matter not only what we believe but how we believe.  Those of us who are open and flexible in our beliefs are less likely to feel our belief systems are threatened and so are less open to hate.

Like the leaky bucket in the story for all ages, we are imperfect vessels.  Our physical human brains and bodies have inherent weaknesses.  However, the same complexities of the human brain that make hate a human reality are also what give us the opportunity and ability to overcome hatred.  This imperfect brain of ours can come up with a moral system like the nine commandments in our Words for Reflection that can guide us to overcome the hate our physiology and our culture can produce.  Let us rejoice in our complexities and strive to overcome the hate we find in our world. 

 

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