Is it easier to love others in theory or in person? Conversely, are we more likely to hate those that we encounter, or those we don’t see or know?
It may be suggested that it is easier to love people in the abstract than it is in practice. In theory, we recognize the need for compassion and empathy. We know the golden rule - Do unto others as you’d have done to you - and we believe in it. We espouse tolerance and coexistence. But then we get in the room with the other, and s/he is so much more annoying and intolerable than s/he was in the abstract.
“Hell is other people,” Sartre famously wrote, and it is no secret that human interaction can be difficult and sometimes even hellish. Even the ones we love are often hard to get along with, because each of us has our foibles and idiosyncrasies, our preferences and desires, our egos and insecurities.
So perhaps we are more likely to love the idea of people than the reality of them. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” of course, and that is in part because we are left with the ideal of the ones we miss, rather than the daily negotiation and compromise that relationships demand.
What about hatred then? Can we extrapolate that it is similarly easier to hate those we face and know than those we think about and envision? After all, in person we see their warts and blemishes, whereas in theory we can recognize their general humanity without being forced to contend with their immediate needs and imperfections.
But in fact, we find the opposite to be the case. It is easier to hate people when they are faceless than when we look them in the face.
In a New York Times Op-ed last week entitled Empathize with Your Political Foe, Arthur C. Brooks provided several examples of the tendency of people to be more tolerant and less hateful in practice than they profess themselves to be in theory.
One of these was in September of last year when Hawk Newsome, a Black Lives Matter leader, was invited to take the mic at a Trump rally that he had come to protest. The leader of the rally offered Newsome two minutes to express his perspective, and a dialogue ensued that may not have led to changed minds, but certainly engendered greater empathy and decreased tensions. (See video of the event here.)
Brooks then cited a study from 1934 in which sociologist Richard LaPiere traveled with a Chinese couple to hundreds of restaurants and hotels around the US at a time when overt bias against the Chinese was commonplace. Of the 251 establishments visited, only one of them turned the couple away, though in a follow-up survey that LaPiere sent, only one of the establishments responded that it would serve Chinese people, and over a third responded that they would not.
Is it indeed easier for us to espouse hatred about people than to practice it on them? Are we more inclined to show people respect and dignity when they stand before us than when we pontificate about them as an institution or a monolithic bloc?
Brooks’ examples seem to indicate that it is. And our experience today with all of the vitriol and polarization on social media will certainly corroborate his thesis.
If so, is it because we lose the courage to express our true feelings when we are forced to confront our “enemies”? Or is there something about meeting people in person and humanizing them that strips us of our ability to view them inaccurately? In other words, is it that we are emboldened by anonymity and more craven in person, or does personal interaction genuinely dismantle our biases and lead us to greater awareness and sensitivity?
It is likely a function of both.
Echo chambers make us brave and brazen. The reinforcement of those who agree with us tends to encourage us further, often whipping us into a frenzy. We feed off our peers and become self-righteous and self-congratulatory. We lose ourselves in the feedback loop of our group, and we lose sight of the reality of “the other” who is in opposition.
And then when we step out of our bubble and interact with the other, we realize that s/he is not the faceless foe that we had come to demonize. S/he resembles us in many ways. It is much harder to hurl insults and epithets when we can see the pain that these inflict.
It is not simply that we are now afraid of retaliation, but we are witness to the injury that we cause. We can see it in the other’s eyes, and we realize that not only is s/he more human and vulnerable than we had assumed, but we ourselves are not as insensitive and inhuman as we have been.
All of which is to suggest that there is a way out of the quagmire in which we currently find ourselves. The polarization of our country is helping no one. From a social perspective, we are experiencing tension and aggravation that is not pleasant or healthy. From a political perspective, we are subject to a stalemate which puts us on the brink of government shutdown and makes it difficult for either side to get anything done.
The spewing of hatred and the demonizing of faceless swaths of our fellow Americans is contributing to the problem, and therefore we must find a way to put a face to our foes and put an end to our generalization and polarization.
To do so, we should support leaders and outlets that welcome open and objective dialogue as Brooks concludes in his op-ed,, and we should find more frequent opportunities to interact with those who differ with us culturally and ideologically.
Furthermore, the very awareness of the fact that it is harder to hate in person should sensitize us to the humanity of all those we consider “other,” and that will hopefully engender greater civility, empathy, and restraint even when we remain in the company of our own more homogeneous groups.
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