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Ideas | David Livingstone Smith

Fighting hate is a losing battle

Demonstrators on the streets of Boston. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Getty Images

Hate has been in the news a lot lately. TV news shows can’t get enough of it. Social media feeds seethe with articles about hate groups and hate speech. There are marches against hate, walks against hate, vigils against hate, and rallies against hate. The website of Southern Poverty Law Center tells us that “hate in America has become commonplace” and asks, rhetorically, “What can we do to stop the hate?”

The framing of the question suggests that it’s self-evident that the way to stop hate is by fighting it — to declare war on it.

True to the tough-guy self-image deep in the American psyche, many seem to believe that the best way to deal with anything that you don’t like is to beat the stuffing out of it. So, if you don’t like “hate,” then you should “fight” it.


This approach gets things dangerously wrong. Here’s why.

First, you can’t really fight hate any more that you can really fight cancer or wage a war on drugs. To think otherwise is slip into what philosophers call a “category mistake” — the error of treating one kind of thing as though it’s quite a different kind of thing. Suppose that I said to you that one of my students gave me a cold, and then you responded — in all seriousness — by asking me whether the cold was gift-wrapped and came with a card. If you asked me this you’d be committing a category mistake centered on the use of the verb “gave.” This is the same sort of screw-up that people commit when they talk about fighting hate. Just as a cold isn’t the sort of thing that can be gift-wrapped, hate isn’t the sort of thing that can be fought.

The idea that all decent Americans are (or should be) embroiled in a war against hate is oddly reminiscent of the Bush administration’s war on terror. As Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out in a 2007 article in the Washington Post, “The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare — political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.” If “the war on terror” is a meaningless phrase, “the war against hate” is every bit as meaningless.


But aren’t the wars against terror, hate, or cancer just metaphors? Fair enough. But that’s not the end of the story. Biologist Richard Lewontin once remarked, riffing on a comment by Winston Churchill, that “The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.” Metaphors are appropriate, as long as you remember what they’re metaphors for. And even when you’re clear about what they’re for, they have a tendency to run away with you — to structure your thinking and actions in misleading, disadvantageous, or even disastrous ways (recall the “war on terror”). I’m not so sure that everyone who pictures themselves as fighters against hate can keep their eyes on this elusive ball, and remain steady in their awareness that “fighting hate” isn’t fighting hate. Antifa — that is, the loose movement of self-styled anti-fascists who’ve been blamed for outbursts violence at protests — is a good example of a metaphor gone bad.

The idea that we’re involved in a fight (whether an actual or a metaphorical one) isn’t really the most pressing concern. More worrying is the notion that hate is the thing that we need to oppose. This line of thought projects a distorted image of what we’re up against, and may hinder effective political action.


It’s tempting to think of hate as something that’s bad to the bone. Only bad people are pro-hate, right? Well, I’m a Jew who hates Nazis. Does this make me a bad person? Does it place me on the same side of the moral divide as a Nazi who hates Jews because we are both “haters”? Should foot soldiers in the war against hate also battle against my hatred of Nazism, or is my hatred of Nazism a good, acceptable, or even morally obligatory kind of hate?

Think it through. If our hates all have the same moral valence, then you’re bound to accept our president’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests. But if you can resist the temptation to gerrymander the boundaries of hate so that it includes only those people who stand for things that you disapprove of, the answers to the rhetorical questions in the previous paragraph are pretty clear. There’s good hate and there’s bad hate. Hate is morally neutral when it’s considered all on its own; what makes it good or bad depends on what it is that’s being hated.

The same principle applies to love. The white supremacists that tromped through Charlottesville brandishing swastika flags, KKK insignia, and assault rifles while chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” were people who loved their “whiteness,” feared its replacement, and had a protective attitude towards what they took to be their “heritage.” If you spend some time listening, as I do, to podcasts produced by members of the so-called alt-right, you’ll soon discover that hate plays a relatively small role in what most of them have to say. There’s a whole lot about fear (of being outnumbered by people of color), loyalty (to the white race), nostalgia (for a white supremacist past), pride (in their ethnic identity), and outrage (at “cultural Marxism”). There’s also love (of their race). And there’s also plenty of moral righteousness and contempt for those whites who don’t buy into their ethno-nationalist ideology. Of course, hate is present too — often blatantly so — but it’s not the main focus.


The same was true in the past. The statue of Robert E. Lee that galvanized the far-right groups that gathered in Charlottesville was set up to glorify the “lost cause” of the slaveholding Confederacy. The men whom these detestable monuments lionize didn’t hate their slaves any more than they hated their livestock or farm equipment. For the most part, they considered black people as so unworthy of respect that they didn’t even merit being hated.

Consider Nazi propaganda — the kind that was produced by real Third Reich Nazis, not tiki torch Nazis — and you’ll discover the same pattern. These women and men were in love with race, führer, and fatherland, and made a big deal of their attachment to blood and soil, their horror, fear, and disgust of Jews, and what they took to be the sublime moral uplift of the National Socialist cause.


As much as we’d like to think otherwise, Auschwitz wasn’t built out of hate. The historian  Claudia Koonz reminds us in the opening pages of “The Nazi Conscience” that Nazism is unintelligible if conceived as a pure culture of hate. Nazi ideology “supplied answers to life’s imponderables, provided meaning in the face of contingency, and explained the way the world works. It also defined good and evil, condemning self-interest as immoral and enshrining altruism as virtuous. Binding ethnic comrades. . . to their ancestors and descendants, Nazism embedded the individual within the collective well-being of the nation.”

These distinctions matter. The uncomfortable truth is that sentiments like love, honor, terror, and moral righteousness have immensely greater power to move human beings to commit appalling acts of violence than hate does. The language of the “fight against hate” is a blunt instrument. It impoverishes our moral vocabulary and restricts our capacity to truly understand what we are up against at the present historical moment. Trying to dismantle white supremacism by fighting against hate is as foolhardy trying to dismantle an IED with your eyes closed. It’s likely to blow up in your face.

David Livingstone Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of New England.