It should be obvious by now that the call for people to love one another—whether in church or in song—carries little weight. Evidently, something keeps us from entering the house of love through the front door. Perhaps we should try the back.
When someone insults our dignity, or does something we find unacceptable, it is anger that we experience, not hatred. The key to whether anger transmutes into hate lies in agency—our capacity for acting. If fear of retaliation persuades us to hold our tongue, then anger congeals into hate as we stifle our protest to spare ourselves further indignity or limit damage already done. But if, instead of submitting to the indignity, we are able to right or repel it, then anger is discharged before it can harden into hate.
Anger is passionate—hot, liquid, kinetic. If repressed, it gels into hatred—cold, hard, stagnant.
Though its cause appears to lie outside ourselves, hate has a secret accomplice within. Its name is Fear. “Hate is the consequence of fear,” Cyril Connolly notes. “We fear something before we hate it.” Anger solidifies to hate when we fear domination or feel discounted; hatred persists if grievances remain unaddressed and dignity unrestored.
When we’re unable to stand up to put-downs, we hate those who diminish us; those who, assuming their own superiority, condescend to us or presume to know what’s best for us. When we find ourselves without resources or allies, we despise those who take us for nobodies.
Hate is caused by unrelieved indignity—real or imagined. Imagined indignities can feel as injurious as real ones, and have led people to commit mayhem and murder.
Although the command to “Love your enemies” does not provide a roadmap, it does function to keep antagonists working at the task of envisioning themselves as parts of a larger whole. Once it’s found, they can substitute the co-creation of that whole for the destruction of each other.
With a first diminution of the threat, we re-conceive our enemies as adversaries. With a hint of mutual value, adversaries become rivals—a term acknowledging each party’s role as a teacher of the other. Finally, by recognizing their mutual dependency, rivals begin to see themselves as partners. Enmity has been transformed into comity, comity into amity.
What can we do to initiate this transformation? First, we can cease to perpetrate indignities, no matter where we are in the cycle of recrimination. In order to open the door to accommodation, we have to show our antagonists the dignity we want them to extend to others and ourselves. We must be willing to meet indignity with dignity, for however long it takes, while not slyly sabotaging the process by taking pride in our own forbearance. Maintaining civility doesn’t mean giving in to others’ demands, but it does mean dealing with them respectfully.
A second line of defense against hatred is to recognize that when real indignities do occur—and they are inevitable—a flash of righteous anger or a sharp verbal riposte preempts the slow burn of hate. As we gain confidence to protest against the indignities that befall us, and to apologize for those we ourselves commit, we deny hate the hothouse required for its gestation.
As we remove hate from human intercourse—either by eliminating the causes of indignity or by restoring agency to indignity’s victims—we give love a chance. There are no shortcuts. This procedure applies not only to relationships between persons, but also to those between groups and nations. Love is shy, but it will turn out to be ubiquitous and abundant once it’s safe for it to show its face.