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How Hate Works

        Science | Emotions

Modern-day Hatred

While humans have the basic neural wiring to hate, getting a entire group of people to hate requires convincing them that another person or group of people is evil or dangerous.

Rutgers University sociologist Martin Oppenheimer, who with his family fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s, argues that hate is sown among a group by identifying and exploiting their frustrations, insecurities, and/or fear of losing out on things they want or need. The trick is convincing people that the explanation for their problems is someone else who is threatening to take away things that ought to be theirs, or is a menace to their safety. Additionally, he says, organized hatred helps give meaning to the lives of those who feel marginalized. "These are the movements of growing numbers of the insecure, who seek islands of safety in a rapidly changing and increasingly insecure world," he writes [source: Oppenheimer].

In the modern age, such persuasion to hate has become much easier, thanks to the development of communications technologies that enable hateful words and pictures to be easily disseminated far and wide. A 2010 study by Stanford University researchers Elissa Lee and Laura Leets, who measured teenagers' reaction to hate groups' Web sites, found that storytelling with implicit hate messages, rather than direct exhortations to hate, is the most effective way to persuade impressionable minds [source: Lee and Leets].

In 1915, for example, D.W. Griffith utilized the still-new technology of motion pictures to make "Birth of a Nation," a film that portrayed African-Americans as stupid, lazy and menacing, and glorified the Ku Klux Klan for standing up for the rights of the white majority. It was so effective in fomenting hate against blacks that even Griffith himself was said to have been shocked by what he had wrought [source: Armstrong].

In the 1930s, the Nazi regime in Germany lacked Griffith's qualms. The movie "Jud Suss," filmed at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, portrayed Jews as greedy and treacherous. It became required viewing for SS storm troopers [source: Connolly]. The Nazis also used radio and put modern presses to work churning out vast numbers of books, like "The Jewish Problem," to build public support for the persecution and eventual murder of millions of Jews across Europe [source:].

Since then, others around the world have exploited modern media to promote hate. In the 1990s, a Bosnian Serb TV station aired programs like "Genocide" that depicted alleged abuse of Serbs by Bosnian Muslims in an effort to stir up venom and justify ethnic cleansing attacks [source: Hedges]. In the late 1980s, Al Qaeda, the Islamic extremist group founded by Osama bin Laden, learned to exploit the Internet's global reach, launching online chat rooms and blogs and uploading videos to promote hatred of the United States and Israel [source: Moss]. And increasingly, hate-meisters are turning to social networking Web sites and even online games to spread their beliefs and recruit new followers [source: Reuters].

In the United States and elsewhere, Neo-Nazi/white-supremacist groups have even turned to pop music as a means of inciting enmity, forming their own record labels and staging Woodstock-like outdoor festivals where bands perform songs with lyrics like, "I won't calm down until I taste the smell of their blood" [source:].

That last line sounds kind of scary. But is such hate really morally wrong? Is it a form of mental illness? Or, are there some instances in which hatred is not only a healthy reaction, but a positive thing? We'll discuss that on the next page.