Editor’s note: I think this may be the single greatest essay ever written. Nothing else I am aware of is a more comprehensive confession of why and how we succumb to hatred. In today’s climate, we readily make excuses for hate. The media is monetized, organized hate. Politics too. “Science” has become a game of hate. Very few question hate itself. Political Correctness is the cultural religion that promises its devotees that hatred will deliver them to a promised land, where the guilty have at last been bludgeoned into silence. Hatred of Donald Trump has brought hatred to new vistas; If you question how far the hatred has gone, you will be hated for not hating. His haters say they hate him because he represents hate.
Havel’s essay does not ask “what?” but “how?” and “why?”
The Anatomy of Hate
As I look over this assembly, I don’t imagine there are many of us who could contemplate our theme hate from the inside, almost as a kind of autopsy, as a state of the soul that we have personally experienced. We are, rather, uneasy observers of this phenomenon, and thus we try to reflect on it only from the outside. This applies to me as well. Among my bad qualities and there are certainly enough of them there is not, oddly enough, the capacity to hate. So I too look at hatred only as an observer, whose understanding of it is not profound, but whose concern about it is.
When I think about the people who have hated me personally, or still do, I realize that they share several characteristics which when you put them together and analyze them suggest a certain general interpretation of the origin of their hatred.
They are never hollow, empty, passive, indifferent, apathetic people. Their hatred always seems to me the expression of a large and unquenchable longing, a permanently unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire, a kind of desperate ambition. In other words, it is an active inner capacity that always leads the person to fixate on something, always pushes him in a certain direction, and is in a sense stronger than he is. I certainly don’t think hatred is the mere absence of love or humanity, a mere vacuum in the human spirit. On the contrary, it has a lot in common with love, chiefly with that self-transcending aspect of love, the fixation on others, the dependence on them, and in fact, the delegation of a piece of one’s own identity to them. Just as a lover longs for the loved one and cannot get along without him, the hater longs for the object of his hatred. And like love, hatred is ultimately an expression of longing for the absolute, albeit an expression that has become tragically inverted.
People who hate, at least those I have known, harbour a permanent, irradicable feeling of injury, a feeling that is, of course, out of all proportion to reality. It is as though these people wanted to be endlessly honoured, loved and respected, as though they suffered from the chronic and painful awareness that others are ungrateful and unforgivably unjust towards them, not only because they don’t honour and love them boundlessly, as they ought, but because they even or so it seems ignore them.
In the subconsciousness of haters there slumbers a perverse feeling that they alone possess the truth, that they are some kind of superhumans or even gods, and thus deserve the world’s complete recognition, even its complete submissiveness and loyalty, if not its blind obedience. They want to be the centre of the world and are constantly frustrated and irritated because the world does not accept and recognize them as such; indeed, it may not even pay any attention to them, and perhaps it even ridicules them.
They are like spoiled or badly brought up children who think their mother exists only to worship them, and who think ill of her because she occasionally does something else, like spending time with her other children, her husband, a book or her work. They feel all this as an injustice, an injury, a personal attack, a questioning of their own sense of self-worth. The inner charge of energy, which might have been love, is perverted into hatred toward the imputed source of injury.
In hatred just as in unhappy love there is a desperate kind of transcendentalism. People who hate wish to attain the unattainable and are consumed by the impossibility of attaining it. They see the cause of this in the shameful world that prevents them from attaining their object. Hatred is a diabolical attribute of the fallen angel. It is a state of the spirit that aspires to be God, that may even think it is God, and is tormented by evidence that it is not and cannot be. It is the attribute of a creature who is jealous of God and eats his heart out because the road to the throne of God, where he thinks he should be sitting, is blocked by an unjust world that is conspiring against him.
The person who hates is never able to see the cause of his metaphysical failure in himself and the way he so completely overestimates his own worth. In his eyes, it is the surrounding world that is to blame. The trouble is that this is too abstract, vague and incomprehensible. It has to be personified because hatred as a very particular kind of tumescence of the soul requires a particular object. And so the person who hates seeks out a particular offender. Of course this offender is merely a stand-in, arbitrarily chosen and therefore easily interchangeable. I have observed that for the hater, hatred is more important than its object; he can rapidly change objects without changing anything essential in the relationship. This is understandable. He does not harbour hatred toward a particular person, but to what that person represents: a complex of obstacles to the absolute, to absolute recognition, absolute power, total identification with God, truth and the order of the world. Hatred for one’s neighbour, therefore, would seem to be only a physiological embodiment of hatred for the universe that is perceived to be the cause of one’s own universal failure.
