Destigmatising hate: it can be a constructive and rational tool

Hatred of stupidity and injustice is a crucial cog that keeps the wheel of civilisation turning, and it’s time we recognised that.

Pope Benedict XVI arriving in Benin in 2011, where he called Aids "an ethical problem". Photograph: Getty Images

We have, for no good reason, become extremely quick to pounce on and condemn hatred. But there is a great deal to be said for an emotion without which we would be profoundly lost.

Contemporary consensus seems to be that an opinion cannot possibly be backed by evidence or rationality if its advocate feels passionately angry – or hateful – about the subject. Consequently couched in euphemism are sentiments that all too often deserve to be aired uncensored. We must resist pandering to this form of restriction as it is so often an attempt to isolate those with passionate criticisms to voice. We give hatred such a bad press because of the high esteem in which we correctly hold love. But the inclinations toward both are by no means mutually exclusive; quite the contrary, they feed off and are dependent upon one another. Love would mean nothing were it not for our acute awareness of hatred, just as light would mean nothing without the presence of darkness. To believe that someone is incapable of love because they are bristling with hatred is to misunderstand the nature of each emotion. One would for example hate any individual who committed grave harm to one’s partner; this hatred would be a rational hatred and it would be an inhuman voice that labelled it inappropriate.

There are therefore numerous scenarios in which hatred is not only justified but constructive. I do not think it sufficient to say that the Pope is simply mistaken when he denounces homosexuality or prevents the use of condoms in AIDS-ridden Africa; I deem these actions adequate enough to hate both the individual and the institution that perpetuates such medieval bigotry. I don’t deem it sufficient to say that the shielding of known child rapists is simply a criminal offence; I think that the victims of these gross forms of misconduct are more than entitled to the hatred they are likely to harbour, and that many can join them in feeling it.

Put simply, we would not have made the advances we have if it were not for our instinctive hatred of the inhumane and the barbaric. Hatred of stupidity and injustice is a crucial cog that keeps the wheel of civilisation turning; it is a constantly replenished supply of ammunition. Without justified hatred we would struggle to right innumerable wrongs. It is naïve to claim that individuals would have been motivated to perform heroic deeds without harbouring profound hatred of the vices and injustices against which they were crusading. Asserting that hatred is a corrosive emotion responsible for horrific crimes is no truer than claiming the same for love; the crux of the matter is toward what the respective emotions are directed. Love of violence need not entail hatred of anything – and for this very reason we cannot condemn love outright as so many attempt to do when hatred is under the spotlight. What people tend to mean when objecting to hatred is that they wish to protect the target at which the hatred is aimed; the same phenomenon rears its ugly head when debates take place over “offence”: yes yes, being offensive is OK, just don’t offend me . We need urgently to recognise the double standard at work here – as well as the reasonable feelings involved – and discuss honestly the words being uttered, not the assumed emotions that lie behind them. Hatred and its rational motivations are two independent entities; one’s point does not become invalid the moment one’s contempt bubbles to the surface. Thus a loathing of Joseph Ratzinger does not in any sense mean that criticism of him is unsubstantiated.

One must of course be very cautious about giving hatred a seal of approval and letting open the floodgates. But baseless hatred is very easy to sniff out – it can bear its teeth in the form of rampant sexism and racism – and is something for which we ought always to be on our guard. We know how to distinguish between forms of hatred in the same way as we know how to distinguish between forms of love; we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

A further distinction is crucial to bear in mind, and it is that between a system of thought and its adherents. One can hate Catholicism without by implication hating Catholics; one can hate Fred Phelps but not by implication all Christians. This is a difference that needs to be clarified time and time again for the benefit of those eager to dismiss a critical standpoint as being nothing more than hatred towards a group of people and thus irrational by very definition. Hatred is and must be reserved for the worst individuals and the worst crimes. 

From religion, however, comes the injunction not to hate but to “love one’s enemies”. This is a poisoned chalice, a command that is both saccharine and absolutely unworkable. One cannot be told to love anything, not least one’s enemies – partly because to do so would strip the word “enemies” of any meaning whatsoever. No real solutions will be reached if we are satisfied simply to be lovey-dovey with one another, cuddling and stroking each other’s faces in a sweet-encrusted meadow of sunflowers. More often than not this is the picture of progress painted for us by the devoutly religious. This image puts me in mind of a morphine-induced stupor of perpetual, cretinous grinning in a hospital that has long ago given up bothering to perform surgery. The solution lies of course in the correct balance between blind love and blind hatred; but all of one with none of the other is dangerous and must always be repudiated. We must learn to love well and to hate well.