“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela
In 2014, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann conducted a cross-cultural study of people with schizophrenia who experienced auditory hallucinations, such as hearing “voices.” Not all people reported having the same experiences, however. People in Ghana and India said that their voices tended to be positive and benign, even playful and entertaining, and that these voices often came from God, spirits, or family members. By contrast, Americans said that their voices tended to be more violent and hateful, and they were more likely to perceive the condition as a disease. Luhrmann proposed that Americans’ emphasis on individual autonomy could predispose them to seeing voices as an “intrusion” on their self, whereas Ghanaians and Indians were more likely to interpret their voices as relationships.
The point is that culture can have profound effects, even for a condition like schizophrenia. There is a tendency in a biomedical model to perceive health and diseases solely as physiological conditions, but it is important to remember that we are situated in a grander context beyond just the individual body. Something similar may happen with inebriation. As Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton wrote: the way that people in any society “comport themselves when they are drunk is determined not by alcohol’s toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society has taught them” (1969: 165). Just as patterns around alcohol consumption itself may be socially molded (how much to drink, and where and when), so is behavior while intoxicated. There is no single way for a brain to respond to schizophrenia or intoxication; rather, they are influenced by the ecology of ideas in which they find themselves. Ideas seep in.
In the United States, the current ecology of ideas appears to be growing angrier compared to past decades. People are pretty polarized. In the last two decades, divisions between political parties in the have widened steadily, with the majority of Democrats and Republicans seeing each other “very unfavorably” by 2016. I don’t know today’s exact numbers, but I’m pretty certain that this polarization has grown since then. Worse still, 45% of Republicans said that Democratic policies “threatened the nation” in 2016 (up from 37% in 2014), while 41% of Democrats saw GOP policies as a threat (up from 31%). Again, I would guess these divisions are even greater today than in 2016.
Political violence in the U.S. also seems to have increased. In the past few months, politicians and pundits have argued over whether the behavior of Democrats protesting and publicly confronting elected officials is tantamount to that of a mob. One man was arrested after threatening to kill journalists at the Boston Globe for a coordinated editorial that criticized President Trump. Another man in California tried to stab Republican candidate Rudy Peters. Right-wing organizations have been filmed beating people in the streets, with some of their leaders publicly advocating violence. Then, of course, came the bombs that were mailed to at least ten Democrats and people who have drawn the ire of President Trump, including former President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and CNN, allegedly by an outspoken Trump supporter in Florida. The FBI reported that hate crimes have also risen significantly in the past few years. A white man in Kentucky killed two black people in a grocery store, minutes after trying to enter a Black church. And then there was the horrific shooting deaths of at least eleven people in a synagogue in Pennsylvania, targeted by a man (again, white) with a lengthy history of anti-Semitism. Journalists have been body-slammed, harassed, attacked, called “enemies of the people,” even murdered. This list is incomplete, but things are pretty messed up right now.
I’m trying to find some reasons to be optimistic for the future, even though it is not very easy. Perhaps I’m writing this precisely because it’s not easy. I think it’s important to remember the spirit of Mandela’s quote above, that hatreds don’t simply come out of nowhere. Rather, they have to be developed, stoked, or fomented. In other words, we should remember the time dimension here – which isn’t always easy, given that time if often invisible to us – rather than deluding ourselves into thinking that today’s animosities are eternal, fixed, and irreversible. Of course, it will take an enormous effort to repair them.
I’ve written before that it makes sense that as a social primate species humans evolved with some basic emotional and cognitive abilities to allow us to navigate our social environments and to help us form bonds with others. However, as is true of virtually everything, all paths have tradeoffs, and there are downsides to social bonds too. For one, we tend to think that the bonds and social networks that we are closest too are more important than others’ bonds. Sometimes there can be clashing interests, even violence, between social networks (gangs, nations, religions, fans of different football teams, tribes, etc.). But I think these clashes are historically particular, not an automatic given. Evidence suggests that empathy with others’ suffering comes fairly easily to us, even if the other person comes from an “other” group. The exception is when historical animosities and biases developed over time preclude that empathy. Yet, if animosities can be developed, then it stands to reason that they can be reversed as well.
