Emocracy: Haters’ paradox

Hate is the hallmark emotion of our times. Amongst the emotions ruling our private, professional, and public lives[1], hate is the ringleader. First, psychology’s curse equipped us with the tools to manage emotions, a dream of eternal bliss, and the notion of emotions as “what makes us human”; then, the “like button” and the “people who…”-algorithm on social media tied us into the mental state of pre-teen kids, tightly spun into our wants and needs. In this state of heightened emotional vulnerability, humanity fell prey to the stratagems of hate: the darkest lord of emotions, more enduring than anger, jealousy, or pride, and the cruelest mastermind of aggression, violence, and warfare. In this post, I will talk about how both psychology and certain features of social media (again) contributed to allowing hate to rise to the cardinal position it holds today – another building block to answering the question of how, when, and why the shift from keeping emotions “under cover” towards today’s extrovert emocracy took place[2].

My third hypothesis is: Hate climbed to its predominant position in our (public) discourse because of the unbridgeable abyss between, on the one hand, our desire to express what we dislike, and, on the other hand, our unwillingness to stay in the presence of what we dislike. The haters’ paradox is the simultaneous wish to openly share what annoys us or makes us angry and at the same time not to be exposed to what annoys us or makes us angry.

Expressing dislikes: Again, psychology and psychotherapy play an important role in what is happening here, and social media make their contributions. With the introspective stance that psychology brought to our view of the world, openly (and constructively) expressing negative emotions became a staple of conversations between couples and within families, and “feedback models” of all flavors spread in the business world. We have become skillful in observing our partners’ or co-workers’ actions, carefully phrasing how they make us feel, and sensitively suggesting alternative recommendations[3]. In public, too, in certain cultures, it has become a duty to “speak up” when things do not look right, i.e. when basic rights are ignored, minorities are discriminated against, or when the tired and poor are not cared for and looked after. All in all, everyone of us feels entitled (if not: obliged) to express our dislikes openly, firmly, and confidently – from not liking radish to not liking racism (or: from not liking fennel to not liking foreigners).

Social media has done its share to facilitate these expressions of dislikes. With the same ease with which posts on positive experiences solicit applause, joy, and cheers from our online friends, posts on negative experiences bring forth compassion, concern, and offers of support. Our feeds brim with hearts when we write about sickness or sadness, and concrete stories of loss, pain, and suffering raise substantial amounts not only of friendly words, but also of dollars or euros. Sharing stories of our outrage at delayed planes or trains, misdelivered parcels, and faulty service in restaurants, shops, or bars reliably produces compassionate comments with similar stories – the age-old comfort of joining others in complaints, gossip, and bad-mouthing[4]. On top of this, social media invented the nudge to congratulate others on anniversaries or achievements (“It’s Jane’s birthday today! Join 52 other friends in saying Happy Birthday!”, “Congratulate Sam on starting a new job at the Fire Department of Pontypandy!”) – thereby gently suggesting that a reaction is also due when bad things happen, including replacing our profile picture with a flag, a cross, or a half moon. The step from here to feeling obliged to comment on what we heartily dislike is but a tiny inch away: “How can you possibly read this book?”, “How can anyone even consider visiting this place?”, “What on earth drives people who watch this movie?”. Even with a pinch of irony, this is where hate starts its race to the top, as – disregarding all feedback rules – specific actions or behaviors are generalized as indicators for despicable attitudes or unacceptable views.

Avoiding dislikes: On a very different note, social media taught us that we can tailor what we see: “We want to make sure you see what is most relevant to you!”; “Help us to tailor your feed so you see what you’re most interested in!”; “You have full control over what appears in your timeline!”. The idea that our (online) universe will be more and more restricted to what appeals to us has even made it to the status of a theory – the “Filter Bubble”, made popular by the homonymous book by Eli Pariser (2011). Contributing to this myth, all social media sites have built functions like “mute”, “silence”, “unfriend”, “unfollow”, or “block”, allowing for – temporary or permanent, softer or harder – exclusion of facts, opinions, or people from our timelines. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Neither the online nor the offline world care about our comfort and well-being, and even the most meticulously curated timeline will be repopulated by posts pointing to unwanted discussions, enervating opinions, or weird individuals. Just like the dream of the bliss ever after in this very life (described in the second post in this series), the dream of a timeline (or: lifeline) devoid of unpleasant experiences is an illusion. We cannot avoid coming across things we dislike – but our tolerance for such things has been worn thin, as the promise of a “tailored timeline” is continuously pushed upon us. By and large, we are unwilling to stay in the presence of what we dislike.

* * *

Hate is born and fed when our urge to openly, firmly, and confidently express our dislikes meets with our unwillingness to stay in the presence of such dislikes. When what we dislike doesn’t go away (or reappears), our reaction increases from slight annoyance to exasperation and then to anger, and from there hate takes its roots and runs riot. Our wish to express our dislikes requires them to be present; our wish to banish our dislikes from sight makes it impossible to express them. This inner war between wanting and not wanting what we dislike outwardly turns into (verbal or factual) aggression, the catalyst of hate breeding hate.

And then? Stay tuned!

[1] This piece is the third chapter of a series of blog posts on emocracy. The opening chapter can be found here and should be read first for context and perspective; the second chapter – on how the success of psychology contributed to the rise of emocracy – is here; the third chapter – on how we’re chained by the “like” button on social media – is here.BACK TO TEXT

[2] The questions: “What is gained? What is lost? And for whom?” and: “How do we want to shape our living together now and going forward, given that the age of emocracy seems to be here to stay?”, will then be addressed in later posts.BACK TO TEXT

[3] This is not meant to belittle good feedback. If I want to address something critical with someone I care about, I’m still a huge fan of the classic model of: “I observed…”, followed by an action a video camera could have recorded; “It made me feel…”, followed by a description of my own emotions – followed by a pause to let the other person listen and digest, and potentially concluded by: “What I would prefer next time…”.BACK TO TEXT

[4] Possibly one of the oldest functions of human speech – see, for example, the short description of the “gossip theory” by Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind” (2011), p. 25sqq.BACK TO TEXT

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