Blaming hate on fear – oversimplifying complex phenomena

3 mins read

By Linnea Holm

Hate is a powerful emotion. There are a variety of ways through which it can manifest itself in human behaviour, almost all of which can culminate with devastating effects. There are many questions one can ask to shed light on this seemingly merciless emotion. Why do people hate? What drives people to commit hateful acts? And, equally important, is fear an acceptable justification for hate?

A common notion traces the origins of hatred to a fear of the unknown. A fear of what is unfamiliar to a person, and the perceived implications it could have on a person’s life. This fear is often depicted as the basis of hate. There is no shortage of articles on racist views and hate crimes around the world, many of which come with the usual narrative of people who are reacting in fear to their own ignorance of other people’s ways of life. One can only wonder if this link between fear and hate is strong enough to cement cause and effect.  

As a minor disclaimer, it is important to note that I do not claim to be orginiator of this analysis, nor am I proposing some new theory. I am simply trying to evoke a sense of curiosity by shedding light on the fundamental assumptions of an idea in need of critical review. With that said, I am not trying to dismiss other factors or diminish the importance of different explanations. Ultimately, fear will always trigger feelings. But it is important to scrutinize the oversimplification of an intricately complex phenomenon, and the reduction of seemingly irrational behaviour to rational outcomes of natural causes. At some point, a line must be drawn and excuses must be put aside for accountability.

Consider one example: the recent attack and fire bombing of the synagogue in Gothenburg perpetrated by a group of youths. The targets were a group of young jews having a party inside the synagogue. It is difficult to accept the idea that the attackers actually feared the intended victims of their hate crime.

In cases like these, greater emphasis should be placed on alternative explanations that transcend the simplified fear-driven narrative. Consider the outcome of an empirical investigation carried out in 1993 by the two Boston based social scientists, Jack McDevitt and Jack Levin. In their study they closely examined 169 different hate-crime offences around the city. They found that the motives of hate crimes could be divided into four main categories, one of which was ‘thrill-seeking’.

CNN editor Daniel Burk refers to the study in an article published last June, where he cites the reason for thrill-driven hate crimes was “an immature itch for excitement and drama”, leaving victims vulnerable “simply because of their sexual, racial, ethnic, gender or religious background differs from that of their attackers”. Apparently, attackers believe that “society doesn’t care about the victims or worse, will applaud their assault.”

There is an important lesson to be drawn from the study mentioned above. Hate can also be based on irrational motives and beliefs. The youngsters committing the hate crime against the synagogue simply do not fit into the fear-hate frame that is usually applied when assessing this kind of behaviour. It seems there are deeper underlying causes behind the phenomena of hate crimes that the simple ‘fear of the other’ frame cannot always explain.  

Some might argue that biological factors can play a role in explaining why people hate. Perhaps certain traits of aggression lie within the genetics of the human species. Or maybe it is an evolutionary characteristic that can be traced back to our most primal tools for survival. After all, instinctive fear towards intruders and strangers from other tribes served to protect prehistoric humans.

Biological and social-psychological reasons could potentially account for the link between fear and racism to some extent. But I also believe this explanation is overemphasized. Humanity has come a long way from the days where fear and violence were natural reactions to encountering a group of strangers that might very well threaten your existence and well-being.The civil societies we have shaped and developed serve to protect individuals from each other and have long eliminated the need for primitive hostility to unfamiliar faces. With that said, the evolutionary traits of the past cannot be held responsible for present day hate crimes.

Fear has been used to justify a myriad of horrific atrocities that range from the Holocaust to the hate crimes carried out by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists today. By placing too much emphasis on fear, we suffer from oversimplifying the complex choices that people make along with the tangled determinants that shape these choices. At some point, we must stop excusing hate and discrimination and work harder to understand their true motives. In today’s world, we have easy access to information that informs us of anything and everything. With a few tools and minimal effort, anyone can understand the mysterious ‘other’. Blaming hatred on fear is a good way to sympathize with the perpetrators of violence, and a bad way to go about understanding the real mechanisms at work.  

By Linnea Holm

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