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The scientific reason hate is on the rise

A record number of hate crimes are being recorded – but why is this and what can we do to stop them, asks Matthew Williams.

On both sides of the Atlantic hate is on the rise, with police in the US and UK recording 10-year record highs. An increase in victim reporting and better police recording account for some of the rise, but we can’t rule out increased perpetration. But why is hate on the rise now?

To understand hate we must first understand its antecedent: prejudice. Prejudices are formed when our attitude and feeling towards someone are shaped by our perceptions of a group we think they belong to. They therefore focus on what psychologists call the outgroup (‘them’) and the ingroup (‘us’).

When prejudices are focused on ‘them’, they tend to be associated with negative stereotypes and feelings. While we all hold prejudices because of the biased culture we grew up in, we don’t all take to the streets to commit hate crimes. When a person harms or kills another because they belong to a particular group, they have moved beyond prejudice to hate.

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A key difference between prejudice and hate is the ‘push/pull’ factor. Prejudice can see the ingroup push away the outgroup, in order to avoid them, while hate sees the ingroup pull the outgroup towards them, in order to attack them.

Hate is then distinct from prejudice and the associated feelings of anger, contempt and disgust. Hate is enduring, stable and consuming, and people who adopt it often believe they are embarking on a moral cause of some kind. The hated outgroup is perceived as doing something that undermines the very morals the haters are trying to uphold.

The ends can then justify the means, even if the means involve the extermination of whole ethnic or religious groups. 

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The hater hierarchy 

But not every hater is on a moral crusade to eradicate the world of an outgroup. There is a hierarchy at work, with various levels of commitment to hatred. At the top of the hater hierarchy is the mission offender. They tend to specialise in hateful activity and are morally driven, seeing themselves as tasked with a ‘mission’ to subjugate the outgroup. They fall firmly into the ‘pull’ category, using violence in their pursuit of ‘them’. 

Retaliatory haters take second place, and also form part of the ‘pull’ category. These offenders are
part-time haters who are triggered by an event to feel threatened and afraid. Retaliatory hate crime has become more common recently in reaction to extremist Islamic terror attacks. In the US in the year following 9/11, the FBI recorded 481 hate crimes with a specific anti-Islamic motive, with a staggering 58 per cent of these occurring within two weeks of the attack. 

Defensive haters take third position, and this forms part of the ‘push’ category. Their attitude towards the outgroup falls somewhere between high prejudice and hate, and it is only acted upon when they feel that their territory is being invaded or their resources threatened. 

Thrill-seeking offenders take the final spot. Unlike the other categories, these offenders may not hold hateful attitudes towards their targets, and instead may be motivated by their peer group and a desire to be one of the gang. Hateful violence is then just a means of increasing their status.

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Why is hate on the rise?

The current rate of the breakdown in social relations across the world is arresting. Societal divisions are being prised wide open, fuelled by the internet revolution and its corruption by masked individuals, the far right and rogue state actors. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, social media was flooded with far-right conspiracy theories and hate targeting east and south-east Asian and Jewish communities for supposedly creating and/or spreading the disease. Beyond organised campaigns, the everyday internet user also took to social media to post hateful messages, triggered by disinformation and careless phrases, like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu”, coming out of the White House.

What is most worrying about this trend is that the research shows divisive messages from public figures are directly linked to tipping some people into hateful violence on the streets. In January 2021 the world witnessed an unparalleled example of this when the US Capitol building was stormed by Trump supporters who had been whipped up by his polarising rhetoric. Within 24 hours of the siege, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube suspended Trump’s accounts in an effort to prevent further unrest. 

New technology has transformed hate, amplifying its power to inflict harm. Left unchallenged, the expression of hate in our modern connected society has the potential to become more widespread than at any other point in history. 

But if we seek to fully understand this new context, using all the science at our disposal, we can put in place initiatives to stop hate radiating beyond individual communities to whole nations. 

We’ve figured out the causes, now we just need the will, from political and technology leaders, to implement the solutions.

Matthew Williams is the author of The Science of Hate: How Prejudice Becomes Hate and What We Can Do to Stop It, out now (Faber & Faber, £9.99)

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