I remember when Nelson Mandela died in 2013.
I remember because everyone was falling over themselves to remember this Marxist terrorist as some kind of hero. But one of the lines that stuck with me was a radio host who credited Mandela for saying “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting your enemies to die.”
What a wise man…
It is to Mandela’s credit that the attribution is as false as the underlying sentiment. Mandela never said this, although various other lesser-known people appear to have made similar statements.
I included this quote in the first chapter of In Defense of Hatred because it neatly encapsulates the prevailing cultural attitude towards hate, which oscillates between viewing hatred as pointless (as in the quote), or perhaps as effective, but not worth the cost.
Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering…
The implication, of course, is that suffering is to be avoided, that nothing is worse than suffering.
But these views are wrong, and while both of these arguments are demonstrated to be false in the book, I wanted to take a little time to explain why they are wrong in more detail, because a curious argument has grown increasingly popular over the last few years, one that is related to the fake Mandela quote, but which sounds less cliche.
Hate just gives them power over you.
The argument is that hating something gives that thing your attention, and attention is zero-sum. Attention directed towards one thing is attention not directed at something else. Perhaps something more productive, more positive. But more to the point, marketers know that all publicity is good publicity. This isn’t true as an axiom, but it is a good rule of thumb, and is more true than most people imagine. If you see an advertisement on television that really annoys you, then the more you think about that advertisement — even in a negative context — the more firmly ingrained in your head will that ad’s message become. Your attention gives it power, even if you hate it. Better to simply ignore it.
This is wise in many cases, but it loses its wisdom when it is advanced as an absolute, and a justification to reject hatred in all cases.
As I have argued elsewhere, hatred is a product of love. Specifically, it is our emotional response to a conscious threat against what we love. Disgust towards mind. Giving up hatred is to give up both an expression of love and a means for protecting what we love.
In order to argue that hatred is always wrong, one is forced to maintain that it is better not to love, if that love might lead to conflict.
That seems to be the Jedi way.
In fact, the Jedi philosophy captures the real point of control. You don’t give others control over you when you hate. You give others control when you love. The power others gain over you through your hatred is just a symptom of the power you give up — the vulnerability you experience — when you love something.
To love something is at least to care if that something goes away. The moment that you care whether or not something goes away, you give potential power to others, who might have some influence on what you love.
Notice that this power is not inherently negative. If someone seeks to protect what you love, then your appreciation and gratitude to them is power over you, at least of a kind. Hatred is just the mirror of gratitude. He who protects what I love is owed gratitude, whether I give it or not. He who threatens what I love is owed hatred, whether I give it or not.
But the source of that power over you doesn’t lie in your emotional reaction to their actions, be that anger or appreciation.
It comes from the initial love.
That willingness to be open to loss, potentially even control by others. That vulnerability is inseparable from love, and gives rise to hatred because it gives control to others.
It is not hate that gives others control over you — that gives them “rent-free” space in your head. Love is the cause of both. They arise together, and hate is not the cause of the loss of control.
After talking about the Jedi for a bit, it is worth mentioning the Sith as well. I was informed recently that the Sith actually have an ethos, distilled into a code. It reads as follows:
Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
Personally, I think it is a step in the right direction, from the Jedi path, although it lacks the critical matter of what one ought to be passionate about. This is what gives the Star Wars writers the freedom to make the Sith out to be evil; they keep loving the wrong things, or impossible things, or take their love to absolute and pathological levels.
But is it really better to never love at all? To be calm, passive, at peace?
I always preferred The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, perhaps because the underlying ethos was that some things are worth fighting for. Those some things are not just anything (the implied ethos of the Sith), but it is not better to be a sterile, loveless Jedi, rejecting and floating above life, rather than embracing and participating in life.
It is not hatred — or fear or anger — that gives away your power. Love does that.
And if retention of power is your aim, then best of luck doing so without love. For most, caring vulnerability is also the great motivational dynamo, and the source power.
For the rest, perhaps the feeling of power lies in moral superiority derived from movie-morality. If that works for you, then more power to you.
But if that isn’t enough for you, then don’t buy the misquotes or the bad philosophy. Hatred isn’t the problem. If there is a problem — with the impermanence of power, joy, and life — then the problem is love.
Perhaps the problem is even life itself.
Life leads to anger. Life leads to hate. Life leads to suffering.
I’ll leave that quandary for the moral authorities who teach this stuff to figure out.
For the rest of us, who don’t need an invincible feeling of inner peace to find meaning and goodness in life. It’s good enough to have things that matter. Things that are worth fighting for, maybe even if you lose. Things that are worth loving, and — by extension — worth hating over, even if we never actually experience that latent hatred.