War – And How To Stop Hatred

by | Oct 19, 2023

Hatred is spreading across the world right now. 

What can we do about it?

After the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel last week, I have been feeling terribly low and hopeless about humanity. 

And it wasn’t just the horrific stories about women being raped or children being burned alive in front of their families. Nor was it the innocent Palestinian children who are now dying as a result of Israel’s response. My heart was made much heavier by the polarised, hatred-fulled global response I knew was about to happen. 

More deadly than Covid, hatred is the virus we need to control.

When infected by hatred, we lose our capacity for compassion.

When infected by hatred, we dehumanise anyone different to us.

When infected by hatred, terrorists cut children’s heads off, armies bomb innocent civilians, and cycles of violence roll on.

This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

As you watch the rising body counts from the Middle East, know that hatred is the primary cause of death.

Of course, there are other causes – like oil, religion, and geo-politics. And, any attempt to explain the conflict in the Middle East is always, inevitably reductive. 

But my focus right now is on stemming the virus of hatred, which is spreading right now through the digital nervous system, infecting the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. When I watch the news, or get lost in a comments thread, I notice fear rising in my nervous system and I also feel a visceral pressure to take a side, to defend, to attack. Its a slippery slope from fear to hatred.

We need to get to the root of hatred. We need to understand this virus. 

When my 5-year-old daughter is feeling grumpy and doesn’t get her own way, she will somtimes shout out “I hate you!”. At Medicine Festival this summer, when I had just spent an hour wheeling her around in a trolley at night to find her friend, and we failed and I said we had to go to bed now, she shouted: “I hate you, and this is the worst holiday ever.” I found her expression of anger in this moment to be so pure and innocent – that she would collapse a rich, four-day festival experience with many joy-filled moments into ‘the worst holiday ever’ because she was tired and didn’t get what she wanted.

But she is 5 years old. I am a grown-up. 

And I have learned to notice in myself this type of thinking-feeling that collapses a whole person or a whole experience or a whole group of people into good/bad, love/hate. That tendency is still very much in me, and it is my responsibility to keep it in check.

There is a biology of hatred. Babies are born with in-built preferences for people like them. Infants are predisposed to focus more attention on familiar face types, types that resemble their primary caregiver (e.g. female, same skin colour). Anything that looks different from the infant’s primary caregiver is treated by the infant with at best lack of attention, and at worst disgust. 

Of course, this innate preference for ‘people like me’ is not the same as hatred, and from an evolutionary point of view it makes total sense for an infant to trust more the face of something that looks like them and is more likely to have their back. As we develop, we learn to identify with ‘people like us’ who might look completely different to us, but share similar beliefs, wear similar clothes, listen to similar music etc.

So how do these innate tendencies turn to hatred?

You may know of Oxytocin – the ‘love’ hormone – that is involved in our bonding experiences – it is released when mothers are breastfeeding and when we receive a hug. If you spray oxytocin up a woman’s nose, she will find babies more appealing. But it turns out that the love hormone can also fuel tribalism ansd hatred. In 2010, researchers from the University of Amsterdam discovered that giving oxytocin to people strengthens their bond with their in-group (good) but also increases aggression towards the out-group (not good), an effect known as ‘tend and defend’.

Love and hatred are two sides of the same coin. The more strongly we are identified with one group, the more we might dislike or even hate the other group. And as with the story of my daughter, love for a person can turn to hatred on the turn of a sixpence. This is what Ruth Feldman says, an expert on the neurobiology of hatred:

The inextricable knot between love and hatred has been well articulated since the ancient tale of Cain and Abel. Myths, scripture, drama, and sacred texts throughout the ages have warned against the fragile nature of human attachments; the closer the affiliative bond, the more it is prone to turn into hatred, aggression, jealousy, intrigue, suspicion, and even murder.”

When we or our resources feel threatened, we are more likely to strongly identify with our in-group, and to develop disgust, distrust or hatred towards the out-group. In the oxytocin studies, for example, when people are told a pot of money is limited – then oxytocin makes them turn tribal. 

But remove this element of scarcity and threat and oxytocin promotes both care for the in-group and increased empathy towards the out-group. In one study by Shamay-Tsoory et al from 2013, Jewish Israelis given oxytocin were more likely to experience empathy for the pain experienced by Palestinian Arabs. 

In another study by Ruth Feldman, using a biologically-informed intervention called “Tools Of Dialogue”, Israeli and Palestinian youth were able to overcome distrust and hatred and form bonds with each other in meaningful and lasting ways. The intervention used asynchronous group ritual (familiar songs, movement, expression exercises, etc.) which released tensions and caused the group to unite, biologically and behaviorally, into one bio-behavioral unit. You can read the paper on the study here.

So where does this leave us? Well, just being aware of your biology and how it interfaces with the culture is a starting point. If you are constantly feeding your brain and nervous system with news about existential threats like wars, you are priming yourself for a polarised, tribal view – we are good, they are bad. 

Of course some times we need to call out evil, to take a stand. But we can take a stand, whilst also cultivating compassion for both sides. When our brains aren’t hijacked by constant reminders of scarcity and threat, we can hold space for nuance.

The other thing we can do right now to counteract the rise in hatred is very simple. Be kind. Reach out to your Jewish friends, your Muslim friends, your Israeli friends, your Palestinian friends. Check in with them. See if there is a way you can support them. Beyond this, whilst you might not be able to do anything right now about the war in the Middle East, you can do something in your immediate environment. Bring to mind one person in your life right now that you now is struggling. Call them. Message them. Send them a song. Send them flowers. 

Because Love is the only sane response to hatred. 

Love is the antidote to hatred. 

And Love spreads. 

When you touch someone with your kindness today, the energy of that simple act will ripple out in ways you could never fully comprehend. 

You might think this conclusion is simplistic. You might think ‘what difference is this going to make?’ But really, what else are you going to do that is genuinely going to make a difference? Rebecca Solnit writes that hope is, “The belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter…are not things we can know beforehand…history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.” When feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, never underestimate the power of small acts of Love.