It is said that those who hate suffer from an inferiority complex. This may not be the most precise way to put it. I would rather say that they are people with a complex based on the fatal perception that the world does not appreciate their true worth.
Another observation seems worth making here. The man who hates does not smile, he merely smirks; he is incapable of making a joke, only of bitter ridicule; he can’t be genuinely ironic because he can’t be ironic about himself. Only those who can laugh at themselves can laugh authentically. A serious face, quickness to take offence, strong language, shouting, the inability to step outside himself and see his own foolishness these are typical of one who hates.
Such qualities reveal something very significant. The hater utterly lacks a sense of belonging, of taste, of shame, of objectivity. He lacks the capacity to doubt and ask questions, the awareness of his own transience and transcience of all things, he lacks the experience of genuine absurdity, that is the absurdity of his own existence, the feeling of his own alienation, his awkwardness, his failure, his limitations or his guilt. The common denominator of all this is clearly a tragic, almost metaphysical lack of a sense of proportion. The hateful person has not grasped the measure of things, the measure of his own possibilities, the measure of his rights, the measure of his own existence and the measure of recognition and love that he can expect. He wants the world to belong to him with no strings attached; that is, he wants the world’s recognition to be limitless. He does not understand that the right to the miracle of his own existence and the recognition of that miracle are things he must earn through his actions. He sees them, on the contrary, as a right granted to him once and for all, unlimited and never called into question. In short, he believes that he has something like an unconditional free pass anywhere, even to heaven. Anyone who dares to scrutinize his pass is an enemy who does him wrong. If this is how he understands his right to existence and recognition, then he must be constantly angry at someone for not drawing the proper conclusions.
I have noticed that all haters accuse their neighbours and through them the whole world of being evil. The motive force behind this wrath is the feeling that these evil people and the evil world are denying them what is naturally theirs. In other words, haters project their own anger onto others. Here too they are like spoiled children. They don’t see that they must sometimes show themselves worthy of something and if they don’t automatically have everything they think they should, this is not because someone is being nasty to them.
In hatred there is great egocentrism and great self-love. Because they long for absolute self-confirmation and do not encounter it, hating people feel that they are the victims of an insidious evil, an omnipresent injustice that has to be eliminated to give justice its due. But in their minds, justice is turned on its head. They see it as a duty to grant them something that cannot be granted: the whole world.
The person who hates is unhappy, because whatever he does to achieve full recognition and to destroy those he thinks are responsible for his lack of recognition, he can never attain the success he longs for, that is, the success of the absolute. The full horror of his powerlessness, or rather his incapacity to be God, always will burst through from somewhere perhaps from the happy, conciliatory and forgiving smile of his victim.
There is only one hatred; there is no difference between individual hatred and group hatred. Anyone who hates an individual is almost always capable of succumbing to group hatred or even of spreading it. I would even say that group hatred be it religious, ideological or doctrinal, social, national or any other kind is a kind of funnel that ultimately draws into itself everyone disposed toward hatred. In other words, the most proper background and human potential of all group hatred is a collection of people who are capable of hating individuals.
But more than that, collective hatred shared, spread and deepened by people capable of hatred has a special magnetic attraction and therefore has the power to draw countless other people into its vortex, people who initially did not seem endowed with the ability to hate. They are merely morally small and weak, selfish people with lazy intellects, incapable of thinking for themselves and therefore susceptible to the suggestive influence of those who hate.
The attraction of collective hatred infinitely more dangerous than the hatred of individuals for other individuals derives from several apparent advantages.
1) Collective hatred eliminates loneliness, weakness, powerlessness, a sense of being ignored or abandoned. This, of course, helps people deal with lack of recognition, lack of success, because it offers them a sense of togetherness. It creates a strange brotherhood, founded on a simple form of mutual understanding that makes no demands whatsoever. The conditions of membership are easily met, and no one need fear that he will not pass muster. What could be simpler than sharing a common object of aversion and accepting a common “ideology of injury” that justifies the aversion expressed to that object? To say, for instance, that Germans, Arabs, Blacks, Vietnamese, Hungarians, Czechs, Gypsies or Jews are responsible for all the misery of the world, and above all for the despair in every wronged soul, is so easy and so understandable! You can always find enough Vietnamese, Hungarians, Czechs, Gypsies or Jews whose behaviour can be made to illustrate the notion that they are responsible for everything.
