Why Shmuley Boteach is wrong about hate

When we are overcome with sadness, anger or rage, it’s healthy to express our feelings and not suppress them.

January 20, 2015 21:48
The covered bodies of Paris kosher supermarket terror attack victims.

PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin delivers a speech near the covered bodies of Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada, victims of Friday’s attack on a Paris grocery, during their joint funeral in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

People often use the word “hate” indiscriminately, to describe things they dislike and actually feel no strong emotion about. For example, I hate beets, listening to Barry Manilow, and because I grew up in Boston, the Yankees. The dictionary definition of the word, however, is “prejudiced hostility or animosity.” Shmuley Boteach (“Are you guilty of feeling hatred for the Paris murders?” The Jerusalem Post January 13, 2015) makes a case for hatred being an acceptable and justified response to those who commit acts of murder, terrorism and genocide; he is not talking about beets. I tend to agree with the esteemed rabbi on most occasions, but he is wrong on this issue. Hatred only makes us weaker.

Let me begin with the simple but often overlooked distinction between thought and emotion. Our emotions and feelings have their roots in physical change. Our feelings come from adrenaline and endorphins creating physical changes like sweat, heightened stiffness in the neck, elevated heart rates and more. That’s why we call them feelings; we literally feel them. Love, anger, fear, grief or panic are not chosen and therefore are never wrong, and we should never attribute guilt to them. It does no good to tell a person to stop loving someone, or to stop being angry, because we do not have the ability to choose to feel differently. We can’t stop feeling what we feel. However, we have unlimited choice when it comes to how we respond to our feelings.

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Thoughts are different. We control our thoughts and for the most part, have the ability to choose them. As Rabbi Boteach correctly implied in his editorial, hate is a choice. The question he raises is, is hate a good choice? Should we feel guilty for expressing hatred? My answer is that the rabbi is wrong. We are far better off to avoid hate as a response to powerful emotions, for several reasons.

Hatred is a learned response to negative emotions, such as anger and fear. The more we give in to it, the more likely we are to use it over a greater range in response to anger. Eventually, hate can become a person’s primary response to all matters great and small. In truth, I really don’t hate the Yankees. I love having them around. They add excitement and energy when they play the Red Sox that is hard to find in other areas of my life. However, when hatred becomes a central response to emotion, the negative emotions that can arise in connection to sports can develop into hooliganism and violence, even murder.

Hate is contagious. It easily transfers to others, especially children. When we express hate or even accept it in front of children, they learn that hate is an acceptable choice. Teachers often hear students use the word “hate” the way I use it with beets. Students say things like “I really hate you” to other students and even teachers. When children are young, we dismiss these outbursts, thinking that the children don’t really know what the word means. Some students’ understanding of hate, however, eventually becomes all too real. There are far too many instances of children who have learned to hate from their parents doing horrific things, like throwing rocks at Jews. The more children learn to hate, the more they do hateful things as adults.

Even more insidious is that the person who hates is hurt more than the object of that hatred. Hatred steals our self-control. Terrorists achieve their goal the more we hate them: they rob us of our power to fight back in more productive ways. We must never let evil people rob us of our control.

Rabbi Boteach argues that those we are allowed to hate include those who commit atrocities, including terrorists and Nazis. His argument, though, is convoluted. Besides, any argument that includes Hitler or Nazis shows desperation. These words have become such symbols of evil (rightly so) that they can no longer be used in rational discourse.

They are used to generate strong emotional responses, giving all the power to whoever is employing these horrific images. I dismiss any argument out of hand that uses Nazis as the basis for proving a point.

I once had a discussion about hatred with a woman who saw hatred as a virtue. She asked me, “Do you hate Hitler?” I was so ashamed at the time to say “no, but...” that I said “yes.” This discussion was over two years ago, but I still feel badly about my answer. I should have said, “What I feel about Hitler is utter rage. I try to act on this rage with something more important and healthy than hate. I write letters to the editor.

I fight endlessly with those are Holocaust deniers. My rage leads to action. I’ll never let the Nazis make me hate because that gives them too much power over me.” I doubt my answer would have been understood, but it would have expressed the truth about my strength and conviction.

What is the difference between rage and hate? Isn’t it just semantics? I can see how the distinction might be seen as definitional, but it is not. Rage is extreme anger. As I noted earlier, rage is a feeling, but hate is a learned response. In fighting terrorism, hate can lead to bad decision making. Rage, regardless of how intense, does not cloud our thinking the same way that hatred does. The only way to beat terrorism is to be more tactical and rational, free from the blindness created by hate.

When we are overcome with sadness, anger or rage, it’s healthy to express our feelings and not suppress them. Rather than giving in to hatred, which mostly hurts yourself, take action. Even small steps will push back against evil. Be strong and don’t let hatred make you weak.

The writer is a frequent op-ed contributor.

He is the director of the graduate program for children with behavior disorders at David Yellin College and the author of 20 books related to behavior.

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