Can You Hate an Idea?

Can You Hate an Idea?

Last month, KM Patten wrote a rather lengthy review of my first book, In Defense of Hatred:

Two observations can be made almost instantly when one considers the concept of Hatred. 1.) It has existed. And 2.) It has resulted in a lot of violence and suffering throughout the history of mankind. Acknowledging this, it might be easy to conclude that Hatred is bad, and therefore we should all reject it in favor of what is thought to be Hatred’s opposite: love.

That popular notion falls apart quickly. For one thing, not very many will go up to the parents of a child that was intentionally and violently abused and tell them that they should love the perpetrator. Those parents hate that person, and most understand why. Another thing: if Hatred has existed in the human psyche for all these millennia, then the hardwiring is probably thick and tightly knotted, thus making the “off switch” difficult to find. Finally, the paradox: who is to start loving unexceptionally when the next person’s hatred is always moral and just?

Still, the easily understandable example of the parent-child relationship — how hatred can stem from the desire to keep your loved ones safe — is one that C.B. Robertson also makes use of in his slender book In Defense of Hatred.“Hate is not opposed to love,” he writes. “It is inextricably derived from love, and is an expression of love.” (Emphasis in the original) Robertson has a few decent points, but also leaves some gaps which I hope to fill. Particularly, I will be focusing on the concepts of religion, war, racism, and “systems of power.”

The whole review was rather well thought-through and well-written, which is not to say that I agree with every point (he seems to be a libertine-leaning libertarian, of the open-borders, Jeffery Tucker variety — think Cantwell before his overreaction to reality — and many of his opinions reflect this), but that it is worth reading in full.

Specifically, there is a particular criticism which Patten makes which merits a response, and that is the question of whether or not we can hate an idea:

Robertson is at first dismissive of hatred if applied to anything other than people. Then he seems to contradict himself. “When a person is difficult to work with, or bothers us in some way but is not wronging us, they might be ‘irritating,’ or ‘obnoxious,’” Robertson writes, “But true anger is reserved for when we are wronged, and only conscious minds can do that.” He then defines hatred as “disgust towards mind,” going on to rebuff all claims of hatred for ideas and objects and places as mere “hyperbole,” which are “in many cases, just a thin cover for cowardice”


I think this is incorrect. And as I’ll show in a second, Robertson doesn’t really believe it either. Ideas are a perfectly acceptable target for hatred.

Shortly thereafter, he points to an apparent contradiction:

Then the author discusses religiosity, specifically regarding families. Robertson argues that the parents of a hypothetical homosexual, who try to instill within him the fear of eternal damnation, actually love their son, because they don’t want him to suffer in the afterlife. Not noticing the contradiction of his earlier statement (hatred as defined by disgust towards conscious mind), Robertson writes that the homosexual son “hates the religion” (IE, the ideas contained in the book) and that it “makes sense” for him to do so. It does.

But on the illustration, I disagree again, this time with the motive of the parents. Not only can we hate ideas, we can also love those ideas more than we love our own children.

Patten is not the first person to criticize my apparent human-exclusivity in my definition of hatred. A friend of a more right-wing political persuasion made a similar criticism a few months back, while introducing the book to some of his friends.

First, a preliminary point. There are many functional definitions of hatred, as I alluded to in my book. When people condemn “hatred,” they are not condemning the feeling I am expressing when I say “I hate broccoli.” That verb is a different verb than that used in the sentence “I hate pedophiles,” which in turn is distinct from the hypothetical but infinitely more vivid and dangerous, “I hate the pedophile that raped my son.” Hatred of pedophiles is hatred of a concept. Hatred of a particular pedophile is hatred of a person, and to explain it conceptually (e.g., I hate pedophiles; Joe raped my 3-year-old child; therefore Joe is a pedophile; therefore I hate Joe) would remove something essential to the quality of the hatred we are describing.

