Odi ergo sum: I hate, therefore I am. Some years ago I wrote a book about hatred, about its psychological morphology and, one might say, its historical anthropology. I arrived at a five-part taxonomy of hatred in an effort to bring under a single unitary framework what we have witnessed of its manifestations in recent times. As you might imagine, it was an exhausting experience, exacerbated by the fact, I suppose, that I finished the book here in northeastern Europe—in Kaunas, Lithuania (earlier sections were drafted in both the Netherlands and in the United States)—with the 20th-century’s bloody history much in mind, for reasons that do not require elaboration.
The subject returns to my thoughts lately for an uncomfortable reason; déclassé dynamics in many Western countries, combined with the universal plaints about “otherness” that always result from massive and rapid immigration, have given rise to forms of xenophobia that either border on or simply are manifestations of hatred. Hatred is one of those many abstract nouns we think we know the meaning of until we actually try to express it. So what is it really, and how would it help us in these roiling times to understand it?
Hatred is a double-faceted phenomenon. As the German phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874–1928) suggested, on the level of human interaction both love and hatred tie people to one another most intimately. They both bind with an intensity approaching fury; no other emotions do that. Physiologists tell us that the array of facial and neck muscles humans use to laugh and to cry are remarkably similar, suggesting that the origins of these emotional extremes lie deep within us, near or at the same spot.
Many observers over the centuries have of course noted this fact. Modifying St. Augustine’s classical definition of evil as a privation or corruption of good, we could metaphorically describe hatred as love gone astray. Love and hatred are in some ways interchangeable in the sense that hatred is a kind of love that, having lost its object and direction, finds itself unable to live in the world in peace. Instead, it starts searching for a threat to the object of love and devotion, even though the object itself is lost, and even though it may have, or seem to have, rejected the lover. With the object now overtaken and oft forgotten, all that remains is the expenditure of enormous energy to expiate a pain one cannot even name. Hatred may find some outlet for its energy, and when it does it breeds fanaticism. George Santayana once aptly defined a fanatic as “a man who redoubles his efforts when he has forgotten his ends.”
Hatred can be concrete or it can be symbolic, abstracted. Either way, it seems to result from our failure to categorize something of cognitive significance. Most of us don’t care when we see a butterfly that we do not recognize and so cannot name, and we don’t really mean it when we say we hate “that damned screen door” that refuses to close properly. But it is different when major elements change within our social world. We are doomed to hate those whom we simply cannot place in our emotionally stabilizing explanatory schemes, cultural categories, or political vocabularies. Hatred springs from cognitive dissonance, ambivalence, ambiguity, and uncertainty, which under certain conditions transform into self-contempt, frustration, and an inability to articulate and deal intersubjectively with what is bothering us. This is natural: If we cannot identify the branch to which the leaves of our vocabulary logically belong, we will have a hard time using vocabulary to connect to others.
In his Marvelous Possessions (1991) Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt analyzes Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, a medieval account narrated by a fictitious traveler and storyteller named John Mandeville.1 Mandeville shows much generosity and open-mindedness toward the indigenous peoples of China and Tibet, yet is filled with hatred for Jews in Jerusalem.2 Why? Because, as Greenblatt suggests, the Jews pose for him a cognitive, if not existential, predicament. In the framework of traditional medieval Christian cultural logic, we find ourselves in a hierarchy-based world whose center is Jerusalem. We 14th-century Christians can never treat the Jews as equal to us, in accordance with this logic, since St. Origen, one of the Fathers of the Church, officially proclaimed the Jews collectively responsible for the deicide, that is, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In addition, the Jews are rivals of the Christians for the spiritual possession of Jerusalem; never mind that at this time the city is under Muslim rule, for in the Muslim hierarchy of holy cities Jerusalem counts only third.
Would it be possible to recognize the Jews within the framework of modern cultural logic based on equality, then? No, because in that case we should take the Jews as a people apart but equal to us, and it is as difficult to recognize the true dignity of difference today as it was in the past. A more or less neutral attitude, similar to how Mandeville approaches Chinese idolaters, is therefore impossible here as well. This means that we fail to put the Jews into any proper category. Having failed to do so, we can only exclude them. Hatred is the consequence of exclusion, and it can be intensified by whatever other interests are at play in any given time and place.