2) The community of those who hate offers another great advantage to its members. They can endlessly reassure one another of their own worth, either through exaggerated expressions of hatred for the chosen group of offenders, or through a cult of symbols and rituals that affirm the worth of the hating community. Uniforms, common dress, insignia, flags and favourite songs bring the participants closer together, confirm their identity, increase, strengthen, and multiply their own value in their eyes.
3) Whereas individual aggressiveness is always risky because it raises the spectre of individual responsibility, a society of hating individuals in a sense legitimizes aggressiveness. Expressing it as a group creates the illusion of legitimacy or at least the sense of a “common cover.” Hidden within a group, a pack or a mob, every potentially violent person can dare to do more; each one eggs the other on, and all of them precisely because there are more of them justify one another.
4) Ultimately, the principle of group hatred considerably simplifies the lives of all those who hate and all those who are incapable of independent thinking, because it offers them a very simple and, immediately recognizable object of hatred. The process of manifesting the general injustice of the world in a particular person who therefore must be hated is made wonderfully easier if the “offender” is identifiable by the colour of his skin, his name, his language, his religion or where he lives.
Collective hatred has another insidious advantage: the modest circumstances of its birth. There are many apparently innocent and common states of mind that create the almost unnoticeable antecedents to potential hatred, a wide and fertile field on which the seeds of hatred will quickly germinate and take root.
Let me at least give you three examples.
Where can this particularizing feeling of universal injustice flourish better than where genuine injustice has been done? Feelings of not being appreciated, logically enough, grow best in a situation where someone has been humiliated, insulted or cheated. The best environment for a chronic feeling of injury is one of genuine injury. In short, collective hatred gains its veracity and allure most easily wherever a group of people lives in a genuine want, that is, in an environment of human misery.
A second example. The miracle of human thought and human reason is bound up with the capacity to generalize. It is hard to imagine the history of the human spirit without this great power. In a sense, anyone who thinks generalizes. On the other hand, the ability to generalize is a fragile gift that has to be handled with great care. A less perceptive soul can easily overlook the hidden seeds of injustice that may lie in the act of generalization. We have all made observations or expressed opinions of one kind or another about various peoples. We may say that the French, the English, or Russians are like this or that; we don’t mean ill by it, we are only trying, through our generalizations, to see reality better. But there is a grave danger hidden in this kind of generalization. A group of people defined in a certain way in this case ethnically is, in a sense, subtly deprived of individual spirits and individual responsibilities, and we endow it with an abstract, collective sense of responsibility. Clearly, this is a wonderful starting point for collective hatred. Individuals become a priori bad or evil simply because of their origin. The evil of racism, one of the worst evils in the world today, depends among other things directly on this type of careless generalization.
Finally, the third antecedent of collective hatred I want to mention here is something I would call collective “otherness.” One aspect of the immense and wonderful colour and mystery of life is not only that each person is different and that no one can perfectly understand anyone else, but also that groups of people differ from one another as groups: in their customs, their traditions, their temperament, their way of life and thinking, their hierarchy of values, and of course in their faith, the colour of their skin, their way of dressing and so on. This “otherness” is truly collective. And it is quite understandable that the “otherness” of one group can make it seem, to the group we belong to, surprising, alien, and even ridiculous. And just as we are surprised at how different others are, so others are surprised by how different we are from them.
This “otherness” of different communities can of course be accepted with understanding and tolerance as something that enriches life; it can be honoured and respected, it can even be enjoyed. But by the same token, it can also be a source of misunderstanding and aversion toward others. And therefore once again it is a fertile ground for future hatred.
Few of those who move on the thin, ambiguous and dangerous terrain created by the awareness of a genuine wrong, the ability to generalize and that awareness of “otherness”, can from the outset detect the presence of the cuckoo’s eggs of collective hatred that can be laid in this terrain or that already have been laid there.
Some observers have described Central and Eastern Europe today as a powder keg, an area of growing nationalism, ethnic intolerance and expressions of collective hatred. This area is even often described as a possible source of future European instability and of a serious threat to peace. In the subtext of such pessimistic reflections, one can sense, here and there, a kind of nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold War, when the two halves of Europe kept each other in check and produced a kind of peace.
I don’t share the pessimism of such observers. Even so, I admit that the corner of the world which I come from could become if we do not maintain vigilance and common sense fertile soil in which collective hatred could grow. This is so for many more or less understandable reasons.
