Monday, August 6, 2012

The Origins Of Human Hate

Human Emotions

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him
Genesis. 4:8

Cain Leads Abel To Death Elie Wiesel said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” 
Artist: James Tissot [1836-1902]; Painted in 1896
Source: Wikipedia

One of the first stories of hate in the biblical narrative happens early in the Book of Genesis, right after the story of creation: Cain murders Abel, his younger brother, and he becomes a marked man (Gen. 4:15). There is no other retribution from God other than Cain must leave his community, becoming a wanderer, which he does; yet, he eventually finds another community and prospers. So, as the biblical narrative goes, the first sign of hatred quickly leads to murder; many others follow. The Bible is full of stories of hate and hatreds between people, among people and nations, and between nations. In human history, hate has a long history; we cannot recall a time when hate did not exist.

In the non-biblical record, there are cave paintings of ancient man hunting animals with primitive weapons; scientists say the paintings date to approximately 40,000 years ago, although exact dates are hard to ascertain and there is debate among scientists as to which period the paintings belong. It is interesting that many use various shades of red and orange in their non-written but visual narrative. I couldn't locate any cave paintings in my Internet search, limited as it is by time constraints, depicting human-to-human battles, tribal warfare or hatred in general. It might be that religious taboos forbade the depiction of human forms. Yet the hatreds existed.

In the story of Cain's murder of his younger brother, envy is the oft-cited reason given by religious scholars. It might not be the definitive one, since scholars offer differing opinions, but it is a good one. Envy is the root of much of our hatred today, if you think about it. When envy spirals out of control to anger, and the societal repercussions are minimal, hatred can easily lead to murder. Such is the case in many pre-modern societies and cultures, where religious edicts hold both legal and moral control over its citizens; it's a circumscribed life.

The Search for Sources

One of the key questions often asked is what are the origins of human hate, since it's an emotion when unchecked that often leads to awful consequences, each worse than the next, from discrimination to genocides. Such a question often comes to the fore after a horrible crime, where society looks for explanations, for reasons, for answers. Such a response is good, since it tells us and reassures us that hatred is not the accepted norm; it's an aberration, a mutation, an abnormal virus or meme.

So, the search for answers continues. Such is not only the purview of criminologists, psychiatrists and FBI profilers, but of politicians, social scientists and medical scientists. Philosophers and religious thinkers provide reasons for human hatred including the need to blame an external source [see The Blame Game]; for example, Baruch Spinoza wrote: Hate is nothing but “sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause." Joining the research focus in modern times—chiefly through the use of brain scans and probes and the delving into our human DNA—are geneticists, neurobiologists, psychobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, each offering a piece of the puzzle. Parts of the human brain light up when hatred is expressed.

All agree that hatred exists, it has always existed and it's a frightening problem for humanity. Is there a gene dedicated to hatred? Unlikely. Some hatreds are simple enough to understand; literature, opera, drama and film have all presented works to try to understand it since time began. Some familiar themes are raised. The need for resources when these are lacking can easily bring hatred to the surface; as can the desire for something desirable, even rare, bring out all kinds of hatreds in a man who has almost everything—save that object of desire.

Then, there's envy; then there's greed; and what about fear?. Even in the best and most rational of us humans hatred has found a place to reside in our hearts, at least temporarily and in fits and starts. Such is not a view informed by sentimentality but by reality. It's an intractable problem, hatred. We have all been under its influence, to some degree, sometimes to our embarrassment, where we have said and done things in anger that we soon regret.

In the best most evolved and modern societies, laws are in place to control the repercussions of hated acted out in the extreme—murder, rape and incitement, to name a few—and these are of course good and necessary to protect society and its citizens. The desire of liberal democracy is to get rid of hatred, or at least minimize its deleterious effects; after all, it goes against its very principles. Thus explains the interest in the strong emotion among scientists, philosophers, criminologists and sociologists, who offer all kinds of reasons and explanations for expressions of hated in society, particularly of the extreme kind.

Poverty, societal injustices, political injustices, human indignities and grievances, as well as class differences are often cited as good and sound reasons, but factual evidence doesn't always support this assertion. For example, suicide bombers with a political objective come from all socio-economic backgrounds; their reasons are more visceral, one might say pre-modern.

So, it's true that religious differences—exaggerated and put to political use by extremists— explain much of the hatred today. For example, anti-Semitism, hatred of the Jewish People, ranks as one of the oldest hatreds in the world, having a 2,000-year unbroken and documented record of perseverance. My thinking is, and it's an inchoate thought, that much of the fuel for the world's hatred will disappear when anti-Semitism becomes a spent force. 

Its Effects on Humanity

Hatred has many guises, and takes advantage of the fear of the Other, including religious and national differences; and what about ideological differences? socio-economic factors? and good old-fashioned territorial expansion? The list is endless. The basis for hating is limited only by the imagination of the human mind, a creative effort locked in the dark arts of self-justification in the name of an idea. Hatreds come in so many forms, its potential for enactment unbounded. In the most extreme cases, unbounded hatred leads to genocide. Even so, genocides do not arise randomly and without warning; they are predictable [see Gregory H. Stanton, The Eight Stages of Genocide].

