How “Hate” Lets Us Off the Hook

Activists and theorists Kay Whitlock (left) and Michael Bronski. (Photos: Phoebe Hunter, Marilyn Humphries)Activists and authors Kay Whitlock (left) and Michael Bronski. (Photos: Phoebe Hunter, Marilyn Humphries)

The history of the United States has been plagued by brutality against Native peoples, Black people, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many other groups. Often, this violence is framed as caused by “hate,” erasing its structural causes. In Considering Hate, longtime activists and theorists Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski argue for a new understanding of hate – and a new political framework centered on goodness and justice. Click here to order this provocative book from Truthout today!

No matter our location in the political universe (left, right, center, radical, conservative, whatever!), there is an intense pull to define ourselves by our enemies – the folks we “hate.” They are the personification of violence and injustice. In fact, they’re often figured as the sources of violence and injustice, erasing those forces’ structural roots. (Consider the persistent calls to “jail the bankers,” as if imprisoning individuals is the key to addressing the destruction wrought by capitalism.)

Meanwhile, we often frame these enemies as perpetrators of “hate.” As Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski outline in their brilliant new book, Considering Hate, we are all much more likely to view hate as residing elsewhere – not within ourselves, but within inferior others, whom we can disdain and distance ourselves from. Our political realities become determined by whom we are against.

In their book, Whitlock and Bronski dedicate themselves to both interrogating the hate frame – digging into its history, its construction, its uses, its tactics – and moving beyond it. They ask: “What would it look like to disentangle hate from justice, and replace the language of hate with that of goodness?” What does the language of goodness even look like, and how do we imagine our way there? In the following interview, Whitlock and Bronski illuminate the anatomy of hate – and show how a transformative imagination, built on compassion and an acknowledgement of interdependence, can guide our way forward.

Maya Schenwar: In the book’s introduction, you refer to a sort of “social justice teaching riddle”: “Who am I without a hated and inferior enemy to hold up the mirror so that I may see my own face?” As activists – or just people concerned about the world around us – how does “whom we hate” play a role in building our identities? How does this extend on a larger scale, to the identities of groups, movements, states?

Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski: In the book, we explore the temptation to define ourselves, in significant measure, by who we are not. Individuals, groups, institutions and even societies find much of our own meaning in opposition to designated enemies – those who literally and symbolically threaten and disgust us.

Ironically, our very disgust becomes proof of our own greater merit. We are not them, those terrible people. By definition, anything we do to them is justified. So you can see the trap.

When identity is significantly shaped by who we hate, the need to control, exclude, punish and sometimes even eradicate that enemy intensifies. This obsessive need to manage enemies constrains our visions for the good society. Think about Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank. Or criminalizing homelessness.

Despite its declared commitment to the ideals of freedom, democracy and equality, the US is deeply rooted in a worldview of enemy formation. This has justified American Indian genocide and settler colonialism, chattel slavery, the expansive growth of prison and correctional systems, and race-, class-, and gender-based policing/military violence and torture. It’s not just the right that gets stuck in this trap; sometimes the liberal/left gets stuck in similar reactivity. For example, many people would love to put lots of right-wingers in prisons, as if that’s real justice, and even joke about the violence that would be done to them there.

The framework of enmity can’t produce bolder, transformative visions of a just, generous society. Most of all, it obscures our own roles, however tacit and unwitting, in tolerating larger structures of violence.

You note that framing violence as stemming from “hate” allows people “to believe the problem of violence directed against marginalized groups exists anywhere but in themselves.” What consequences lie in this distancing – this firm separation of “us” and “them,” in which violence always stems from “them”?

The consequences are enormous and, for the most part, unrecognized by individuals and society. On the simplest – and probably largest – level, the dichotomization of “us” and “them” perpetrates the idea that nationally (and globally), the concept of a larger sense of a self-sustaining, and mutually supportive, community is an impossibility. It is naive to believe that everyone, everywhere will get along. But the belief that the “us” and “them” dichotomy has to exist in any number of social, political, sexual, gender, ethnic or racial constellations is deeply embedded – and passively accepted – in the Western collective consciousness.

Obviously the other immediate problem is that “us” and “them” allows some people and groups – the “us” – to always displace the existence of violence onto someone else. As we state in the book, people generally do not think of themselves as haters, only as the object of “hate.” Of course, once you see yourself as “hated” it is perfectly OK, for self-protection, to hate back – that is just a “reasonable reaction.” As a result, the complex displacement of hate onto the other justifies the violence that is directed out to them. It is no surprise then, that marginalized groups are more frequently targeted for what society thinks of as “hate violence” – and massively harmed by structural forms of violence.