Most people accept a hatred of ideas as morally permissible, even good, so long as that hatred does not extend to people. Perhaps this is a secularization of the Christian doctrine of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” In any case, such a defense is not particularly interesting or necessary. Nor is it particularly actionable, since ideas are always implemented by people, and if I say that I hate belief X, believers in X will likely interpret it as a hatred of believers in X, rather than the mere belief. This interpretation is not without reason, because realistically, you cannot kill or drive away an idea without doing the same to those who hold it.

If Patten and my friend wish to expand the definition of “hatred” to include the hatred of ideas, they are certainly not weakening my argument that the capacity for hatred is a moral virtue, and actions born of hate are sometimes necessary and morally defensible expressions of love. If anything, they are strengthening it, though at the risk of dodging the hard question, which is what about hatred of people?

But I am at risk of dodging the question myself. I made a bold claim, and I intend to defend it. As a refresher, the quoted section from In Defense of Hatred goes as follows (the bolded portion was excised from Patten’s quotation, but I have included it as relevant context here):

Some may object to my definition’s target, saying that you actually can “hate” an  idea, or an object, or a place. I think this is merely hyperbole, and in many cases just a thin cover for cowardice. An idea cannot harm you without people acting upon it, and ideas are the product of people anyway. Saying that you hate an idea is merely an evasion from saying you hate the people who create or implement the idea. Indeed you wouldn’t even be aware of the idea unless someone was expressing it to you, by word or action. Because ideas are never the ones acting against you, hating an ideas is as useful as being angry at the washing machine. I promise you the washing machine will not recognize the injustice, and the idea will not fear you.

As for objects and places, “caution” and “dislike” are not synonymous with “hatred,” in our experience of the feelings or in how we act upon them. This is because there is no mind behind objects and places. Perhaps someone might genuinely feel “hate” towards some inanimate object, but we are no more obliged to take them seriously than we would if they were angry.

I clearly acknowledged that the experience of hatred, as directed at ideas and inanimate objects, existed. What I deny is the legitimacy of this hatred. It is unjustified hatred, which I define later in the book, and in this case, it is unjustified because it anthropomorphizes — attributing human attributes to non-human objects.

One of the greatest works of American literature is built around an exemplary case of this kind of unjustified hatred, directed towards a mindless thing:

“Vengeance against a dumb brute?” cried Starbuck. “That simply smote thee from blindest instinct? Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab! Seems blasphemous!”

“Hark ye yet again, the little lower layer. All visible objects, men, are but as face board masks. But in such events, in the living act, the undoubted deed, there some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there is naught beyond, but ‘tis enough. He tasks me. He heaps me. I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice about him. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate. And be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him!”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

What is immediately obvious is that what makes Ahab’s hatred possible is his perception of a mind behind the whale, and whether that mind is in the whale’s head, or in the God who made the whale, does not matter. This has led many to believe that Ahab’s quest of vengeance against the White Whale was, in fact, a quest of vengeance against God. He does not hate strength, he does not hate malice, but he hates the personality — the mind — which he senses through his perception of strength and malice.

This brings us to the point of contradiction alluded to earlier. Does the gay man who hates religion stand as proof of legitimate hatred for an idea?

I don’t think so. First, the hatred of religion for a gay person is not hatred for an idea, but hatred of a mind… like God.

Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? Listen to me: you have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. Never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.

— Fight Club (a very gay story)

The perception of mind is what makes the experience of real hatred — the kind we refer to when we say we hate a particular pedophile, and not a particular leafy green vegetable — possible. When a gay man says he hates Christianity, he isn’t just opposing an idea that doesn’t optimize utility for him; generally speaking, he is viscerally reacting to God’s rejection of him, or to a part of his own body’s rejection of God. There’s a mind on the other side of either object.