Small wonder that, In Errata: An examined life (1997), George Steiner argues convincingly as follows: "Thus it is, I believe, difficult to deny that the twentieth century has lowered the threshold of humanity. Man has, on a pervasive scale, been diminished" (108).

Much to humanity's detriment. Can we argue otherwise for the beginning of the twenty-first century? The harsh reality is that hatred has been the locomotive of human history, it easily driven by the full host of human desires. Its implementation or enactment has made humans less human; some would argue that such defines humans precisely, but I would prefer to think otherwise. That we as a species have come to accept hatred as normative is as telling as it is heart-breaking. The final result of hatred is death and destruction. I don't have to give you any examples, since you can easily call up countless examples of your own.

Now, comes a thought that the hawks and eagles of the world—tough-minded men (and women)—will find annoying, unrealistic, misguided; and even dangerous and foolish. Again, we return to Steiner's slim volume:
Now we must learn to be one another's guests on what remains of this scarred, crowded earth. Our wars, our ethnic cleansings, the arsenals for massacres which flourish in even the most destitute of states, are territorial, Ideologies and the mutual hatreds they generate are territories of the mind. Men have, from the onset, slaughtered one another over a patch of ground, under differently coloured rags held aloft as banners, over shadings of difference in language or dialect. (55)
This is not to say that nations shouldn't fight terrorists or evil regimes who hold evil intentions (Iran, North Korea and the various Islamist groups quickly come to mind). They must and they should. Yet, making war can never be a long-term strategy for humanity. The man who makes war is soon forgotten among similar individuals; the man who makes peace is immortalized. The aim of humanity is to turn enemies into friends, to make peace when it is possible to do so, and to "turn swords into ploughshares," as the biblical narrative in the Book of Isaiah says in a statement of promise.

The Opposite of Hate is Love

Such hopeful words give us reason to pause and to weigh and consider what we have wrought as humans. Now, some will take such words to heart. But not the political leaders who view such academic thoughts (or biblical narratives) as unrealistic in the real world where battles for supremacy rage. They might privately sympathize as political men do from time to time, but public faces are different. The problem with trying to get a full understanding of hatred, other than the religious kind, easily enough to comprehend, is similar in scope in trying to understand its emotional or dialectic opposite—Love. It is not possible to get a handle on it and take it away.

It is interesting to note that some scientists suggest that hate activates particular circuits of the frontal cortex part of the brain, known as the medial frontal gyrus, right putamen, premotor cortex and medial insula. Two of these areas—the putamen and the insula—also activate during feelings of romantic love.

Sure, we can understand some of the precipitating factors, including jealously, greed and avarice being the neuron pathways for hatred's unholy actions. And we can delve into the brain of its most horrific practitioners—why do evil persons commit such acts?—and compare them to normal persons. But can we necessarily prevent hated from taking place? Can we make a society devoid of hated? Is that our ultimate goal?

As much as that sounds enviable, it goes against the fundamental principle of free will. Even God in the Genesis account did not step in, deus ex machina, to prevent the murder of Abel, which many of us think would have been the preferable thing to do. I can't say I understand the necessity of hatred other than it makes its polar opposite all the more preferable and urgent—by anyone's reasonable standard. On a note of poetic harmony in the name of humanity, I leave the last word to George Steiner:
From the unreasoned, unanalysable, often ruinous all-power of love stems the thought—is it, once more, a puerility?—that 'God' is not yet. That the will come into being or, more precisely, into manifest reach of human perception, only when there is immense excess of love over hatred. (170)
That day can't come too soon, for humanity's sake.


  1. Cain offered God the fruits of his labor. "Yuk! Vegetables!" said the Lord. Cain misdirected his anger against his innocent brother.
    Cain then found another community and prospered. How on earth could there have been another community if Adam and Eve were the first people? Clearly, the authors of the Book of Genesis did not mean the text to be taken literally.
    Certainly much of the world's hatred would disappear if ever anti-Semitism became a spent force. The reason for the violence between Sunnis and Shiites occurs because they are so filled with hatred against Jews that they have to kill. They know perfectly well that their victims hate Jews as much as they do, but if you've got to kill, you've got to kill.
    Can anti-Semitism ever become a spent force? Not if there is a God. God is an embittered anti-Semite who never forgave Abraham for ending child sacrifice.
    Steven Pinker's book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE argues that violence and hatred have been decreasing for a long time and will continue to do so.

    1. I am aware of Pinker's book and his argument of violence's decrease. I don't doubt that the statistics support his thesis, yet one wonders if the daily (hourly) supply in the media of stories centred on violence—often gratuitous and excessive—gives people an opposing point of view.

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