Post-Charlottesville: What Research on the Psychology of Hatred Tells Us

According to research by social psychologist Dr. Susan Fiske of Princeton University, scorn and hatred tend to be associated with a failure to attribute human qualities, such as thoughts and feelings, to the scorned individual or group.

Another word for this process is dehumanization. Research shows that once an individual or group has been dehumanized, the willingness to inflict harm upon them — or at least the ability to remain unaffected by their suffering — is substantially increased.

“Dehumanization” actually refers to “deindividualizing” a person. Hatred of the sort displayed by Nazis, Communists, terrorists and other haters-of-groups is not possible without ignoring the individual attributes of the people you’re hating.

Just today I heard a psychotherapist tell a touching story of how she worked with an elderly dementia patient who claimed to hate Jews. Over a patiently orchestrated series of counseling sessions, she told the hateful, anti-Semitic man of her own background as a Jew, and how her grandparents had suffered in Auschwitz, one of Hitler’s most notorious Nazi concentration camps. Despite his prejudice and racism, the therapist described how the man tended to soften and melt once he got to know her as an individual person, not just a Jew.

Is such a happy and touching ending always or even usually possible with a hateful person? Of course not. But some people with irrational views have more reasonable sides. Some, like this elderly man, were just ignorantly parroting what they have absorbed from other sources.

The deeper question: What makes a person reasonable? A key component of reasonableness, it would seem, includes the willingness and ability to appreciate and respect — or dislike or even hate, if that’s warranted — a person based only on his or her own individual characteristics. The moment you start to like or dislike — love or hate — someone because of their ancestral or other unchosen characteristics is the moment you’re outside the realm of the individual. At that point, rationally and psychologically speaking, all bets are off. The way is paved for all forms of collectivism, including but not limited to a racial supremacy mentality.

If we want to get beyond the scorn and hatred displayed by both sides in the Charlottesville debacle and its aftermath, it will take a lot more than condemning “extremism” or even hatred. To defeat irrationality and hatred, we first have to learn to grasp how their opposites are individualism and reason.

Therein lies the secret of defeating racism and collectivism: embracing individualism. There’s no other answer.

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