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On Political Hatred

On everything from Syrian refugees through Brexit and climate change to so-called gender-affirmative medicine, people take a totalizing approach to disagreement: either you agree with me, or you are despicable.

· 7 min read
On Political Hatred
Photo by Nicole Wreyford / Unsplash

The Good Fight is a fantastic television series for many reasons, but perhaps especially for its storyline about the possibility of love across political lines. Our heroes—Diane, a high-powered lawyer and a Democrat; and Kurt, a well-connected political operative and a Republican—disagree about Trump, guns, and the National Rifle Association. Kurt’s love for Diane is unwavering, but Diane oscillates between her commitment to her leftist politics and to her relationship with Kurt. She appears to feel that the two are in tension because of Kurt’s politics. Love wins in the end, but it is touch and go for a while.

There are two kinds of political polarization: ideological polarization, which is polarization on the issues themselves, and affective polarization, which is polarization in our emotions and attitudes—in how we feel toward those with whom we disagree politically. Here, I want to talk about the latter. Why do we have such strong negative emotions toward our political opponents? Why are relationships like Kurt and Diane’s, or the real life friendship between US Supreme Court Judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg (liberal) and Antonin Scalia (conservative), surprising rather than commonplace? And is there any hope of a return to friendship and fellow-feeling across political lines?

Academic circles are no exception to this trend. I’ve observed people whom I know to be rigorous, meticulous thinkers in other contexts make sweeping, dismissive claims about ideological opponents. Because the university is dominated by the left, this is usually leftist academics making sweeping, dismissive claims about right-wingers. When talking about complex issues, on which it is reasonable to disagree, I have observed people write off those who take a different position to themselves as evil, greedy, heartless, or disgusting. On everything from Syrian refugees through Brexit and climate change to so-called gender-affirmative medicine, people take a totalizing approach to disagreement: either you agree with me, or you are despicable.

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In her book Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion (2020), the Danish philosopher Berit Brogaard gives a partial defense of hatred. In Chapter 3, “Bad Blood: Vengeance and Hate’s Justification,” she distinguishes between “vengeance motivated by retaliatory attitudes”—which she says is “morally indefensible”—and feelings of “hate and contempt that aren’t motivated by acts of vengeance.” She notes that attitudes like anger, resentment, and indignation can be used to “convey to other members of society whether we regard their actions as meeting, exceeding, or breaching the moral standards we take to regulate social relationships in our community.” We can also use these attitudes to “help maintain order and structure, correct unproductive attitudes and behaviours and encourage productive ones.”

Brogaard argues that the dehumanizing forms of contempt and hatred are “destructive, inhumane, and pointless” because they “downgrade ... the target’s status to that of a creature without inherent dignity,” but that we can feel contempt and/or hatred for people’s character traits and moral vices, while still respecting their inherent dignity and paying due regard to their “human status or fundamental human rights.”

When contempt and hatred are not dehumanizing, they can be useful: Brogaard gives one example in which a wife’s contempt for her husband’s lack of integrity “becomes a tool for emancipating her from her subservience” to him. In a second example, a woman responds with contempt to a man who insults her appearance and the author comments that “being the target of contempt can restore the power balance in one’s relationship.”

Hate communicates disrespect and it can provoke guilt, which can motivate people to change. Thus, “Hate serves a worthwhile purpose, not already served by blame or resentment. It is paramount to upholding the norms of a free and just society, both morally and non-morally.” For Brogaard, “while dehumanizing hatred is deplorable and insupportable, hate that doesn’t dehumanize ... can be rational and morally appropriate, and … has an important part to play in monitoring our moral and cultural ideals.”

Affective polarization in political life can involve hatred and contempt—but in most cases these are unlikely to be the dehumanizing or vengeful versions Brogaard distinguishes. These versions are most likely to occur in identity politics, when justifiable anger about the historical treatment of specific social groups tips over into hatred or contempt of perceived oppressors. For example, black liberationists who fantasize not just about black equality or liberation but about the domination of whites by blacks (as imagined, for example, in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series), or feminists who desire not just women’s equality or liberation but the domination of men by women (as in Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power), may have tipped over into vengeful, retaliatory, and/or dehumanizing contempt and/or hatred. But is everyone else in the clear?

