Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in the cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralyzed
I thought that everything else would just wait
While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Do you hate? Do you have enemies? Will eliminating your enemies make you safe? Do you take revenge? Do any of those things make your life better? Do they bring you happiness?

Hate as a psychological phenomenon comes in seven forms: cool hate (disgust), hot hate (anger/fear), cold hate (devaluation), boiling hate (revulsion), simmering hate (loathing), seething hate (revilement), and burning hate (extreme combination of all components of hate, driving a need for annihilation). These feelings are painful. They cause despair, illness, violence, war. But none of them are necessary or inevitable. Many people have moved beyond hatred to feelings of forgiveness and compassion for all humankind, or all living things. Those people, in fact, understand hatred from a different angle than those who continue to hate. They understand that we should not judge others for being different, but accept them as misguided, or simply unfortunate, extensions of the human family.

Why hate people? People are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that? On September 15, 2001, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot as payback for the terrorist attacks of four days earlier. Although Sodhi, a Sikh, was related to the hijackers neither ethnically nor religiously, a United States gripped with fear forgave and forgot about his murder. 1700 incidents of abuse of Muslims took place in the five months following 9/11. Muslims had become the outsider, the twisted, the enemy.

An evil Jewish landlord evicting a poor old German man


Jews being kicked out of school in Nazi Germany

The enemy is not human like us. In his excellent book the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr Philip Zimbardo describes the process of dehumanisation. When others are less than human, torment, torture and murder can seem entirely legitimate and even pleasurable. The book’s website contains pictures of Nazi comic books that led young Germans to consider the Jews deserving of a final solution, many examples of government propaganda depicting the enemy as an enemy of god, a barbarian, criminal, rapist, and subhuman creature, and postcards of lynchings of blacks in the old American South that people would send each other. It is well worth a visit.

One of the main points of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone, regardless of mental ability, can become evil. The right justification and the right rhetoric, perhaps mixed with a stressful situation, can lead anyone to viewing others as subhuman. The movie American History X describes the process by which an intelligent, well-adjusted young man became leader of a gang of neo-Nazis. He had all the apparently well-reasoned arguments in the world. White people came to America and prospered, he averred, while all the other races fell behind. His mistake was assuming the reasons why that happened were racial or cultural, rather than anything else. A little ignorance of history turned everyone but white, protestant-descended Americans into his enemies.

But why have enemies? How could a Christian, for instance, want to kill his enemy, when the Bible says to love them? How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them? After all, we did not choose our collective enemies; political opportunists did. Who are the scapegoats on any given day? Terrorists? Muslims? Iraqis? Iranians? Chinese? Are communists still our enemies? I forget. In George Orwell’s 1984, the enemy, the object of all the hate, would change when the Party decided it would change, and the stupid people accepted it without question. Orwell had a strong understanding of how manipulable humans are. To this day, the enemy of the people is whomever the elites who control the people say it is.

Too often we cling to enemies as we might to a security blanket. A Buddhist website says, “If you try for a moment to befriend an enemy, he will become your friend. The opposite occurs if you treat a friend like an enemy. Therefore, the wise, understanding the impermanent nature of temporal relationships, are never attached to food, clothing or reputation.” The time for being enemies or friends needs to last no longer than we want it to. Life is fleeting, too short to waste being angry. Buddha said, “In another life, the father becomes the son; the mother, the wife; the enemy, a friend. It always changes. In cyclic existence, nothing is certain.”

We should not struggle against enemies, but against ourselves. That is why the Prophet Mohamed called the struggle against one’s own shortcomings, movement toward the full embrace of moral living, greater jihad (holy war is lesser jihad). Often, our hatreds are a reflection of what we see in ourselves, and what we dislike about but are not willing to admit to ourselves. Think about the wars of the world: most of the worst are between groups that have the most in common. Since they are different groups, however, only one may remain.

Along with hatred and enemies, revenge is a misguided action. It springs from loss of control of oneself. Revenge tends to lead to a cycle of violence (unless it leads to genocide) that descends through collective imagination and memory to infect young nationalists and prompt them to pick up guns. It turns cool heads hot, whipping people into a frenzy that leads to irrational and self-destructive action. Chandrakirti said, “It is foolish and ignorant to retaliate to an enemy’s attack with spite in hopes of ending it, as the retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Here is a familiar example.

Why did 9/11 happen? Do people know yet? Have they read the 9/11 Commission Report? Here is a brief summary of what made people so cross with the US. Bin Laden and his associates declared all Americans deserving of death due to the sins of their government. What could make someone so blind with anger he cannot see distinctions among 300m people? First was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and support for despotic governments in the Muslim world; second, the suffering of Iraqis under US-imposed sanctions during the 1990s; third, US support for Israel and its brutality. All those results were the brainwaves of American foreign-policymakers. The Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims but many of them could nonetheless agree that the US’s foreign policy had had disastrous effects on their societies.

In the Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes our desire for revenge as akin to mindless anger: not directed, but just a desire to do harm. Now the US has entered into wars with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not Afghanistan was a reasonable target has become irrelevant. The American people were still so filled with revenge that, at any given time, between 56 and 78% of Americans polled felt it was right to invade a country they knew nothing about to kill people of the same religious category as the ones who killed a small number of their compatriots. Of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, who was taking revenge? Both sides. Who won? Neither. Revenge has neither eliminated the threat nor provided any kind of catharsis to anyone.

