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The psychology of hate

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-09-2017 Rahul Matthan

The goings-on in Charlottesville and Myanmar got me thinking about hate and what it is about our society today that makes us capable of taking human life because we perceive people to be different from us.

Human society has always been easily polarized. We are constantly dividing ourselves into in-groups (people we find easy to align ourselves with because they share our beliefs) and out-groups (those whose values don’t identify with ours). These broad, largely invisible social groupings are intrinsic to human society and have been around for centuries. But they were never a cause for concern until World War II, when the Nazis inflicted such inhuman horrors on the Jews that we had to try to understand what exactly gave rise to this sort of behaviour. The most widely held theory is that the Holocaust came about as a consequence of the dehumanization of the Jews—which resulted in the Nazis genuinely believing that the Jewish race was somehow less than human. But how does out-group bias evolve into this sort of radical dehumanization?

Apparently a significant contributing factor is the lack of social contact between groups.

In normal society, even though we are split into in-groups and out-groups, we have many opportunities to mingle with members of the other group. As a result, we learn to empathize with them as human beings even if we disagree with their views. Take sports as an example. The rivalry between sports fans is almost always intense, but it very rarely degenerates into dehumanization. This is because we are forced to sit in the stands alongside fans of the rival team, and by doing so are reminded that (apart from their poor judgment in the team they support) they are actually not so different from us.

Without this sort of social contact, our feelings of difference can quickly develop into disgust and we are easily convinced that members of the out-group are somehow inferior to us—maybe even sub-human. When these feelings are vocalized by prominent leaders of the in-group, the language with which we describe the out-group begins to change further, affecting how we think of them. Slave owners call their slaves barbarians, the sub-human connotations allowing them to take inhuman liberties with them.

The Nazis, during the Holocaust, referred to the Jews as vermin and the Hutus, during the Rwandan genocide, actually called the Tutsis cockroaches. This reduction of the out-group into sub-human, animalistic beings allows group leaders to rationalize the extreme violence and hate that they mete out to that group of people.

Ordinarily, social interaction is a natural vaccine against dehumanization. However, as we begin to depend more and more on the internet for our social needs, we have lost the ability to interact with each other in person, in the ways necessary to build up our immunity against hate.

Interactions that take place solely over an electronic medium deny us the benefits of the sub-verbal cues that keeps our out-group bias from developing into disgust. Once we’ve lost the mechanism to empathize with those around us, we don’t think twice about saying and doing things online that we would have hesitated to do in person. As we find ourselves immersed in our echo chambers within which we only hear from members of our in-group—more often than not ranting about the failings of the others—the ideologies of hate and violence start to become so ingrained in our conversations that we no longer appreciate any other point of view.

It is hard to spot the signs before they end up in some act of senseless violence or death. The march of neo-Nazis through Charlottesville and the growth of the alt-right in the US are all early warning signals of a far greater problem. Though it may not be immediately apparent, sections of society are being systematically dehumanized by fringe groups on the internet. As they continue these conversations cloaked in the anonymity of their private chat groups and social media feeds, they are slowly breaking down the barriers that prevent us from inflicting bodily harm upon each other.

This is the psychology of hate on the internet, a deep and pervasive phenomenon that has begun to spill out into the real world. There is an urgent need to grapple with the consequences of the unnaturally divided online communities that we have created and the dystopian culture that it has birthed. There are no easy solutions. The best way to bridge in-group-out-group differences is to interact in person so that we can learn to empathize once again and understand that the “others” are not that different from us.

But when our world is entirely online, how are we going to meet offline?

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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