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The Hate Response, Multiple Factors May Fuel the Fire

by on June 22, 2015 6:15 AM

What possesses a 21 year old young man to walk into a church and then shoot and kill nine people he had never met?

Insanity. Hate. Perhaps both.

Mental health issues in our country are in dire need of attention.

These issues are complicated and have a ripple effect on not only health care but on education, housing, employment and just about every other aspect of our society.

But, what are we going to do about hate?

How have we as a culture become so divided and so disengaged that hate has become such a predominant force in our lives?

We hate each other because of religion. Politics. Gender. Sexual orientation. We hate each other because of the sports teams that we support. It seems as if it's no longer just okay to disagree with someone. It can't just be "I have a different viewpoint or perspective." It has somehow turned into "I hate you" or the whole group of people to which you belong.

To find a solution, we must understand the cause of the problem.

The research on hate and the efforts to understand and address the impact that hate has on both individuals and communities has been examined through a variety of disciplines including psychology, sociology, human development and biology. Is the hate reaction innate or is it learned? Can it be unwired in our brains and in our psyches? How does it intensify to the level that our hatred for someone or something causes us to harm another person?

In our attempts to understand it, we learn that there is much that we don't know.

Using brain imaging, research subjects who were shown pictures of people that they reportedly hate had similar reactions in their brains. In other words, scientists have suggested that there is actually a hate center in the brain. Science has also supported the popular notion that hate and love are very similar in our cerebral reactions but with some key differences.

Irrational thinking and emotional reactions often accompany feelings of love (i.e. a person can be a "fool" for love). With hate it appears that people become ultra-focused and that the planning and problem solving areas of the brain become over-excited. The theory goes that hate as a physiological response helped our ancestors identify a threat (i.e. the bad guy or the enemies) and the intensity of our thoughts helped us develop a plan for safety.

It's those cognitive or thinking processes that lead us to hate. Our perception of the groups to which we belong. To what and to whom we attribute our successes and our failures. Our perception of our self and our self-worth. What we have learned and been exposed to in our personal histories. How we identify threat and danger to ourselves and to the people that we care about.

None of us are immune from hate but how we respond to it is impacted by many factors.

I confess to feeling hate at various times in my life – I'm human. The kid who teased me before my self-esteem was strong enough to brush it off. The mean girls. Someone who I perceived mistreated one of my children. "Let it go" said my daughter in response to the repeated snarly comments I was making about a person who treated her unfairly. "You care about it more than I do." Hate can be an exhausting and all-consuming emotion if we let it get out of control.

Left unchecked, we know all too well that hate can lead to unspeakable tragedy.

Mental illness serves to exacerbate hate. Research using that same brain imaging has shown that people diagnosed with depression respond to hate differently than those who have not – they often turn their hate inward. Individuals with psychosis or thought disorders may identify people or groups of people as irrationally dangerous or harmful in their paranoia.

Individuals, including children and teens, with emotional problems often exhibit social problems. Isolation. Confusion. Anger. Self-loathing. Perceiving that "the others" are the cause of personal failures. Internal unrest can lead to hate.

And then there are the environmental factors. Children learn what they live. Growing up with hate cultivates it. As the cliché goes, infants don't know bigotry, stereotypes and hate against others. They learn it just like they learn how to walk and talk.

In the next weeks and months as we learn more about the Charleston church shooter, we will likely hear how this hate was created – perhaps from the young man himself. Whether it be his environment, a mental illness or those feelings of self-loathing and the need for attention, we may learn what led this young man to make this horrible decision. We will also probably hear that people knew of his hatred and mental illness but didn't know who or how to address it.

Sadly, a young man's hate may serve to fuel hatred in others.

It is human nature to experience hate. It is also human nature for people to come together in tragedy and to look for ways to build community. The country stands with the community of Charleston, South Carolina in our horror at the loss of innocent lives and the intensity of hate.

Perhaps it will be that collective horror that will begin the process of bringing a country divided by hate closer together.


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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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