It occurred to me the other day that there’s a curious disconnect between one of the most common assumptions most of us make about how to make the world better, on the one hand, and the results that this assumption has had when put into practice, on the other. It’s reminiscent of the realization that led James Hillman and Michael Ventura to title a once-notorious book of theirs We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse. In this case as in that one, something that’s supposed to make things better doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—in fact, quite the opposite—and it’s time that we talked about that.
You know the assumption I have in mind, dear reader. It’s the conviction that certain common human emotions are evil and harmful and wrong, and the way to make a better world is to get rid of them in one way or another. That belief is taken for granted throughout the industrial societies of the modern West, and it’s been welded in place for a very long time, though—as we’ll see in a moment—the particular emotions so labeled have varied from time to time. Just now, of course, the emotion at the center of this particular rogue’s gallery is hate.
These days hate has roughly the same role in popular culture that original sin has in traditional Christian theology. If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.
At the far end of this sort of rhetoric, you get the meretricious slogan used by Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign last year: LOVE TRUMPS HATE. I hope that none of my readers are under the illusion that Clinton’s partisans were primarily motivated by love, except in the sense of Clinton’s love for power and the Democrats’ love for the privileges and payouts they could expect from four more years of control of the White House; and of course Trump and the Republicans were head over heels in love with the same things. The fact that Clinton’s marketing flacks and focus groups thought that the slogan just quoted would have an impact on the election, though, shows just how pervasive the assumption I’m discussing has become in our culture.
Now of course most people these days, when confronted with the sort of things I’ve just written, are likely to respond, “Wait, are you saying that hate is good?”—as though the only alternatives available are condemning something as absolutely bad or praising it as absolutely good. Let’s set that simplistic reaction to one side for the moment, and ask a different question: what happens when people decide that some common human emotion is evil and harmful and wrong, and decide that the way to make a better world is to get rid of it?
As it turns out, we have a very good idea what happens in this case, because a first-rate example of the phenomenon finally completed its historical trajectory on the edge of living memory. The example I have in mind is the attitude, prevalent in the English-speaking world from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that sex was the root of all evil.
The Victorian horror of sexual desire has been mocked so mercilessly in recent decades, and not without reason, that a lot of people these days have apparently forgotten just how seriously it was taken at the time. During its heyday, people in Britain and America loudly proclaimed exactly the same attitudes toward sex that their great-grandchildren now display toward hate. If you wanted to define anything as utterly beyond the pale, you just had to label it as “immoral”—in the jargon of the time, this meant “sexual”—and the vast majority of people were expected to recoil from it in horror. No political campaign back in the day, as far as I know, used the slogan PURITY TRUMPS IMMORALITY, but then political sloganeering hadn’t yet decayed into the kind of empty mouthing of buzzwords on display at present. The sentiment was certainly there.
By the way, yes, I know that comparing current attitudes toward hate with Victorian attitudes toward sex will inspire instant pushback from a good many of my readers. After all, sexual desire is natural and normal and healthy, while hate is evil and harmful and wrong, right? Here again, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that people a century and a quarter ago—most likely including your ancestors, dear reader, if they happened to live in the English-speaking world—saw things the other way around. To them, hate was an ordinary emotion that most people had under certain circumstances, but sexual desire was beyond the pale: beastly, horrid, filthy, and so on through an impressive litany of unpleasant adjectives.
It was also something that all of them experienced. That’s where the comparison begins to bite, because insisting that sexual desire was beastly, horrid, filthy, etc. didn’t make it go away, or deprive it of its substantial role in motivating human behavior. It just meant that people got hypocritical about it. Some pretended that it wasn’t there. Some insisted that in certain sharply defined contexts—for example, within the bounds of legal marriage—it wasn’t the same, no, of course not, how could you suggest such a horrid thing? Some pursued any of the other dodges, and there were plenty of them, that allowed people to pretend that they weren’t getting sexually aroused and acting on their arousal when, in fact, that’s what they were doing.
That’s what happens whenever people decide that an ordinary human emotion is unacceptable and insist that good people don’t experience it. A culture of pretense, hypocrisy, and evasion springs up to allow them to vent the unacceptable emotion on some set of acceptable targets without admitting that they were doing so. That’s what emerged in Victorian society once people convinced themselves that sexual desire was the root of all evil, and it’s what has emerged in our time as people have convinced themselves that hate fills the same role. In a very real sense, these days, hate is the new sex.
If you have any doubts concerning this, dear reader, observe the way that the same people who were sporting LOVE TRUMPS HATE bumper stickers a year ago talk about Donald Trump and his supporters today. Back in January of 2016, when I first predicted Trump’s victory, I pointed out that if you wanted to hear really over-the-top hate speech, all you had to do was listen to a group of comfortably well-to-do Americans in the bicoastal urban bubble talk about white working class Americans in the flyover states. That’s become even more true now than it was then. Take the rhetoric currently being flung by well-off Democratic voters at Trump supporters, swap out the ethnic labels for any other set you choose, and you’ll have a hard time telling it apart from the rantings of any other group of bigots.