The problem with Brogaard’s defense of (non-dehumanizing) contempt and hatred, when applied to the political context, is that it presupposes shared standards, when standards are precisely what is at issue, what is causing both the ideological and the affective polarization. She talks about “the moral standards we take to regulate social relationships in our community” (my emphasis), compares “unproductive attitudes” with “productive ones,” and argues that hatred can help us in “monitoring our moral and cultural ideals” (my emphasis). But politics is the negotiation of our shared lives, the tussle over what our moral standards and our moral and cultural ideals will be. We don’t know what counts as an “unproductive attitude” until we know what those standards and ideals are. How can hatred and contempt be justified in the service of those ideals, and simultaneously used in the establishment of the ideals themselves?

There is an alternative view of affective polarization that is at once reassuring and dispiriting. That is, expressions of hatred and contempt toward our political opponents are just tools that we use to try to help our side win, and not genuine expressions of our most deeply held values. (This does not mean that there are no individuals for whom the expressions are genuine). This is reassuring because, when we are the targets of hatred and contempt from “the other side,” we can tell ourselves that they don’t really hate or feel contempt for us. (There’s a similar theory of slurs, which argues that their use is much more about expressing in-group solidarity than about denigrating the group described by the slur.) But it’s also dispiriting, because being the target of hatred and contempt is at best unpleasant and at worst psychologically and emotionally damaging. If we don’t really hate them, why must we speak and act as if we do? If they don’t really hate us, why must they speak and act as if they do?

So, if the expression of these severe negative emotions is a political tool, do we really need this tool or are there better ones? The current situation seems little better than the group-based hatred of our past. Humans have, historically, hated each other on the basis of race, sex, class, religion, and more: that is, on the basis of what moral philosophers generally describe as “morally arbitrary features,” which people did not choose and cannot help. This suggests that it’s not OK to target people for things like race, which are outside their control, but that it is OK to target people for things like their character and actions, which are inside their control. Brogaard’s discussion of the morally appropriate uses of hatred and contempt is in line with this view. But a person’s religion is not a morally arbitrary feature. And many theorists argue that we do not have voluntary control over our beliefs. This may be why “philosophical belief” is a protected characteristic in the UK, and “political opinion” a protected characteristic here in Victoria, Australia.

Let’s suppose that just as many people are hated for their politics in Australia today as were hated for their sex in the 1950s. Social power matters here: dominant social groups can do more damage with their hatred than non-dominant groups. So, male hatred of women in 1950s Australia was more damaging to women than feminist hatred of men was to men. Australia has two main parties: Labor (left) and Liberal (right). Since the Labor Party in currently in power, Labor voters who hate Liberal voters can do more damage to their opponents than vice versa. (The left can be so accustomed to thinking of itself as fighting for the marginalized that it fails to recognize its own social dominance. This might explain how a left-wing comedian could stand in front of a predominantly left-wing audience at a left-biased comedy festival in a longstanding Labor state in 2021 and make jokes about dead Liberals with impunity.) Hating conservatives seems, at best, only a slight moral improvement on hating women. The only reason that it might be any improvement at all is that people can change their political beliefs, so political beliefs are not as involuntary as sex is.

I’m not saying that all moral and political beliefs are reasonable and acceptable, and that therefore none of them should be the subject of hatred or contempt. I am, however, saying that the category of reasonable moral and political beliefs—and therefore the range of reasonable disagreements about political matters—is much bigger than affect polarization would suggest.

It is my fervent hope that we can find a way to reduce or eliminate the negative emotions directed across political lines and restore rationality to our political disagreements. Not every conservative is a representative of the far right, nor is every small-l liberal a communist. We should be able to discuss the ideas themselves calmly, logically, rigorously, and constructively. And we should be able to be friends, even when we disagree with each other.

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