As Greenblatt’s subtle interpretation of our classificatory systems shows, we hate those whom we are unable to understand, and whose existence demands that we reconsider, re-order, or even discard our concepts, ideas, and images. We hate those who are a threat to our mental security and certainty.
Distinguishing between symbolic hatred and the desire for the actual destruction of objects tagged with the symbol, Leszek Kołakowski suggests that,
Our hatred is directed at human beings and human groups—at nations, races, classes, parties, at rich or poor, at black or white—and not at such abstracts as political systems or ideas. Odium peccati, hatred of sin, is a metaphor: we can only hate the sinners, and among them, perhaps, ourselves. Hatred is more than striving for destruction; like love, it includes a kind of infinity, that is, insatiability. It does not simply strive for destruction, but for never-ending suffering, to become Satan; and it is the nature of the devil never to be able to reach satiation in the work of destruction.3
While hatred ties individuals to one another insofar as it is directed at flesh-and-blood human beings, it ceases doing so as soon as it is raised to the level of the imagination. (This is also true of love, for once a direct human love is abstracted and intellectualized, it loses its heart.) Then the hatred-saturated individual starts fighting imagined monsters and evils whose scale has no natural limits. This is how hatred of the modern world itself comes about. The more intense it becomes, the more disconnected from that world its haters grow. To be able to hate as passionately and intensely as our imaginations allow, we have to reject the world as it is. This is why those impelled politically by hatred are revolutionary in their attitudes and, if they achieve power, in their behavior. Theirs is a loneliness and insularity projected outward with unquenchable malice.
Hatred always signifies the triumph of imagination over reality. The danger of hatred lies in the kind of intellectual and moral vacuum it creates and maintains among individuals and societies. Mutual demonization is highly unlikely where human beings are engaged in dialogue. Where individuals interact, little chance exists that a moral void can be created, a void that precedes the quest for enemies. David Hume described this void and also the emptiness of hatred, pointing out that we are necessarily unconscious of the thoughts, actions, and sensations of those we hate—for we never listen to them.
Yet hatred often walks in disguise. It appears in the guise of love, passion, compassion, and even justice—hence it comes in the form of ideological zeal and passion, whether right- or left-wing. Those passions are interchangeable; they may switch their roles and appearances swiftly and unexpectedly, for it’s the zeal that matters, not the mask of ideas or concepts. How many left-wing radicals from the 1960s have become right-wing radicals a half-century later? Not a few, for while the “content” is different, the emotions are ever the same.
The Morphology of Hatred
What then are the main forms of hatred that have existed for the past two centuries, and continue to do so? In our political age, I would characterize the hatred for an ideological foe or an irreconcilable adversary in terms of opposing Weltanschauungs—the fundamental incompatibility of two value-and-idea systems. Michel Houellebecq, in his novel Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles, 1998, translated into English as Atomised, 2006), deals among other things with two opposing systems for which reconciliation is not a possibility.4
Whereas the first one holds that our body does not belong to us, that we are not the masters and owners of our carnal life, that our offspring is of God and, therefore, abortion is infanticide, the second one demands unconditional respect for female reproductive control and unlimited privacy, with no warrant for state interference whatsoever. These two anthropologies, according to Houellebecq, are impossible in principle to reconcile. Being mutually exclusive, they create insoluble tension in modern society. We can call it the abyss between conservative and liberal modes of political and moral sensibility, or the Manichaean divide between the Right and the Left, or whatever common language we choose. Again, the concepts, the intellectualizations, are not what matter most; what matters most is the emotion, the passion, beneath the words that enables a like-minded community avowedly united by love for a sacred principle to be capable of hating those with whom they irrevocably disagree.
Hence, the first variety of hatred: the hatred of the single truth, or the hatred of the true believer. With his book of the same title, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer joined the congregation of 20th-century thinkers who best explain ideological passion, doctrinal zeal, and hatred—namely, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Alain Besançon, Leszek Kołakowski, George Orwell, and Czesław Miłosz. The true believer may easily jump from one set of passions and beliefs to another. What remains unchanged, however, is the need for a single explanatory framework or symbolic design within which to interpret themselves and the world around them.