The class dimension of all this rhetoric about hate, by the way, is one of the most telling things about it. Back in the Victorian era, the privileged classes defined themselves as the Good People, the moral, virtuous, pure people, which in the language of the time meant the people who didn’t have sexual desires. They accordingly defined their social inferiors as beastly, horrid, filthy—that is to say, sexual beings. Nowadays, what defines the Good People has changed, but the class bigotry hasn’t; now the privileged people claim to be the ones who don’t hate, and define their social inferiors as hate-filled bigots. The relative behavior of the two groups, it bears repeating, does not exactly justify this claim.
For that matter, watch the way that the American media and the privileged classes of this country have spent the last nine months utterly fixated on the person of Donald Trump. In my memory—and I’ve watched new presidents take office since the days of Richard Nixon—I’ve never seen so obsessive a concern with someone who, after all, is simply an elected official. It reminds me, to be precise, of the way that Victorian prudes would travel miles by train to be shocked and offended by some display or other of sexuality—and I’d like to suggest that in this case, as in that one, the shock and the offense are filmy garments that very imperfectly cover a seething, sweaty mass of unacknowledged desire.
In the city where I live, if you walk through neighborhoods frequented by the leftward end of the population, you can count on seeing stickers on light poles that show the president’s face and the slogan, TRUMP HATES YOU. Strictly speaking, this is absurd—I doubt Donald Trump is even aware of the existence of the people who put up and view those stickers, and we don’t even have to talk about the likelihood that he feels any particular emotion toward them—but in another sense, it’s profoundly revealing.
When people don’t want to deal with an emotion they’re feeling, one very common dodge they use is to insist that they’re not feeling it—no, it’s that awful person over there who’s feeling it, toward them. Back in the Victorian era, that dodge racked up plenty of overtime, as people who couldn’t cope with the fact that they had sexual feelings projected those feelings onto others, and then labeled the others beastly, horrid, filthy, etc. for supposedly having those feelings. The same thing is going on here. The people who make and post those stickers can’t just come out and say I HATE TRUMP—that admission would consign them once and for all, in their own eyes, to the category of Bad People—so they project their own hatred onto the person they hate, and convince themselves that he hates them.
Notice, furthermore, how this feeds into the utter fascination with which so many people on the leftward end of the political spectrum hang on Donald Trump’s every word and action. Seen through the funhouse mirror of their projected emotions, at least, he’s the equivalent of a naked couple having kinky sex right there in the middle of the street. He’s acting out their dearest fantasy, hating other people right out there in public—how can they possibly look away? In effect, they put an apostrophe into Clinton’s slogan, and made it read LOVE TRUMP’S HATE—and covertly, in the silent hours of the night, they do.
That’s the problem with taking some ordinary human emotion and insisting that it has to be gotten rid of in order to make the world perfect. Make something forbidden and you make it desirable. Take a normal human emotional state, one that everyone experiences, and make it forbidden, and you guarantee that the desire to violate the taboo will take on overwhelming power. That’s why, after spending their days subject to the pervasive tone policing of contemporary life, in which every utterance gets scrutinized for the least trace of anything that anyone anywhere could conceivably interpret as hateful, so many people in today’s world don internet aliases and go to online forums where they can blurt out absolutely anything. They’re doing it in exactly the same spirit in which Victorian men went to whorehouses and Victorian women arranged covert assignations with muscular young stablehands.
Nor, if history is any guide, will the return of the repressed be limited to such hole-and-corner expressions for long. Victorian sexual repressiveness, after all, eventually gave rise to the Sexual Revolution, which swung to the opposite extreme with an equal lack of balance. In the same way, today’s attempt to repress hate could quite easily give rise to a Revolution of Hate, in which people wallow in hatred the way libertines in the 1960s and 1970s wallowed in sex. The identical rhetoric of liberation, of being natural, of casting off the straitjacket of an outdated morality, would serve equally well for both.
It may come as a surprise to some of those who’ve read this far that I don’t favor this latter possibility. The opposite of one bad idea, after all, is usually another bad idea; the fact that dying of thirst is bad for you doesn’t make drowning good for you; whether we’re talking about sex or anything else, there’s a space somewhere between “not enough” and “too much,” between pathological repression and equally pathological expression, that’s considerably healthier than either of the extremes. I’m going to risk causing my more sensitive readers to clutch their smelling salts and faint on the nearest sofa, in true Victorian style, by suggesting that the same thing’s true of hate.