Having said that, the “us and “them” split also influences how we conceptualize violence. The reality is that what we call violence is a complex set of actions and motives. To simply say that harming, hitting, injuring or killing someone (or some group) is “violence” and that it is “bad” (even as we justify it), does not take into account social power differentials and struggles for survival in which abused and subjugated peoples fight back. The political use of force is never simple, and the reductive insistence on “us” and “them” obscures this.

You describe a close relationship between hate and fear. How do hate and fear intersect? How does the media’s promotion of fear impact the way many people experience hate?

Rather than seeing hate and fear as intersecting, it may be more productive to see them, to varying degrees, as flip sides of a coin. They are so interconnected and codependent, that it is often impossible to not think of one without the other. The internalized terror instilled by a fear of something – the thump in the night, the possibility of assault, the danger lurking on a dark street – sets up a conditioned emotional and physical response of self-protection: quickened reflexes, increased heartbeat, heightened senses. This physical response increases our fear, makes us feel vulnerable and prompts us to guard against that which we think threatens us. The classic example is a literary work or movie in which supernatural creatures terrify humans. Since most of us do not believe these creatures exist, it is possible to enjoy the vicarious thrill of a horror film.

However, in the material world we have often been socially programmed to fear various incarnations of “the other” predicated on race, class, social orientation and other characteristics. Because it is a reaction to actual people and groups, this fear is almost never vicarious (and so enjoyable) and quickly translates, as a defense mechanism, to hate. Flip the coin, and we see similar results: Socially engineered hate produces fear. If a young white child has been taught by her parents to hate African-American people, she will undoubtedly fear them as well. The media obviously continuously conflates and constantly reconfigures fear and hate related to such issues as race, national security and personal safety.

On the simplest level it is how they get viewers to keep watching. The emotional illusion is that if we continually locate and identify fear/hate, we will somehow, magically be safe. On a larger scale, this manipulation simply reflects and reinforces the pre-existing social power systems – and fear equals hatred becomes the reality of lived ideas of disregard for some peoples and the capacity to do them harm.

In the book, you pay close attention to perceptions and portrayals of disability, and the emotions – and policies – related to it. At times, people living with disabilities have been viewed as “monsters” or “born criminals” to be feared; at times, victims to be “pitied”; at times, spectacles to be peered at from a distance. How is this study of disability, in particular, important in examining the hate frame?

A close look at disability shatters the premises of the hate frame. This frame suggests that violence is primarily the province of criminal extremists whose actions are abhorrent to decent people and respectable society and that the motive is fanatical, irrational prejudice. But historically, the social and economic violence done to people with disabilities is and always has been depressingly “respectable.”

In the American imagination, disability conjures frightening images of dread, disease, disfigurement and “degeneracy.” Not only of individual bodies, but the entire body politic. These images carry different meanings: physiological, intellectual, moral, symbolic and metaphorical. This gives us a compelling look at how supremacist ideology translates into forms of dehumanization, exploitation, abuse and violence. All of this is framed as logical, necessary to public safety and civil order, and even compassionate.

Disability often intersects intimately with race-, class-, and gender-based violence. The attribution of disability, degeneracy and disease helped drive the American Indian genocide and influenced public debates on citizenship (of Black people and women) and immigration. It fueled the eugenics movement, with its policies of custodial confinement and coercive sterilization of massive numbers of predominantly poor people and people of color). It was invoked against queers and impeded effective, humanitarian responses to people with AIDS.

Today, despite the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (still attacked by business lobbies), this violence continues. Not only do US prisons and jails house more people with mental illness than any other institution, but they also manufacture it. The widespread practice of extended solitary confinement produces psychological disorientation, suicide orientation, self-harm and psychosis. Coercive sterilization continues. Our book offers a contemporary example of horrific exploitation and abuse of hundreds of cognitively disabled workers through collusion of the state and a corporation. And we look at the policing of disability, past and present, through so-called “quality of life” laws.

Early in the book, you discuss the precarious definition of a “hate crime,” including the fact that this category doesn’t include some instances of massive harm. (For example, you note that most people do not see New York’s “stop and frisk” policy as motivated by hate, even though it overwhelmingly targets young men of color.) What are the effects of labeling something a hate crime? And why are some things labeled hate crimes, and some – for instance, the violence perpetrated by policing and prisons – not?

The hate frame reduces any discussion of violence to a reductive legal formula that seems to address a real problem – harm done to marginalized people and groups because of bias. And one of the effects of labeling something a hate crime – say, queer- or immigrant-bashing, is the belief that this means society actually believes such violence is unacceptable.

