Is Hate Innate?

In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Barack Obama quoted Nelson Mandela in a tweet:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

In addition, Nikki Haley issued an email to her staff condemning the hatred in that same event, noting that “People aren’t born with hate.”  These remarks are in response to President Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists generally, who are undoubtedly filled with hatred for blacks and Jews especially, but for anyone who is not white or not Christian.  But what caught my attention here is the fact that Obama and Haley were not content merely to condemn hate; they went further and insisted that we are not born with hate.

Presumably, they suppose that by denying the innate existence of hate, they are making some kind of case against hatred. However, as they do not explicitly make that case themselves, it is left to us to try to figure out what they have in mind and what they suppose it proves.  Hopefully, their point is not that babies do not emerge from the womb filled with hate for people of a different race or religion, for that would be a simpleminded argument against a position that no one has ever held. Rather, the only interesting question is whether people are born with a disposition to hate, an emotion that will become manifest under certain circumstances.  In other words, the question is whether people are born with a natural inclination to have feelings of enmity toward those who are different. Therefore, let us be generous and suppose not that Obama and Haley were making a case about what the newborn baby is thinking and feeling before the umbilical cord has even been cut, but rather that they are saying that there is no innate disposition to hate which may express itself as the child grows up.

Obama and Haley would seem to be of the same frame of mind as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In his book Émile, Rousseau averred that “all is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things, all degenerates in the hands of men.”  In an earlier work, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men, he argued that it is civilization that has corrupted man; for in a state of nature, he is noble and good. For writing such things, Rousseau was accused of impiety by the archbishop of Paris, because his assertion that man is basically good contradicted the doctrine of original sin, which held that man was basically evil. The question as to whether man is basically good or evil is not the same as the question as to whether man has a natural inclination to love or to hate, but they are close cousins.

Given that Obama and Haley do not believe people are born with a disposition to hate, we do not know, unfortunately, whether they believe that people are born with a disposition to love.  But given the readiness with which a baby comes to love its mother and the universal tendency for people to fall in love later in life, hopefully they do accept that at least love is innate.  But to say as much for love, yet deny the same for hate would be bizarre.  In defending the doctrine of original sin, St. Augustine pointed out that if babies had the size and strength of adults, they would be monsters.  In his Confessions, he says:

Who can recall to me the sins I committed as a baby?  For in your [God’s] sight no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth….  If babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.

I have myself seen jealousy in a baby and know what it means.  He was not old enough to talk, but whenever he saw his foster-brother at the breast, he would grow pale with envy….  Such faults are not small or unimportant….  It is clear that they are not mere peccadilloes, because the same faults are intolerable in older persons.

It may be that Obama and Haley are trying to say in their incomplete way that while indeed people have innate dispositions to love and to hate, the object of their love or hatred is not inherited but acquired.  In the old days, when marrying well was an important goal for young women, it was often said that they went to college to get their MRS; for while no one can be taught to love one person rather than another, it is nevertheless true that we tend to fall in love with someone we are around a lot rather than someone we run into only occasionally.  Love, that is to say, cannot be taught, but it can be encouraged and abetted.

In a similar manner, hate cannot be taught, but it can be encouraged and abetted. But only up to a point.  My grandfather belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. My father never joined, but he would have fit right in.  And he used to say, regarding the Jews, that Hitler had the right idea.  Raised in the Jim Crow South, I was taught not to use the water fountains or restrooms marked “Colored.”  I observed the rule much in the same way that I used the silverware at the dinner table in the proper manner. But my heart was never in it.  I have often thought that many of us in the Jim Crow South really did not believe in segregation, but we went along with it in order not to incur the wrath of those who were filled with hatred for blacks. So when integration was finally imposed on the South, it met with no resistance from people like us. Had all whites hated blacks, the Civil Rights movement would have failed. But as the haters were in the minority, it succeeded.  The main point of all this, however, is that while I was taught to hate blacks and Jews, I never did. In other words, people are born with varying dispositions to love and to hate, and those dispositions can be stronger than the influence of education.

Presumably, then, Obama and Haley wish to emphasize the goodness of man and the importance of education in their remarks.  It is an optimistic ideology, for if hate is not innate and if education is efficacious, then we can all look forward to a future in which racism and other forms of discrimination no longer exist.  But I doubt that “love comes more naturally to the human heart than hate.”  It all depends on the heart. Hatred will always be with us, for many people are born with a natural disposition to hate those who are different, and that disposition can be easily reinforced through education and friendship.

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