We all feel it, you know, and you know what? Sometimes that’s appropriate. There are actions done by human beings to other human beings that deserve a more robust response than the sort of simpering evasions that are acceptable today—“Oh, isn’t that sad,” or “I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it,” or “It’s not fair to pass judgment,” and so on, all the vacuous nonsense by which we’re expected to pretend that actions don’t have consequences and people don’t bear responsibility for their decisions. Au contraire, there are actions that deserve to be condemned, judgments that need to be made, and individuals and ideas for whom the hot flame of fury or the stark ice of hate are, from time to time, appropriate responses.
Does that mean that every hatred, and every expression of hatred, is appropriate? Of course not. Hate is like sex; there are certain times, places, and contexts where it’s appropriate, but there are many, many others where it’s not. You can recognize its place in life without having to act it out on every occasion—and in fact, the more conscious you are of its place in life, the more completely you acknowledge it and give it its due, the less likely you are to get blindsided by it. That’s true of sex, and it’s true of hate: what you refuse to acknowledge controls you; what you acknowledge, you can learn to control.
Now of course doing this involves challenging some very deep-seated cultural imperatives. It’s one of the basic presuppositions of our culture that we’re supposed to become perfect, and the way to become perfect, we’re told, is to amputate whatever part of ourselves keeps us from being perfect. The last sixteen hundred years or so of moral philosophy in the Western world have been devoted to this theme: find the thing that’s causing us to be evil, find some way to chop it off, and then we’ll all behave like plaster saints. The mere fact that it never works hasn’t yet slowed down the endless profusion of attempts to try it again.
The same logic gets applies in fields far removed from morality.Think about the way that people in America think about food, to cite only one example. Every fad diet for the last thirty years has fixated on identifying some specific food or food group as evil incarnate, and insisted that if you amputate it from your diet, why, then you could count on perfect health and whatever body shape happens to be fashionable at the moment. Again, the mere fact that it never works does nothing to keep people from chasing after the next example, because the blind faith that goodness requires amputation is so unquestioned in our time.
If you always do what you’ve always done, the saying goes, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. The quest for perfection by self-mutilation doesn’t work; it’s as simple as that. We’ve given it every possible test down through the centuries, and it’s painfully clear that one more variation on the same misguided theme isn’t going to change the verdict. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to try something else for a change.
How about this? In place of perfection, wholeness.
Human beings are never going to be perfect, not if perfection means the amputation of some part of human experience, whether the limb that’s being hacked off is our sexual instincts, our aggressive instincts, or any other part of who and what we are. Instead, we can be whole. We can accept our sexuality, whatever that happens to be, and weave it into the pattern of our individual lives and our relationships with other people in ways that uphold the values we cherish and yield as much joy and as little unnecessary pain for as many people as possible. That doesn’t mean always acting out our desires—in some cases, it can mean never acting them out at all. What it means is that we make the choice ourselves, rather than handing it over to some automatism or other mandated by popular culture.
In exactly the same way, we can accept our hatreds, whatever those happens to be, and weave them into the pattern of our individual lives and our relationships with other people so that its potent energy serves to defend the things and people we value. That doesn’t mean that we ought to express our hate on every occasion—here again, it can mean never expressing it at all. It means recognizing that hate is as much as part of being human as love, and finding a place for it in there with all the other emotions that we inevitably feel.
It means, ultimately, giving up on the fantasy that we can become more than human by making ourselves incomplete. By accepting our own nature in all its richness and contradictory complexity, and finding a use for everything that comes with being human, maybe we can stop making the same mistakes over and over again, and do something a little less idiotic with our time on Earth.
On an unrelated theme—I hope!—I have a pair of book-related announcements that I hope will be welcome to my readers. First of all, the first volume of my epic fantasy with tentacles, The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, is now available in trade paperback. Those who secretly root for Great Cthulhu and his multiracial cultists when they read H.P. Lovecraft’s stories can come out of the shoggoth closet, as this tale—the first of seven volumes—is told forthrightly from the point of view of the eldritch and tentacular other side.
Second, my latest book on the future of industrial society, The Retro Future, is now shipping from New Society Publications. This book starts by asking a question nobody’s supposed to ask—what do you do when progress no longer means improvement, and the latest technologies have fewer benefits and more downsides than the older ones they replace?—and goes on from there to explore the possibilities of deliberate technological regression as a strategy for getting through the crisis of our age.
Finally, a couple of notes on the next month of blogging here. Next Wednesday, August 9, is our monthly book club discussion. The book we’re exploring is Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, and our theme, not coincidentally, is the discussion of the Law of Wholeness on pp. 18-26. The Wednesday after that, the 16th, will be August’s regular monthly post, and after that on the 23rd comes the August open post.
August, though, has five Wednesdays, and I currently have no theme scheduled for the August 30 post. I’m going to turn around and pose a question to my readers: what do you want to hear about? Let me know.