Hatred. Neo-Nazis. White Supremacists. Racism. KKK. These terms, and many like them, we had hoped were slowly disappearing from our public life and lexicon, yet they are everywhere in these troubled days. For those individuals and groups who have felt the sheer injustice of such things, however, they have been an ever-present reality.
With the events of Charlottesville, we are struggling to grasp the implications of what happens when those most troubling facets of hatred emerge again to prove we never did deal with them effectively. Rallies are being held across the United States and Canada, including London, this weekend that pit the best and worst of human nature against one another.
The troubles of recent days have caused me to reflect on the seminal speech given by former dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech Republic. In a 1990 address titled, “The Anatomy of Hate,” Havel unpacked the lessons he had learned during his country’s Soviet oppression and its eventual liberation. Whether in conflict or in peace, he discovered, hatred never rests.
What makes Havel’s insights so compelling is his focus on how individual hatred most often leads to group animosity, as when he said near the beginning of his speech: “Anyone who hates an individual is almost always capable of succumbing to group hatred or even spreading it. I would even say that group hatred … is a kind of funnel that ultimately draws into itself everyone disposed toward hatred.”
We have seen too much of this of late. Rather than drawing people through policy, human values or a sense of social justice, hatred, by itself, is sufficient enough a recruitment tool – just rile people up and they will destroy anything that stands in the way of their anger, whether it’s the public space or personal dignity. Where they can’t acquire recognition through the respect of all people, they seek to achieve it by destroying anything of human merit in their path.
Havel had lived long enough to see that many who allied themselves in his call for change were simply cruising on his notoriety in order to obliterate everything they hated. When he became president of his country he realized that his ascension to power had also ushered in many who simply wanted to destroy, never to build.
Yet modern society has progressed enough that it knows hatred in such settings and often organizes against it. This is what the alt-right, racist, bigoted, white supremacy, neo-Nazi coalition discovered in Charlottesville when those brutal two days were over – the country rejected them. And this is the stage that decimates the haters the most, Havel affirmed. “People who hate wish to attain the unattainable and are consumed by the impossibility of attaining it.” The result? “They grow tormented by the evidence of others rejecting their methods.”
How should we react to acts of hatred? That’s easy: reject and speak out against them. Yet it is necessary that in so doing we examine our own motives and our rush to anger, lest we become victims of the same harsh level of intolerance. Hatred always starts as animosity, moves on to wishing harm on others, and frequently results in actions that induce harm. Such a path requires only two things: an object for our animosity and the wish to damage it. The great teachers of humanity and ethics have repeatedly reminded us that hatred is easy to spot in our adversaries, more difficult in our allies and friends, and ultimately the hardest to see in ourselves. Such smallness of soul we must ever be on guard against, individually and as a community.
And there is another big lesson we must learn if we are to keep hatred from gaining ground: many in our midst are affected by it everyday, and remaining quiet about such occurrences, or pretending they don’t exist, is both beneath us as citizens and hurtful to our city. Online harassment, racism, verbal and physical attacks against those of differing sexual persuasions, political targeting and religious bigotry – these are ongoing occurrences and it’s time we acknowledged them and came together to defeat them.
As Labour Day approaches, we have work ahead of us as citizens. It involves building a better city where acts of hatred result in a community mobilizing against such travesties and for those victimized by them. But, as Havel would likely remind us, hatred is the enemy, not the haters, and as we gather this weekend to speak out against such vile practices it is vital that we know the difference, lest we become like those we oppose.