The Psychology of Hate Crimes
by Peter Mermin
Suffolk County Community College
A hate crime is a pre-emptive strike by a person or group against a target
that has come to symbolize some disowned qualities within the perpetrator or
perpetrators of that crime. Whether the target of the crime is an individual
such a Matthew Shepard or Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush, or entire societies
such as the United States or Iraq, the process is the same: the perpetrators
of the crime must de-humanize and demonize the enemy. The ultimate source of
the qualities that are demonized in the reviled "Other" are those
qualities most feared and/or reviled in one's self.
All of us as children are taught that parts of our selves are not acceptable.
Boys, in particular, are taught to disown parts of themselves that might be
considered "soft" or "feminine". Whenever Don Imus, the
very popular and influential radio talk-show host in New York, wants to express
contempt for a person's feelings or ideas, he calls that person a "pantywaist".
This expression is said with such vehemence and scorn that it reveals a significant
emotional complex in Imus concerning his own femininity. Whenever a person's
emotional reaction to something is disproportionate to the event itself, it
signals unresolved issues in that person. Unresolved emotions are the very stuff
of projection. When a person has unresolved issues about their own sexual orientation,
it is easy to experience the unwanted desires as "demons". Many religions
in fact support the view that common and natural impulses in humans may be the
work of the "devil". Our Puritan ancestors were specialists in disowning
and projecting: witness the Salem witch trials. Fundamentalist religions of
all kinds perpetuate this "demonizing" tendency into the present day.
The hate crime committed against Matthew Shepard originated in the dark recesses
of fear within the perpetrators about their own homosexual feelings.
On an international level, hate crimes are even more disturbing and terrifying.
The level of hate between those Nation-States labeled as "Arrogant Infidels"
and those labeled as "Rogue", " terrorist-supporting" States
grows daily. Both sides call the other "evil". Both sides, because
of unwillingness to look at disowned aspects of themselves, consider the Other
as the "devil". On the one hand, it is very difficult for powerful,
developed nations to acknowledge the atrocities that have been committed by
themselves in the process of acquiring power. We in the West are still reluctant
to deeply acknowledge the truly dark aspects of our brutal conquest of the lands
of indigenous peoples, and our development of that land through slavery, and
later, the rank exploitation of immigrants in factories with de-humanizing working
It is also difficult for those powerful nations to acknowledge that part of their hatred of less-developed nations stems from their fears of losing access to natural resources that they have controlled for several centuries. It would take real courage for powerful nations to realize their own complicity in the hate-oriented world that we all now confront.
A developed, wealthy nation might have to say, "I apologize for the aspects
of my military domination and extensive covert operations that have helped to
exacerbate poverty and despair among the impoverished masses of this world.
I intend now to use my power to aid all countries to develop in their own directions,
even if it may mean that my previous assumption that " whatever is good
for multinational corporations is good for everyone" will have to be fully
re-examined. I intend now to recognize that my former attitude of mistrust towards
everyone, especially towards those who might question my assumption that I should
be able to do whatever I want, whenever I want, to protect my self-interest,
was born of a deep insecurity about sharing control with others. This insecurity
no doubt stems from feelings that sharing control would be "feminine"
and that other people might call me a "pantywaist". I now resolve
to see my desire to work out problems with others in a peaceable manner as something
which expresses the very best of my masculinity! Furthermore, I now recognize
that my being perceived by most of the rest of the world as a "arrogant
bully" is not in my real self-interest.
For me to be perceived by others as a beacon of hope and freedom, I will need
to establish a foreign policy that includes really listening very deeply to
consider grievances that are the result of my country's pursuit of a very narrowly
defined "self-interest". I must confront my own "shadow",
my own dark side, so that my perceptions of others will not be distorted due
to my need to always see myself as "Good" and the Other as "Evil."
I will recognize that I may have hidden longings for an Armageddon that will
fulfill dark desires in myself and in many of my supporters. I will recognize
that calling Mohammed a "terrorist", as Jerry Falwell does, is simply
a self-righteousness arrogance born of Falwell's ignorance of his own dark side.