Or, perhaps, the (gay) man might hate Christianity because it makes its practitioners weak, hypocritical, and unmanly. Here too, the visceral quality of the hatred that distinguishes itself from mere disagreement or frustration with the doctrine by manifesting itself against a person: the strongest form of this argument was made by Friedrich Nietzsche, and the object of his hatred was not the doctrine, nor — intriguingly — was it Jesus, who he seems to have had a modicum of respect for. It was Paul that he loathed:

One now begins to see just what it was that came to an end with the death on the cross: anew and thoroughly original effort to found a Buddhistic peace movement, and so establish happiness on earth—real, not merely promised. For this remains—as I have already pointed out—the essential difference between the two religions of décadence: Buddhism promises nothing, but actually fulfils; Christianity promises everything, but fulfils nothing.—Hard upon the heels of the “glad tidings” came the worst imaginable: those of Paul. In Paul is incarnated the very opposite of the “bearer of glad tidings”; he represents the genius for hatred, the vision of hatred, the relentless logic of hatred. What, indeed, has not this dysangelist sacrificed to hatred! Above all, the Saviour: he nailed him to his own cross. The life, the example, the teaching, the death of Christ, the meaning and the law of the whole gospels—nothing was left of all this after that counterfeiter in hatred had reduced it to his uses. Surely not reality; surely not historical truth!… Once more the priestly instinct of the Jew perpetrated the same old master crime against history—he simply struck out the yesterday and the day before yesterday of Christianity, and invented his own history of Christian beginnings. Going further, he treated the history of Israel to another falsification, so that it became a mere prologue to his achievement: all the prophets, it now appeared, had referred to his “Saviour.”… Later on the church even falsified the history of man in order to make it a prologue to Christianity…. The figure of the Saviour, his teaching, his way of life, his death, the meaning of his death, even the consequences of his death—nothing remained untouched, nothing remained in even remote contact with reality. Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence—in the lie of the “risen” Jesus. At bottom, he had no use for the life of the Saviour—what he needed was the death on the cross, and something more. To see anything honest in such a man as Paul, whose home was at the centre of the Stoical enlightenment, when he converts an hallucination into a proof of the resurrection of the Saviour, or even to believe his tale that he suffered from this hallucination himself—this would be a genuine niaiserie in a psychologist. Paul willed the end; therefore he also willed the means…. What he himself didn’t believe was swallowed readily enough by the idiots among whom he spread his teaching.—What he wanted was power; in Paul the priest once more reached out for power—he had use only for such concepts, teachings and symbols as served the purpose of tyrannizing over the masses and organizing mobs. What was the only part of Christianity that Mohammed borrowed later on? Paul’s invention, his device for establishing priestly tyranny and organizing the mob: the belief in the immortality of the soul—that is to say, the doctrine of “judgment”….

–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

I won’t claim to speak for Nietzsche, and if he opposes (hates?) hatred, then we may simply disagree. But in context, Nietzsche’s Antichrist and Genealogy of Morals are both diatribes against “ressentiment,” a stronger, Frencher version of our “resentment,” which we might roughly translate as the same “unjustified hatred” which I argue against in In Defense of Hatred.

And the problem with “ressentiment” and “unjustified hatred,” of course, is that they are unactionable. They are entrapping and doomed to failure, as all hatred levied against ideas, places, white whales and other no-mind things will be. This doesn’t mean that eccentric captains won’t go off blasphemously hating dumb things, but when I say that all hatred is directed towards mind, I mean that malevolent minds are both the evolutionary source for hatred and the proper object of hatred.

An unmanly fear of being seen as a “hater” may cause us to redirect our hatred towards safer, inanimate objects, but this displacement is a recipe for bitterness, pathology, and feelings of powerlessness.

There may be another cause for the confusion too. I have been reading Hatred: The Psychological Descent Into Violence by Willard Gaylin, and Gaylin correctly points out that most people haven’t actually experienced genuine hatred. When people say “you can hate ideas too!”, they reveal that they don’t truly understand what real hatred is all about.

To conclude, I will concede that it may be theoretically possible to “hate” an idea, but it is almost certainly going to be a self-deceiving or self-destroying endeavor. Hatred is — pardon the anthropomorphization — designed for use against conscious minds. Hating ideas and other inanimate objects is not natural, nor is it psychologically or spiritually healthy to do.

…which, of course, was the position advanced (more or less) in the book to begin with.

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