The legal designation of certain neutrally defined status categories – race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity or expression – as “protected status categories” is ahistorical. It doesn’t acknowledge national histories of subjugation and systemic violence against people of color, women, immigrants, transgender people and other queers, Muslims, Jews, people with disabilities and so on, even though most supporters think it does. So it doesn’t tackle structural supremacies. This means enforcement is always selective. That’s why when, say trans or queer people of color try to report or defend themselves against a “hate crime,” they may well end up not being believed – or worse, being further abused by police and perhaps considered the perpetrator. CeCe McDonald’s case is just one of many examples of how selective enforcement backfires against members of marginalized groups at the intersections of race, class and gender.

Because these laws and advocacy for them promote the view that “hate” violence is primarily committed against individuals by individual or small groups of extremists and social outsiders, they assume the state is the protector of marginalized groups. Protectors of marginalized groups don’t hate them, so, for example, race-based policing and violence is not considered “hate.” Prison guards or others responsible for state, institutional or corporate violence are not going to be charged with a hate crime.

The very structure and nature of hate crime laws is to keep the status quo of who gets to use, and get away with, violence firmly in place. This can be obviously seen in recent – since Ferguson and emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – calls for police to be included as a protected status category under hate crime legislation.

Something I really appreciated in the book was its emphasis on how the branding of “sociopaths” and “haters” and “bad people” lets “us” off the hook, when it comes to thinking about the actual roots of violence. This is a large question, so feel free to say as much or little as you like: If the hateful propensities of evil people are not where violence comes from, where does violence come from?

The book focuses here on the ways that what people think of as “hate violence” – harassment and assaults on vulnerable and marginalized communities – is a reflection and symptomatic of much larger forms of structural violence. That’s violence woven into a society’s institutions, customs and norms, into storylines and images in mass media and popular culture.

This violence arises from ideologies of supremacy – white supremacy heteropatriarchy, the belief that affluent people are inherently superior to poor people – that are translated into personal and group beliefs and practices. It boils down to whose lives are considered intrinsically worthy and whose are reduced to the status of disposable. Who has the power to make and enforce these judgments?

It doesn’t take obvious expressions of bigotry and hatred . . . to produce mass violence. All it takes is indifference.

Supremacy ideology – the societal valuing of some lives over others – produces that indifference. So, for example, the dominant public imagination renders structural racism and the anti-Blackness at its center, invisible to many, and of no consequence to most. When a scandal breaks out – the Chicago police torture cases, for example, or the abuse of hundreds of men with cognitive disabilities in the Henry’s Turkey farm labor camps – the violence is almost always attributed to “bad apples.” But such indifference is normative and not considered violence at all.

You point to some of the problems with singling out “perfect victims”- something that often happens in deeming an act a result of “hate.” In particular, people of color are often determined to be less-perfect, less-sympathetic victims within the dominant frame, and massive violence against them may be disregarded in this way. Also, when people have caused harm and are also victims themselves (often of a larger systemic force), there is a tendency to cut them off from the possibility of victimhood, of empathy and caring. Why is there such a push to locate the “perfect victim”? And why is it so hard for us to hold the complexity in our minds – the fact that people and groups can be both “victims” and “perpetrators”?

The push to locate “perfect victims” who are deemed completely “innocent” – and thus worthy of justice and compassion – is rooted in the ideas of individualism and exceptionalism. Individualism denies structural inequalities. Exceptionalism lifts up belief in the pre-ordained virtue and innocence of individuals or nations said to possess special and faultless moral character. It’s an easy and false way of distinguishing “us” – the good people – from “them,” the bad people. There is no room for fluidity or complexity.

This triage arises from supremacy ideology and its worthiness hierarchies based on race, class, gender, gender conformity, physical/mental ability, culture and religion.

We can generally count on police, politicians, pundits and mass media to tarnish the character of people presumptively perceived as bad – Trayvon Martin, Marissa Alexander, CeCe McDonald and Mike Brown, for example. Very different individual circumstances, but these Black people (already presumptively criminalized) are deemed more violent than the people who first assaulted or actually killed them. Lurking here is the sneaking suspicion that many people deserve the violence done to them, whether at the hands of a street attacker, an intimate partner or the police.

Most people can be “victims” in one instance and “perpetrators” in another. A Black or Latino police officer might experience the harms of racism, but also participate in abusive forms of policing. A white lesbian or gay person who has experienced the injustice of anti-LGBT discrimination may support race- and class-based “quality of life” policing in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Honest engagement with this complexity has the potential to expand our moral awareness in life-changing ways.

I found the latter part of Considering Hate profoundly hopeful and exciting. In talking about how we might move beyond our hate-based frameworks, you center on the power of imagination and “disruptive intelligence.” Can you talk a bit about what disruptive intelligence is? How might engaging in it shift our notions of what it means to be “safe” – thus shifting the ways in which we use fear and hate?

