“I hate you!” It’s a word learned early in life. Not long after a toddler has adopted No! as a favorite word, hate comes along. Where do you suppose they learn it? Who teaches them what hate means? They certainly know. They may not know it’s filled with angry loathing for somebody or something, but they know it’s used to express a deep, unpleasant emotion for which other words might be more appropriate, but they don’t know them. I wonder what it would be like for a toddler to grow into adolescence without once hearing a parent, or other close adult, use the word hate directed in an angry voice at another person?
The Merriam Webster gang purports to chart the frequency of word usage over the years I have no idea how they do that, but for hate their chart shows moderate, unchanging frequency from 1800 to about 2008 when it spiked upward and never stopped climbing. What on earth happened then that might have cause that. The financial crash? Probably not. We’ve endured far worse without any change in the use of hate. Wars? Riots? We’ve had those too. The election of a black man to the presidency? H’mm, what a surprise! Who would have though it? Yes, I suspect that deep, emotional loathing of the despicable idea that such a thing could happen in America, and of the man himself, is the likely cause of the sudden rise in the use of hate. But what does it mean?
Hate’s an ambiguous word because, like so many, it has been trivialized. The toddler in us still uses it in place of other words that would be far more appropriate. I hate broccoli, for example, does not meet the dictionary standard of deep, visceral loathing of something. Liver, yes; broccoli, no. Nevertheless, I hate broccoli works for not liking its flavor and texture, which in the scheme of things is a pretty minor issue. Hate has thus become an overly used word applied to almost anything, or anybody, we don’t like for whatever reason. If it has been trivialized, I think it’s also been reenergized in the aftermath of Obama’s election, reaching new heights during the recent presidential election cycle to express true loathing of ideas and people.
Not too many years ago, we applied the title of hate crime to certain acts as a way to make it more clear that in America violent expressions of bigotry would not be tolerated on the basis of their bigotry as well as on their criminality under existing law. That infuriated some people who believed their bigotry was tacitly approved as an acceptable value by the nation as a whole, even if no longer endorsed in law, as it had been until recent decades. Combine that with years of economic transition that no longer promised upward mobility for millions who had expected it as their right, and a presidential candidate who openly appealed to fears and prejudices , even encouraging violence, and the public expression of hate became epidemic.
Liberals and progressives hated the idea that such a person could become president. They hated what he preached at his campaign rallies. Tea partners proclaimed their hatred of elites of every stripe, especially intellectual elites. Rallies were riddled with signs expressing hateful slogans. A woman interviewed on t.v. echoed several local letter writers by screaming her accusation that Trump opponents are filled with hate for working class people. On the whole, we seem to have hate nailed down as the primary motivating force in contemporary American politics. How curious for a nation that has been superficially dominated by generic Protestant Christianity for several centuries. If there is nothing else that defines Christianity, it is at least this taken from a passage in John’s second letter: “I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning— you must walk in it.” Well, dang. A society nominally dominated by Christians politically motivated by hate, in which Christians are commanded by God to walk in love. Now what?
How can we learn to walk in love among things and people we don’t like and disapprove of? Maybe it would help to stop using hate to describe everything we disapprove of and don’t like. Could we begin using calmer voices and adult words to say plainly that we don’t like thus and such, and here’s why? Could we begin using calmer voices and adult words to say plainly that we disapprove of a behavior, speech, or idea, and here’s why? There is a difference between not liking something and hating it. There is a difference between disapproving of something and hating it. We are not toddlers. We have the words to use. Reserve hate, if it must be used at all, for that which is truly deeply, emotionally loathsome. Liver, for instance. And then ask the fearless, searching question: Is my hate rooted in bigoted prejudice? If it is, then the problem lies within me, not somewhere else. That’s just me. That’s who I am. I am who I am. They are not acceptable answers. It’s time to confess and repent.