The second variety of hatred is hatred of a convert. This is hatred practiced with immense intensity by a newcomer to the faith, the neophyte. This sort of hatred may be deeply permeated by what Czesław Miłosz described in his great oeuvre, The Captive Mind, as Ketman: a temporary suspension of one’s faith for the sake of survival followed by a temporary acceptance of a foreign dogma. The problem that arises here is that this does not work without much sound and fury, which makes the entire life of a Ketman practitioner look like that of a single-minded fanatic.5 Self-imposed zeal and hatred is manufactured, yet the immense effort to stay alive in a dictatorship and not to be downed by a friend or colleague requires not only the art of public acting but also extreme demonstrations of faith and of hatred. The mask, however, may become one’s true face out of a combination of habit and the pressure of the moral vacuum.
The third variety of hatred may be described as hatred as a classificatory system. It stands quite close to what Greenblatt portrays as cultural logic, whether traditional or modern, pushed to the limit: Either I can put you into the category or I deny your right to exist. Such modern phenomena as racism, social darwinism, and National Socialism rest on this form of modern obsession with rational—logical, social, and political—control. It is the obsession with a “will to a system” that Nietzsche famously warned against. To exist means to be classified or to qualify for the system. Failure to be properly classifiable ends in contemptuous dismissal—hatred, in other words. The Nazi concept of Lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) is a totalitarian folly, yet it did not emerge out of the blue: Much European history oozes behind it, including the history of exclusion and religious hatred of the Jews. The same kind of hatred-as-exclusion, whether overt or covert, can be found in modern versions of racism and homophobia as well.
The fourth variety of hatred is organized, or manufactured, hatred. George Orwell’s 1984 offers the quintessence of this sort of hatred. We learn from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that love can turn into hatred, and the other way around: “My only love sprung from my only hate! / Too early seen unknown, and known too late! / Prodigious birth of love it is to me, / That I must love a loathed enemy.” This expresses the twinning of love and hate, but it is the antithesis of manufactured hatred. Things are drastically different in the world of 1984, for example, where Winston Smith is forced to change his love for Julia and hate for Big Brother into the opposite: He ends hating Julia and loving Big Brother. Indoctrination and conditioning do their sinister job, yet in this case there is nothing natural or spontaneous going on. This hatred would be unthinkable without social engineering and the dramatic narrowing of the human horizon: It is not only the Two Minute Hate that manufactures hatred by channeling anguish into anger, but the Newspeak as well, since it makes society incapable of history and Shakespeare and honest discursive articulation altogether. This kind of hatred is produced and reproduced, made and unmade, on a daily basis.
The fifth variety of hatred is self-hatred. This concept was first applied by the German-Jewish writer Theodor Lessing to the Jews, the result being that the concept of self-hatred was for a long time primarily defined as Jewish self-hatred.6 On closer inspection, it appears that the tradition of East European self-contempt, especially deeply embedded in 19th– and 20th-century Russia, stands close to self-hatred. Suffice it to recall the 19th-century Russian Romantic philosopher and writer Vladimir Pecherin (who later turned to Catholicism in England, became a monk in Ireland, and went so far as to burn books), who wrote the following about his country of birth: “How sweet it is to hate one’s native land and avidly desire its ruin—and in its ruin to discern the dawn of universal rebirth.” The 19th-century Eurocentric Russian philosopher Piotr Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters (especially the First Letter) also contain a strong element of self-hatred. Ample evidence exists that this sort of hatred is deeply embedded in other East and Central European countries, including Ukraine and even Lithuania.
So there is the hatred of the true believer, of the convert, of the classificatory obsession, of the manufactured sort, and of the self. They are all different, and all the same. They differ in the manner in which they express the rage at a love lost. But while the routes may differ, the point of origin is the same, and the destination as well. We are mere protoplasmic shells without love, and without it our existence may become defined by a deeply wayward search to replace it. Then indeed, odi ergo sum: I hate, therefore I am. In the absence of love, it is the only other passion with the power to define real being. Without either, there is only numbness, living death.
Is any of this of value in understanding what goes on today around Aleppo or Mosul, in the hearts of terrorists, or in the mouths of hate-harvesting politicians? Let us reflect a bit further to focus an answer.