I resolve, from now on, to make more accurate attributions in deciding on the
cause of an event. If an event occurs that is clearly a "terrorist"
action, I will not automatically assume that that action had no cause other
than the "evil" nature of terrorists. I will attempt to see that action
from the terrorist's point of view. This will not result in my seeing the terrorism
as "justified", but it will help me to understand that all human actions
occur in a context, and if we understand that context, we acquire what psychologists
call "Emotional Intelligence". We develop "empathy" for
others, which does not mean that we necessarily agree with their actions, but
we do attempt to understand them as human beings with their own set of priorities.
They then become "people" and not "demons". Just as I want
everyone to see my own actions as attributable to the situation I find myself
in (e.g., I feel threatened by terrorist attacks on my country), I now know
that actions by others must also be understood as coming from a situation that
they perceive as the cause of their own actions. In a world where there is no
empathy for others' situations, all acts of hostility are seen as acts of unprovoked
On the other hand, those in the less-developed world struggle with their own
psychological issues. The modernism of the West is easily experienced as the
work of the "infidels", the ungodly ones who dare to question the
sacred texts. Underlying their fears is their fear of the separation from their
cultures that modernism has already fostered. It would be helpful if less-developed
countries, particularly fanatically religious ones, could confront their own
dark sides. For example, not all of their problems can be blamed on the West.
The choice to commit a culture to group tradition is inimical to the possibilities
of more individualized choices. For them, seeing women as real people with individual
desires, including sexual ones, is abhorrent and violates deeply hidden fears
about the latent power of women.
Also, if leaders of the less developed world could recognize the much more
effective power of the non-violent resistance of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther
King, they would not feel as powerless as they do, and would not see terrorism
as their only alternative to the encroachment of the West.
In the end, both sides of this conflict between the West and the more traditional, sacred world will have to learn from each other.Do we in the West not need to develop a greater reverance for the sacred? If nothing is sacred to us other than material wealth, will we not perish of our own spiritual bankruptcy? Do we in the West not need to have greater respect for the best of our traditions, for our great achievements in art, literature, music and science? And in the less-developed world, do they not need to experience more of benefits of a more secularized world? Do they not need to develop more of the entreprenurial spirit that brought so much to the development of the West? Both sides, in this world of hatred and hate crimes that we now live in must become more expansive in their images of themselves. We can no longer afford to disown the parts of us that we see projected and enlarged in our "enemy". As Pogo, a cartoon character created by Walt Kelly, once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
In summary, then, what must happen to the psychology of all people for hate crimes, large and small, to vanish from human behavior?It's quite simple, really:
Instead of a psychology that is obsessive, and wants to focus on just on thing,
e.g. evil in other people, as a means of avoiding one's own personal demons,
we need a psychology that is open to the full reality of one's own inner world,
as well as the inner world of others.
Instead of a psychology that is compulsive, e.g., sees all situations as competitve,
and domination as the only possible response, we need a psychology that envisions
cooperation and the sharing of power as a viable alternatives.
Instead of a psychology based on ethnocentrism, in which we view the behavior
of all "Others" as inferior to our our own culture, because we fear
discovering that the strangeness of others is a fear of the strangeness in ourselves,
we need a psychology of internationalism, in which we recognize that other cultures
are just human possibilities that we have not yet learned to recognize in ourselves..
We need to learn that our language is not the only language spoken in the world.
Instead of a psychology based on simple reacting, in which our behavior is
triggered automatically by events around us, and our lower, reptilian brains
govern our actions, we need a psychology in which we respond to events rather
than automatically reacting to them, in which our responses are governed by
the highest regions of the cerebral cortex, in which deliberate and thoughtful
reflection is the guide that lights our behavior. We need human intelligence
rather than reptilian intransigence.
Instead of a psychology based on an unconscious need to create an enemy so that our personal combativeness can be framed in heroic dimensions, we need a psychology of peacefulness, in which personal and global serenity emerge as the cornerstones of a new spirituality, replacing finally and forever, a narrow-minded, dogmatic, arrogant form of religion in which God is seen as the support system for human beings' refusal to grow up and become fully human.