Contagious Ideas and Behaviors
Whether bad or good, ideas and behaviors can be contagious. The pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who successfully landed his damaged plane on the Hudson river, saving the lives of over 150 people wrote that “I am often told how calm I sounded speaking to passengers, crew and air traffic control during the emergency. In every situation, but especially challenging ones, a leader sets the tone and must create an environment in which all can do their best. You get what you project. Whether it is calm and confidence — or fear, anger and hatred — people will respond in kind. Courage can be contagious.”
Likewise, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler (2007) found that obesity can also, in a way, be contagious, spreading throughout a social network. In the longitudinal Framingham Heart Study, they found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if they had a friend who became obese in the last three decades.
I think it’s important to remember that ideas, beliefs, and behaviors are tethered together. As Karl Schiebe (1970) wrote years ago: “What a person does (his behavior) depends upon what he wants (his values) and what he considers to be true or likely (his beliefs) about himself and the world (his psychological society).” There may not be a straight one-to-one relationship, but they are correlated. In his 2017 book “Behave,” Robert Sapolsky offered a sort of nested hierarchy of causality when it comes to the many variables affecting behavior. All are necessary. None may be sufficient:
“A behavior has just occurred. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurobiological one. What went on in that person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Now pull out to a slightly larger field of vision… What sight, sound, or smell in the previous seconds to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior? … What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that trigger the nervous system to produce the behavior? And by now you’ve increased your field of vison to be thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and short-term endocrinology in trying to explain what happened.
And you just keep expanding. What features of the environment in the prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain and thus changed how it responded to those hormones and environmental stimuli? Then you go back further to the childhood of the individual, their fetal environment, then their genetic makeup. And then you increase the view to encompass factors larger than one individual—how has culture shaped the behavior of people living in that individual’s group?—what ecological factors helped shape that culture—expanding and expanding until considering events umpteen millennia ago and the evolution of that behavior.”
This grand view, looking at an array of levels, makes perfect sense. Everything counts. We can’t just say that a violent act can be attributed solely to our evolutionary history, or an angry ecology of ideas, or a gene, or any single factor. But they can all be involved. However, the one that is most variable, or ablest to be manipulated, is the social world. We can do this for good or for harm.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to polarize people. At the root of all human interaction, people somehow intuit an answer to the question “does this person intend to cause me harm or not?” Our answers come from an array of clues, including appearance and whether the person has any markers of aggression (a scowling expression, a tattoo that says “I hate group xyz”), a person’s or group’s reputation (whether fairly or unfairly earned), and influence from others such as gossip and propaganda.
In his 2003 book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges once pointed out that wars between people of different ethnicities are often portrayed as “clashes of cultures or civilizations,” as if differences are the only ingredient necessary for conflict to arise. Hedges disagreed, instead portraying them as “manufactured wars”:
“The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars…perpetuated by fear… run by gangsters who terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.” (p.20)
There is some evidence that the polarization we’re seeing today is at least partly manufactured. People will always see the world differently, but those differences can be exacerbated. Kate Starbird at the University of Washington noted that the Russian Internet Research Agency created fake online personas that caricatured Americans on both the political left and right, presumably to divide people and foment anger.
Perhaps I should have given this post a different title. Maybe hate doesn’t just passively seep in. Instead, it can be intentionally injected into the bloodstream. The question is whether we are wise enough to recognize it, to try to inoculate ourselves against it, and try to solve our very real social problems more constructively.
Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England journal of medicine. 2007 Jul 26;357(4):370-9.
Luhrmann TM, Padmavati R, Tharoor H, Osei A. Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the USA, India and Ghana: interview-based study. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2015 Jan;206(1):41-4.
MacAndrew C, Edgerton R. 1969. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. Chicago: Aldine.
Sapolsky R. 2017. Behave. The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin.
Scheibe, K. E. 1970. Beliefs and Values . New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.