Why Do People Hate? And Is There a Way to Counteract It?

Who hates and why? Trying to answer that question, New York Times writer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz recently used big data methods to exhaustively analyze traffic on a prominent hate web site. His conclusion, “Why do some people feel this way? And what is to be done about it? I have pored over data of an unprecedented breadth and depth, thanks to our new digital era. And I can honestly offer the following answer: I have no idea.”

Not everyone agrees. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has authored a remarkable book about the root causes of human conflict (Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, Bloomsbury, USA). The book provocatively links human-on-human violence to human-on-animal violence.

Based on the work of Masson and others, I am convinced that sooner than we might think, breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology, cultural anthropology and other fields will give us dramatic new ways to understand where hate comes from and how to address it.

And fortunately there is one organization that has very good ideas about “what is to be done about it.” For twenty years now Not In Our Town (NIOT) has been communicating and developing community based programs to fight hate.

Last month in Billings, Montana teachers, students, law enforcement personnel, elected officials, media makers and citizens assembled to connect and strategize at the NIOT Leadership Gathering. The location was no accident. For it was in Billings that citizens came together in response to local hate crimes to proclaim Not In Our Town. The film about their success became the basis for a movement.

Those who attended knew from experience that we are not powerless in the face of hate. We can effectively address routine day-to-day expressions of hate and the more dramatic episodes of violence that make the news.

Schools are one place to start. Not In Our Schools (NIOS) has evolved directly from the NIOT experience. Bullying is clearly an early indicator of a propensity to attack those identified as “other.” Anti-bullying campaigns are one expression of NIOS programs formed to encourage mutual respect and understanding in schools.

NIOS has devised many programs and techniques, designed to let students lead, to help schools promote acceptance of any and all identities. The hope is that lessons learned young will carry forward into adulthood. As a school principal put it to me, our goal, “should not be to make our children the best in the world. It should be to make them the best for the world.”

Compared with a previous gathering held in 2006, the Billings meeting included participation from many more members of the law enforcement community. One of the most eloquent was Oak Creek, Wisconsin Police Lieutenant Brian Murphy. Murphy was shot 15 times trying to apprehend the hate murderer who had killed six Sikh worshippers in their Temple. He not only lived to tell his story. For him it was a transformative experience in understanding his own need to learn more about those who often become the victim of hate crimes.

Murphy describes his experience in the latest Not In Our Town (NIOT) anti-hate film, Waking In Oak Creek. Members of the Temple, many of them relatives of the murdered victims appear in the film and spoke at the Gathering. Oak Creek Mayor, Steve Scaffidi also helped lead a session. Representatives of the US Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program also participated as did police officers and prosecutors from several cities.

Perhaps the single most important message emerging from the Gathering is that inclusiveness and love for all are community assets not liabilities. Well duh, you might say.

Not so fast. That perspective is anything but self-evident. The shift in attitudes and policies toward LGBTQ people is without a doubt a stunning social change. In the space of roughly twenty years, things have taken a very sharp turn. Thanks to an enormous amount of hard work, courage and sacrifice the tide is turning away from exclusion and more toward inclusion.

To be clear, all manner of prejudice, including hate crimes against LGBTQ people persists. As with other social changes, the possibility of a backlash that rolls back progress is very real. But for now the most powerful corporations in the US are aggressively advocating for LGBTQ acceptance. State-by-state, gay marriage continues to be legalized at a rapid pace. And so a widely practiced form of exclusion is, for the time being at least, receding.

Progress toward acceptance for LGBTQ people notwithstanding, being inclusive rather than exclusive remains a struggle. White racism, the worship of war and antagonism toward non-white immigrants remain virulent. From a historical perspective that should not be all that surprising. The nation was formed in the crucible of excluding anyone who was not a white, protestant, heterosexual, property owning male. That’s a lot of exclusion to overcome.

The point is that becoming inclusive rather than exclusive does not come about by accident. It requires advocates for inclusion and against hate. For 20 years Not In Our Town has been one of those advocates. It starts with the belief, the value, the principal that inclusion is worth fighting for. And surely that was the spirit of the Gathering in Billings.

It was clearly reflected in the embrace of NIOT’s proposed Gold Star Cities campaign. The idea behind Gold Star Cities is that local communities can portray themselves as welcoming, safe and inclusive by taking concrete action to qualify for the Gold Star designation. Many communities have already demonstrated elements of becoming a Gold Star City. They have created and sustained community dialogue, developed school programs to promote school safety and inclusion, trained police to recognize and report hate crime, engaged artists to create community based art projects, created anti-hate pledge campaigns, and partnered with local media to cover positive community building activities.

The Gold Star Cities concept was greeted with enthusiastic support. The shared understanding was that in a globalized economy, acceptance and tolerance are not just the right thing to do. Diversity represents a competitive advantage in building vibrant, economically successful cities. Thus proclaiming a city as a Gold Star City is a way to “brand” it as a place that is attractive to people of all kinds.

What is the issue in your city? In Patchogue, NY it was immigration. Like white supremacy, immigration is another long running argument over whom to exclude. The argument however is obviously not just about defining and “protecting” national borders. It’s about how to treat “others” who are already here who may be identifiable by how they look or talk. One of those in attendance at the Gathering was Paul Pontieri, Mayor of the Village of Patchogue. He first became involved with Not In Our Town when teenagers in his community killed an immigrant. He is now a strong advocate of Not In Our Town as a tool to keep all of Patchogue’s residents safe from violence.

I am embarrassed to say that in my own predominately white town of Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, the powers-that-be have built a barrier to vehicle traffic on a major street that prevents driving into the city from predominately African-American Detroit. It is not the first such barrier. But it is the first on a major commercial thoroughfare. This is happening in 2014 during a time when Grosse Pointe Park has recently experienced a significant increase in African-American residents.

It is a classic example of a community that chooses to define itself by its posture of exclusion not inclusion. I am proud to be working with citizens who, while we failed to prevent the barrier, will continue to campaign against it and other expressions of hostility to African-Americans from the “leaders” of Grosse Pointe Park. Can my town become a Gold Star City? It’s an uphill climb to be sure. But it is definitely something to aspire to.

To find out more about how becoming a Gold Star City would benefit your community, visit NIOT.org.

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