We annually celebrate the 3,000-year-old story of Passover, where we can find the essence of hate in the “hardening” of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s heart against Jews and our God. It was as if each time Pharaoh was thwarted with a plague, his hatred intensified. Maybe Moses even had a moment of hatred when he killed the Egyptian slave master.
It might seem obvious what hate is, but actually its formal definition is elusive. Simply put, it can be thought of as an intense dislike toward people, things, or principles. Subjectively, we all probably viscerally know what hate is when we feel it. Hate can be a brief feeling or casual comment, or something ongoing and major.
What’s the psychological mechanism? Freud thought that hate came from projecting our own internal sense of being bad onto other people. In other words: “I’m not terrible; you are.”
Another type of hate derives from our inborn mechanism of reacting to perceived risk. Now sometimes the risk is imagined, but other times realistic. Hatred of Hitler and the Nazis would qualify for the realistic. Hitler’s history includes being rejected as an artist, then being jailed for his initial political activities. We in psychiatry call his reaction — and that of the Passover Pharaoh — narcissistic rage. Though hate can come from a personal internal process, it can also be fostered by despotic leaders who split people into hating camps. Is there individual treatment for this? If the perpetrator is willing, psychotherapy can help, sometimes an antidepressant, and possibly in the future, psychedelics.
There is no official psychiatric classification of hate, though it can psychologically hurt both the perpetrator and victim. Hardening of the heart is both symbolic and real. Hate contributes to actual hardening of the coronary vessels, hypertension, and internal inflammation. I would characterize it as a social psychopathology.
So, how do we treat such a social illness? Standing up to hate can draw attention to it among us and other potential scapegoated victims, which is important in itself. If deemed a hate crime and convicted, punishment can follow. However, not only may it not reduce the hate, but the perpetrators can be pleased by upsetting their victims, and then even backfire with retaliation. Therefore, we shouldn’t also expect that it will significantly reduce the hate by itself.
In the long run, primary prevention of inappropriate hate is necessary, but much more difficult. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of psychological needs, children need to be raised with security, appropriate self-esteem, and opportunities to self-actualize through good enough parenting, school education, adequate social resources, and our cognitive abilities to override our innate tendencies to hate when necessary. Leaders at all levels of society, from parents to presidents, who try to bring people together will help that process.
Out of devastating historical hatred, Israel currently has a peace treaty with Egypt and beneficial relationships with Germany. Unconditional forgiveness has often healed family hatred. The Jewish history and model of recovery from immense traumas is usually not the expected hate, but a renewal of our vision of being a “light unto the nations,” both individually and collectively.