Lewis Hyde uses the phrase “disruptive intelligence” in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, an exploration of trickster-like mythologies and cultural expression. He argues that tricksters using disruptive insight are boundary violators and cultural agents who rip the lid off and expose “inflated righteousness” to show the cruelties often hidden within. Even as it exposes hypocrisy contradictions, disruptive insight opens up space for new possibility.

It’s the significance of this energy that interests us. “Disruptive intelligence” is, by its nature, elusive. It resists description, taking any number of forms depending on the reality of what it is disrupting. This chapter went through numerous revisions because we kept giving perfectly good examples that, precisely because they were concrete, limited the enormous scope of the idea. Disruptive intelligence’s energy does not derive from cogent political argument and organizing alone. Basically, it can be anything – a book, poem, direct question, gesture, glance, protest sign, slogan, ironic stance – that pulls the reader, listener, audience, person on the street out of their often-passive embrace of the accepted reality.

“Safety” is a very comforting idea for people – this could mean anything from making sure your front door is locked to women taking self-defense classes to families living in a gated community to individuals carrying guns. Fear mongering, in the media and political rhetoric has drastically increased the need to “feel safe,” as opposed to being safe. Disruptive intelligence – which shatters, or dislodges a false, accepted reality – has the potential to cut through this.

James Baldwin, a brilliant purveyor of disruptive intelligence, said, “Art is here to prove, and to help one another bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.” We can’t control the unknown. And “safety” certainly can’t come from the politics of fear and competing ideas of who hates the most and who is most hated.

Under a conception of justice that doesn’t put all the blame on an evil “they,” “we” must end up bearing some of the responsibility for violence that occurs in our society. This shift could produce some anxiety: Whom do we hold accountable for bad things happening, if we are breaking out of an us vs. them mindset? How do we hold “us” accountable?

Nobody has definite answers for these questions, least of all us. But a growing number of groups and individuals are working on them in different contexts.

Groups such as INCITE! Creative Interventions, and Project NIA, led by women and transgender people of color, have broken new ground in emphasizing the integrity of community relationships in talking about community accountability and transformative justice. Such work, deeply rooted in particular communities will teach the rest of us new ways of imagining justice. From there, new ideas and models can be shared, adapted, modified in an ever-widening spiral of change.

In Considering Hate we separate “responsibility” from “punishment.” Justice can be redefined in terms of creating trustworthy and just social, economic, cultural, religious and ecological relationships that can evolve and strengthen over time.

This shift will produce considerable anxiety. For many people this anxiety will arise because now-dominant groups will no longer benefit from structural supremacies. Another anxiety has to do with acknowledging complicity in doing or tolerating harm to others.

This is where the role of transformative imagination may prove useful. The dominant American imagination now only thinks about violence, innocence, guilt, accountability and justice through a lens of enemy orientation, individualism, supremacist notions and their structural manifestations, unregulated free markets and consumer commodification (capitalism). It’s a community-shattering paradigm.

Our book emphasizes the importance of refusing to accept these as the only terms of debate and replacing them with new elements that emphasize radical and compassionate embrace of the Neighbor, shared community resources and well-being, and structural recognition of interdependence.

Early on in the book, you discuss how fear-based policies and institutionalized violence toward people with disabilities and people of color also encompass violence toward the “concept of the Commons.” Later, you include “expansion of the Commons” as one potential element of a “transformative American imagination.” What is the Commons, and why is its expansion key to imagining a future that’s not structured around hate?

In the book, we note that there are different historical and cultural iterations of the idea of the Commons, and we are not proposing a single or static definition. But for the book’s purpose, we mean the wide variety of life-sustaining resources that everyone needs – and should have ready, unimpeded access to – in order to lead healthy, safe and sustainable lives. So it includes natural resources – including clean water, clean air, heat, sustainable ecologies – and economic security. It includes access to public places, the very idea of public places, public education, affordable housing, public health resources and healthy food.

Increasingly, in the US and throughout most of Europe, the enormous trend toward privatization (always connected to capitalism and unregulated free market policies) has eroded the very notion of a public sphere. By its very nature of privatizing and consolidating wealth, this incessant whittling away of the idea of shared resources for shared humanity excludes many people who lack advantage. On a metaphoric and imaginative level, it creates a world in which we simply do not have to care about, or can be indifferent to other people. If we are going to seriously think about, consider, how hate works on the deepest internal and emotional levels we are going to have to see that the reconstitution of the idea of the “common” – profoundly, as in the “common good” – must be a realizable goal.

Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and writes at Truthout and Critical Mass Progress on structural violence in the criminal legal system.

Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including, A Queer History of the United States, he most recently coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.