‘Hate breeds hate’ is a line from a film about hate, about rage, about division. Though it was released in 1995, it remains relevant today. We live in a time of division. The global economic crash of 2008 exposed fault lines in our economic systems that had been ignored for decades. The American election in 2016 ruptured America politically, while Brexit has had a similar impact in the UK. A recent poll found that 81 percent of Americans agree with the statement: ‘America is more divided today than at any other time in my lifetime.’ In Northern Ireland, where I come from, there has been no devolved government in place since 2016. The political parties can’t reach a consensus on key issues, including the legacy of the troubles. Considerable focus of the Brexit negotiations has centred on Northern Ireland. The peace that was so hard won here at the end of the 1990s seems to be as fragile as it has ever been.
Yet, things could be worse, I’ve heard it said. The economic crash in 2008 was less damaging than the crash in 1929. The American election may have divided people across the country but just over 150 years ago this same country was locked in a bloody civil war. Just thirty years ago, Northern Ireland was in the thick of the troubles. On a more general note, global illiteracy rates are falling, and overall quality of life is rising.
I’ve heard it argued, in fact, that the tribalism evident in the political systems of today are a result of the fact that life is, overall, much easier than it used to be. Our ancestors had to scramble and scrape to survive, living together in tribes, working desperately to find food and shelter. Resources were limited and hostile rival tribes lurked. The urge to struggle and to fight is, it seems, sewed into our very DNA. Even in our much more recent history, life was harder, life expectancy rates lower than today. Crucially, people tended to live in small communities, as opposed to being isolated and cut off. Could it be that the ferocious tribalism evident in today’s politics is a result of people searching for a sense of belonging that used to be found in these communities?
Today, loneliness is seen as public health crisis. In the UK, four in 10 citizens have reported feelings of chronic, profound loneliness. Social media has connected people, but perhaps only in a superficial way. It seems trite to suggest that people flocking to ugly little corners of the internet to whine and blame is the result of them being lonely and looking for connection, but perhaps it is truer than the clichéd nature that the idea suggests. It also helps to explain why people might be so attached to their political tribes. Perhaps when identity is attached to a political ideology, infringement on that ideology feels like a deeply personal attack. So, more real life intimacy might allow someone the security to consider that their political ‘tribe’ might get things wrong from time to time. The anonymity of the internet is also something that can facilitate hate. At one time, if you wanted to insult someone, you had to look them in the eye; now you can hide, hundreds of miles away, behind the glare of a screen. When all someone looks like is a tiny little picture on a screen, it becomes easier to see them as not really a someone anymore. It becomes easier to hate.
The decline of traditional news media must also be considered. It’s become harder to sell papers, so papers are tempted to lean into their core reader, to write things they know the reader would like to hear, rather than write challenging or complex articles that may risk losing subscribers. It seems that people enjoy having their biases confirmed. Warren Buffett has written:
‘What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.’
In this way, people who are already sure about what they think, can read something or watch something that makes them feel even more sure about thinking what they already think. In some cases, it a makes them think they are right to hate.
There is also, of course, the fact that politics is galvanised by division. Few things will get a politician elected more efficiently than convincing the electorate that not only is their rival not the best candidate but is dangerous, destructive and evil. Few things will get politicians off the hook more easily than picking some group to blame for a society’s problems. There is, surely, nothing wrong with strong opinions and political affiliations. However, the dehumanisation of the ‘other,’ the buying and selling of hate can have depraved results. The movie la haine explodes in violence in its final scenes, and aptly demonstrates that it is often the most innocent who suffer the consequences.
Northern Ireland is somewhere where people feel so strongly about their identities that they have taken to killing to defend them. Even now, in our post peace process society, something as seemingly minor as removing a flag from a public building can cause rioting. Yet, Northern Ireland is also a success story. It is a place where violence was renounced in favour of peace and where armed conflict gave way to genuine dialogue. I am a ‘ceasefire baby,’ a baby born in Northern Ireland in the days of the ceasefire, the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. The term was coined by journalist Lyra McKee, who was tragically killed this year when reporting on riots that had broken out in Derry. Today, in the Anglo-American world, it seems that some commentators are in competition to see who can conjure up the statement most repellent to the opposing side, to the demonised ‘other.’ If these people had known what it is to live somewhere where political differences had only recently claimed hundreds of lives, they might be more careful about how they choose to characterise their political opponents. Perhaps they might seek to see the people behind the caricatures, to hear the arguments beneath the platitudes and to turn away from hate.