In the first place, you have to realize that living in Central and Eastern Europe are many nations and ethnic groups that have blended together in various ways. It is almost impossible to imagine an ideal border that would separate these nations and ethnic groups into territories of their own. Thus, there are many minorities, and minorities within minorities, and the existing borders are sometimes rather artificial, so that in fact it is a kind of international melting pot. At the same time, these nations have had very few historic opportunities to seek their own political identity and their own statehood. For centuries, they lived under the shelter of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and after a brief pause between the wars they were, in one way or another, subjugated by Hitler and then immediately, or shortly thereafter, by Stalin. The nations of Western Europe had decades and centuries to develop to where they are; the nations of Central Europe had only a few years between the two world wars.
Understandably, then, they carry within their collective subconsciousness a feeling that history has done them wrong. An exaggerated feeling of injustice a condition for hatred could quite logically find fertile ground for its birth and growth here.
The totalitarian system that held sway for so long in most of these countries was outstanding, among other things, for its tendency to make everything the same, to control and coordinate things, to make them uniform. For decades, it harshly suppressed whatever authenticity or if you like “otherness” the subject nations had. From the structure of the state administrations to the red stars on the rooftops, everything was the same that is, imported from the Soviet Union. Is it any wonder then, that the moment these countries rid themselves of the totalitarian system, they suddenly perceived, with unusual clarity, their mutual and suddenly liberated “otherness”? And would it be any wonder if this long-invisible, and therefore necessarily untested and intellectually undigested “otherness” did not cause surprise? Rid of the uniforms and the masks that were imposed on us, we are looking for the first time into one another’s real faces. Something has come about that might be called the “shock of otherness.” And this has given rise to another favourable condition for collective aversion, which in the right circumstances could grow into collective hatred.
The simple fact is that not only have the nations of this area not had enough time to mature as states, they have not had enough time to get used to one another’s politically defined otherness.
Here we may once more invoke a comparison with children: In many regards, these nations have simply not had enough time to become political adults.
After all they have gone through, they feel a natural need to make their existence quickly visible and to achieve recognition and acknowledgement. They simply wish to be known, to be consulted along with the rest of the world. They want their special “otherness” to be acknowledged. And at the same time, still full of inner uncertainty about themselves and the degree of recognition they enjoy, they look at one another somewhat nervously and ask whether those other nations which moreover have suddenly become as different as themselves are not stealing some of the attention that is rightfully theirs.
For years the totalitarian system in this part of Europe suppressed civic autonomy and the rights of individuals, whom they tried to turn into pliant cogs in its machine. The lack of civic culture, which the system destroyed, and the general demoralizing pressure ultimately can make possible the careless generalizing that always goes along with national intolerance. Respect for human rights, which rejects the principle of collective responsibility, is always the result of a minimum level of civic culture.
It may be clear, from this rather brief and thus necessarily simplified account, that in our part of Europe, conditions are relatively favourable for the rise of national intolerance or even hatred.
There is one more important factor here. After the initial joy about our own liberation comes the inevitable phase of disillusion and depression. It is only now, when we can describe and name everything truthfully, that we see the full extent of the awful legacy left to us by the totalitarian system, and realize how long and difficult will be the task of repairing all the damage.
This state of general frustration may provoke some to vent their anger on substitute victims, who will stand as proxies for the main and now liquidated offender, the totalitarian system. Helpless rage seeks its lightning rod.
I repeat that if I speak of the nationalistic hatred in Central and Eastern Europe, I’m not talking about it as our certain future but as a potential threat.
We must understand this threat in order to confront it effectively. It is a task that faces all of us who live in the former Soviet Bloc.
We must struggle energetically against all the incipient forms of collective hatred, not only on principle, because evil must always be confronted, but in our own interests.
The Hindus have a legend concerning a mythical bird called Bherunda. The bird had a single body, but two necks, two heads and two separate consciousnesses. After an eternity together, these two heads began to hate each other and decided to harm each other. Both of them swallowed pebbles and poison, and the result was predictable: The whole Bherunda bird went into spasms and died with loud cries of pain. It was brought back to life by the infinite mercy of Krishna, to remind people forever how all hatred ends up.
We who live in the newly created democracies of Europe should remind ourselves of this legend each day. As soon as one of us succumbs to the temptation to hate another, we will all end up like the Bherunda bird.
With this difference. There will be no earthly Krishna around to liberate us from our new misfortune.
Oslo, August 28, 1990