Are you a tax-raising, soy latte-drinking, Prius-driving, New York Times-reading, Daily Show-watching, corporation-hating liberal?
The last thing that I do every night is watch the news shows on TV, and listen to the pundits discuss and debate the issues of the day. And the first thing that I do in the morning, after pouring myself a mug of coffee, is sit down in a comfy chair and read the news. I’ve noticed that ever since the abortive “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, during which members of the so-called alt-right, kitted out with swastika flags and Ku Klux Klan regalia, marched through that little college town chanting neo-Nazi slogans, the topic of hate has been high on the media agenda.
More specifically, the idea of fighting against hate has had a lot of traction in the public sphere. Visiting the Forbes website this morning, the first thing I laid eyes on was an op-ed by Ann Latham entitled “Fighting the Good Fight – Against Hate.” Next, my attention was drawn to a link which, when I clicked it, took me to an article on the Southern Poverty Law Center website entitled “Ten Ways to Fight Hate.” And there was more in the same vein: an article describing how thousands “marched against hate” in San Diego and another about a Black Lives Matter march against hate that took place on the same day, as well as several others.
Conceptualizing our current political situation as a fight against hate paints a distorted picture of what we’re up against. It’s a no-brainer that if you want to take effective action against something, you’ve got to understand what that thing is and how it works. This principle applies to political action as much as it does to anything else. Conceiving of the present struggle as a fight against hate greatly underestimates the ideological wellsprings of right-wing extremism.
For starters, the idea of fighting hate doesn’t make any sense. When people fight, they fight other people—but hate isn’t a person or anything like a person. It’s an emotionally charged attitude: an attitude of passionate dislike. You disapprove of hate and seek to eliminate it, as you can of any other attitude, but you can’t literally fight it. So perhaps the vaunted fight against hate should be understood as a metaphorical fight.
The problem with this approach is that disapproving of hate and trying to eliminate it isn’t a very good idea. It’s drilled into us from preschool onward that hate is bad and love is good. We’re supposed to embrace love and renounce hate. But this perspective is a flawed one, because love and hate aren’t good or bad all on their own. Their goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness, depends on what it is that’s being loved or hated. It’s good to hate injustice, or cruelty, or indifference to the suffering of others, and it’s bad to love these things. So there are good hates and there are bad loves.
It follows from this that saying that you disapprove of hate, and want to rid the world of it, is nowhere near specific enough. It’s just an empty phrase. And even if you flesh the statement out—for example, by making it explicit that you are talking about eliminating racist or xenophobic hate—this would still be misleading, for a couple of reasons. One is that attitudes like hate are not ghostly, disembodied entities—they are attitudes had by people and embodied in their actions. The counter-protest in Charlottesville wasn’t a protest against an attitude: it was a protest against a group of people who seemed to embody that attitude—it was a protest against a “hate group” consisting of flesh-and-blood human beings.
This brings me to my final, and, I think most significant, worry about characterizing opposition to so-called alt-right groups as opposition to hate. According to the FBI, hate groups are groups whose "primary (italics added) purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization." But if we take this definition seriously, its upshot is that there are hardly any hate groups, because hate is far from being the raison d’etre for most of these outfits.
In fact, even the Nazis—the original German ones—didn’t conform to the FBI definition of hate group. Nazis are nowadays associated with the most depraved kind of hatred—a pure culture of the most toxic hate imaginable. But if you were member of the National Socialist Party in, say, 1939 (the date is arbitrary) this characterization would be far removed from your experience. As the historian Claudia Koonz points out in her book The Nazi Conscience, Nazi ideology was attractive because it “supplied answers to life’s imponderables, providing meaning in the face of contingency, and explained the way the world works. It also defined good and evil, condemning self-interest as immoral and enshrining altruism as virtuous.” Furthermore, the appeal of Hitler’s potent rhetoric was not based on unbridled hate. “Hitler,” she continues,
…heard Germans’ hunger for a government they could trust and a national purpose they could believe in. From his earliest days as a political orator he addressed that longing. In phrases that his opponents ridiculed as empty and his followers heard as inspirational, Hitler promised to rescue old-fashioned values of honor and dignity from the materialism, degeneracy, and cosmopolitanism of modern life. His supporters’ list of grievances was long, and their anxieties ran deep.
If you think of the Nazis as embodiments of hate, you fail to understand them, and the same can be said of the doctrines of their homegrown American imitators. As the Nazi example teaches us, this doesn’t make them any less deplorable or dangerous. If you think—as I do—that the movement exemplified by the Charlottesville gathering is a threat to liberal democracy, and if you believe that it’s vital to unravel it, then it’s crucial to have a real understanding of those beliefs and commitments that knit these people together. To do that, repeating the mantra of “Hate! Hate! Hate!” just won’t cut it.