George Orwell: Transferred Nationalism, Transposed Loyalties, and Hatred
Far more than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World excursion, George Orwell was the real prophet of totalitarianism, and far and away the most insightful writer in the West on the subject, and the one who got right the very essence of the tragedy of Eastern Europe. With good reason did the Russian poet, translator, and dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya called Orwell an honorary citizen of Eastern Europe.
A left-winger who re-evaluated his political views throughout his life, Orwell was a maverick and dissenter among those who were inclined to think themselves mavericks and dissenters by vocation. Fiercely attacked by his fellow leftists in Great Britain as a traitor or, at best, as a fellow traveler, Orwell avoided the ideological blindness and selective sensitivity so widespread among his brothers-in-arms. Like Ignazio Silone, described by Czeslaw Milosz as one of the most decent political figures in Europe, Orwell held humanity prior and superior to doctrine, and not the other way around.
A passionate collision took place between Orwell and the Left in Great Britain over nationality, a supposedly bourgeois and reactionary concept. The Left always favored deracination as a sign of personal liberty and dignity, yet Orwell tried to reconcile natural patriotic feelings with other modern sensibilities, first and foremost with individual freedom, dignity, equality, and fellowship. He believed that our existential need for roots and a home, if neglected or, worse, despised, may make an awkward comeback in the form of symbolic compensation, such as a fierce attachment to the doctrine or ideology that becomes our symbolic home. As Karl Marx would have put it, a genuine proletarian does not have a home, for his home is socialism.
In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell drew a strict dividing line between patriotism, which he understood as identification with a certain way of life and the natural human attachment to those who also practice it, and nationalism, which appeared to him a belief that one’s group is superior and better than other groups. What results from an obsession with national divisions, according to Orwell, is a carefully disguised propensity to classify human individuals as if they were communities of bees or ants. Whereas patriotism is silent and defensive, nationalism is often offensive and aggressive.7
According to Orwell, transferred or transposed forms of nationalism signify our willingness to find an object of worship, which may vary from time to time. A pious Zionist may become an ardent Marxist, or the other way around, while it takes little effort to move from left-wing views to uncritical adoration of Russia, even failing to notice Russian imperialism and colonialism. G.K. Chesterton’s love for Italy and France led him so far as to fail to notice the emergence of Mussolini and Italian fascism, whereas H.G. Wells was blinded by Russia to such an extent that he refused to see the crimes of Lenin and Stalin. That our propensity to deceive ourselves is nearly limitless was wittily observed by Orwell, who easily surpassed all other British and European thinkers in his ability to foresee the tragedy of Europe.
Orwell’s critical essays appear to have been even more original and groundbreaking than his famous satires and dystopias. Two Minutes Hate, Emmanuel Goldstein, and Room 101 have their place among the most powerful literary symbols of the 20th century. Orwell’s insights into the dislocation of identity, elected identities, and mutual interdependence of the forms of hatred have become hallmarks of the analysis of hatred.
Above all, Orwell left room for the disturbing complexity of the modern forms of hatred, or ideological passion, and their interchangeability. Not only did Orwell understand the interplay of the forms of hatred, he also was one of the first thinkers in the 20th century who sensed the nature of collective hatred as something manufactured by the elite by means of channeling the anguish of oppressed and impoverished toward the effigy of a supposedly official (and, most probably, fictitious) enemy of the state.
Nationalism strengthens the state, and the state strengthens nationalism. Illiberal nationalism all too often uses that strength to harvest fear, turn it into hatred, and direct it toward some object in violence. We have earned the right, the hard way, over the past century to understand this process. One can only hope that our understanding will inoculate us from having to go through it all again.
1Scholars think that a Frenchman named Jehan a la Barbe probably wrote the book sometime in the 14th century.
2Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (University of Chicago Press, 1991).
3Kołakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 258.
4For more on Houellebecq’s political philosophy and social criticism, see Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Polity, 2013).
5See Leonidas Donskis, Power and Imagination: Studies in Politics and Literature (Peter Lang, 2008).
6For more on this issue, see my Forms of Hatred: The Troubled Imagination in Modern Philosophy and Literature (Rodopi, 2003).
7See George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays (Penguin Books, 1970), pp. 155–79.