When I was a child, my siblings and I sometimes fought like savages. “I hate you,” one of us would yell at another. Our mother rarely intervened in the fighting, unless someone was crying, but an expression of hatred always drew her attention. “I don’t think you really mean that,” she would admonish. “You should think before you use the word hate.” And so I grew up a careful user of both the word and the emotion. I tried to reserve hatred for those few things that I could truly define as evil.
I passed this lesson on to my son, and many other parents I know say something similar to their children. Yet lately we are surrounded by expressions of hate—not from children, but from adults. And not just from the professional hatemongers (and leaders) who revel in the emotional chaos they sow, but from friends and family members, both on the left and right, be it religious or political. I know far too many people who proudly declare their hatred of public figures or one group or another. Often, they are mindlessly repeating what others have said, joining the echo chamber in their social and political circles. Even when the word itself isn’t used, the hate is easy to detect, wrapped in self-righteousness and smugness. Words alone don’t express hatred: It’s the tone that is unmistakable—and makes it so hard for us to hear one another.
Our hate wars are waged on many battlefields, including online, in particular Facebook and Twitter and in the often sickening comment sections of publications. But while technology now allows each of us to immediately disseminate our thoughts on the internet, “hate talk” is not new. It ravaged the country during the McCarthy era, and throughout the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Contract with America and Whitewater. It was impossible to miss after 9/11. Later, at Moment, my email overflowed with vicious missives spitting out the name Barack “Hussein” Obama, as if the claim that he was a Muslim meant that he was evil. Since the 2016 presidential election, the hateful tone of discourse has gone from bad to worse. Now my inbox is flooded with Trump hysteria from all directions. To be honest, Clinton and Trump haters fill me with equal discomfort: Hate should not be confused with political engagement or “telling it like it is.” Hate should not be a part of our civil discourse. Period.
Dipping into the hate within us can give us an intense buzz that may make us feel more alive, but hating is also an easy way to dismiss, diminish and dehumanize the other. Love can also make us feel alive—without the negative effects, says one of my role models, Viktor E. Frankl. “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality,” writes Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, his 1946 book recounting how he refused to let the Holocaust rob him of his humanity. “No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him… Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
Judaism is full of mixed messages about hate: On the one hand, the psalms sometimes call on God to mercilessly avenge our ancient adversaries, and the commandment to remember Amalek can be seen as encouragement to hold grudges. On the other hand, God can be magnificently forgiving, and rabbinic tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. In the 19th century, the Musar movement developed instructions about how to rid ourselves of hate and other destructive qualities.
The most helpful explanation of hate I have found so far is neurological. Hate is a more elusive emotion to track in the nervous system than fear, aggression or anxiety, all of which can trigger it. But one thing we do know is that hate activates parts of the frontal cortex where we form judgments, while love suppresses those areas. In other words, we are harsher evaluators of what and whom we think we hate, and more forgiving of what we agree with and what and whom we think we love. This is a valuable lens for us in a time of polarization.
Any way you look at it, my late mother was right. She was a natural leader with an intuitive understanding of people, who knew that hate destroys civil discourse and rips families as well as nations apart. Since most of us value personal relationships and civilization, I suggest we refrain from using both the word and the tone—except in the most extreme cases that meet a carefully thought-through standard for what is truly evil. That’s not easy, but we need to reflect before speaking, writing or texting and remind ourselves of what we have taught our children. It is equally good advice for us.
In this issue of Moment, you will find a balance of articles that include dramatically different opinions on extremely controversial topics—from intermarriage to how to teach children about Israel to whether or not our current president is an anti-Semite. You will not agree with everything, but in the process of thoughtful disagreement, I hope you discover nuance, perspective and context—and even, perhaps, deeper understanding.