I learned all I needed to know about revenge from the old cartoon He-Man. When some powerful sorcerers were making others fight each other against their will, He-Man came along and subdued them. The victims immediately called for blood: make the sorcerers fight now, to teach them a lesson. But He-Man, in his wisdom, told the erstwhile gladiators, if we force them to fight, we are no better than they. Let us instead forgive them and grant them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They felt good for having performed an act of forgiveness and kindness, and the others had the chance to rediscover the good side of themselves. Everyone’s suffering was over.

When we are under stress, we turn inward to the groups we say we belong to and turn against the unknown. Political opportunists and hate mongers do not want us to learn about other people, because we will learn about our similarities, become interested in their differences, and realise that we have been lied to by the propagandists we hear on the news.

Hate begets hate. Love begets love. Free your mind of desires to cause pain in others and soothe your own pain in the process.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go fuck myself
You know you just can’t win.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

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12 Responses to “Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself”

  1. Aimee Says:

    This was, just so insightfull. I guess when we truely look at how our government controls our enemies, our enemies control their revenge. Everything comes around sooner or later. I like how you see both sides of the story with out making it an arguement, but more of a opportunity. I mean if we all listened to what you’re telling us now, we wouldn’t have as much hatred in the world. How do you know all of this? Is this a topic you discuss regularly?

  2. menso Says:

    Thanks Aimee! I study war and conflict, hence the rest of the blog, and I find that our worst behaviour is based on flaws that could be corrected in the individual if he or she had a little more insight into his or her nature. I am trying to learn more about human nature and spread it around so that we can make wiser choices. And at the very least I know that writing posts like this will help me live better and become the person I want to be.

  3. Jay Says:

    Menso, you say “How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them?” Unless you’re being sarcastic and I didn’t understand, it seems like you’re encouraging the lower classes to view the elites as enemies, while in other paragraphs encouraging everyone to have no enemies. The elites are just a bunch of misguided (or possibly even just different) people, like any other “enemy”.

    Also, you say “[p]eople are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that?” If that were the case, how can you ask people to cease hating? It’s only their environment and genes that make them hate, and you’re changing neither. I think what’s needed is the ability to consider people responsible for their actions without hating them for bad (or different) actions. As you point out, the American elite are responsible for doing things to make Bin Laden and followers full of hate, but Bin Laden and followers are responsible for making the decision to hate and taking action on it. Even in their environment they did not have to make that decision: you yourself point out that “[t]he Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims.” I’m assuming Muslims are people in Bin Laden’s environment, but I don’t know enough to be certain. Even if I’m wrong about that, the rest of my point holds.

  4. menso Says:

    Hi Jay, yes, that’s a good point about the workers. Of course, I still think no one should have real enemies, but I guess my point is that, if you are going to have any enemy, the people keeping you down with taxes and laws and propaganda should be your targets.

    For your second point, sure, some Muslims are in bin Laden’s environment but most of them group up in homes and communities that are basically happy and pious and safe, not in places that preach a fanatical worldview.

    The variation in our personalities comes basically from our genes and the environments we have been exposed to over our lives, but we still have the power to make choices. It’s kind of like, we are forced into most of our personality but can choose whether or not to keep it. If I can spread this kind of thinking around, the environment itself will change as more people consider that their are alternatives to violent hatred.

    I could be wrong about this, but I find that a lot of people make decisions without really noticing it. They do it because the people around them do it first. If some people decide to act this way, they will spread it around.

  5. Jay Says:

    I still disgree with suggesting any enemy at all. Which is to say, I agree with your overall point in the main post.

    I completely agree with you about choice: our genes and environment determine the default that happens when we don’t take the time to consciously choose how we act or think. I agree that what we do by acting unhating is change the environment for some people and help things become better. But if you believe that people can make choices, saying that you can’t judge people because they didn’t have control over their choices is contradictory.

    Let me make this completely clear: I agree with your point strongly. I live my life by it! I just want to help weed out internal contradictions in your presentation and make it stronger. If you think I’m doing you a disservice, you need only say so and I’ll go away.

  6. menso Says:

    haha, thanks Jason. I will still try really hard not to be judgmental.

  7. The psychology of racialist violence « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] Hatred is a natural feeling that any of us can fall victim to. Hate is anger with a direction. It can come easily when the objects are dehumanised, considered less deserving of respect than those in our exclusive group. Stereotyping simplifies the other and simplifies hatred of the other by turning him into a one-dimensional caricature of his group. The arguments against Jews, for instance, refer to them collectively, to say what they are and are not, imposing square pegs of what people are in round holes of what they could be. Uncomfortable with ambiguity, which might mean that we accept that everyone is sufficiently different to defy stereotype, we package things for our own convenience and lose understanding in the process. Sherif (1937) likened this removal of ambiguity to the slogans and propaganda that dehumanised the enemy and fired up the masses in the fascist movements of his time. By repeating canards about who the enemy is, we form images that fill us with hate. […]

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