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A Ku Klux Klan protest in 2017. Photo/Getty Images

Steven Spielberg's Why We Hate is essential viewing

An ambitious look at human negativity has plenty of fuel on which to feed, but there's hope.

The state of us: everywhere you look there’s rage, racism, xenophobia … “Has hate become the new normal?” a CBS reporter asked Steven Spielberg, co-executive producer of Discovery Channel documentary series, Why We Hate. “No,” said Spielberg, “I think hate is the constant abnormal.”

The series attempts to dissect that constant abnormality. The first episode makes the case that it’s hard-wired into the human condition. Though it’s complicated. Cue a look at the factors – habitat, social organisation – that might account for the aggression in our close cousins, the chimpanzees, compared to more peaceable bonobos. The science of hate is intercut with personal stories: the girl who was bullied and goes on to bully until a teacher aide shows her kindness; Megan Phelps-Roper, who left behind those haters for Christ, the Westboro Baptist Church, composed mostly of her family.

All that negative human energy: it’s an ambitious project, tackling everything from tribalism among football fans to Hitler and his willing helpers to Pol Pot, Rwanda, slavery …

African American international criminal lawyer, Patricia Viseur Sellers, visiting a memorial to those who were lynched, is stunned by one record. “That’s my surname,” she says. There’s an interview with Comrade Duch, former maths teacher and Khmer Rouge executioner-in-chief. “I tend to regard myself as innocent,” he says serenely, after many unreflective years. “The government is responsible for this crime.”

There’s the media. “One of the first things that any fascist should do is cut you off from reality; to get you to distrust sources of information that are true and then they can control you,” says one expert. Cut to a clip of Donald Trump talking about fake news. Professor of psychology, Laurie Santos, puts it baldly: “The news media is using aspects of our psychology, that we are tribal, to make money.” The series is even-handed, showing images of Fox News’s Trump cheerleader-in-chief, Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s liberal commentator, Rachel Maddow. If you want to consume only your tribe’s reality, in this atomised environment it’s easy to do.

This is uncomfortable viewing. The impulses that can lead from bullying to violence and worse are distressingly familiar. You can’t help but think of social media, where tribal warfare plays out via pile-ons, unfriending, cancelling. Normally intelligent people can drop into sneering and name-calling once the enemy has been identified and the tribe has spoken.

On the other hand, we see that Phelps-Roper was finally able to leave Westboro because of the reception she received on Twitter from some who took a less Old Testament approach to fundamental disagreement. They responded to her hateful tweets with humour and engagement. She changed.

Why We Hate demands, in its unsensational way, that a viewer think twice about hot takes and snap judgments. If nature abhors a vacuum, hate seems to love an echo chamber. It also makes some troubling calls, such as using footage from the “manifesto” video made by Elliot Rodgers, who became a hero to the violently misogynist “incel” movement when he killed six people in 2014. But context is all and, as the scope of the series suggests, ignoring the horrors that humans commit and how they got there doesn’t make them go away. The project isn’t perfect – a lot of ground is covered, sometimes with insufficient depth. But there’s an underlying message of hope for change. For all the stories of hate being learned, there are indications that, in the right circumstances, it can be quickly unlearned. Hate is, in part, a refusal to imagine another mind, a different experience. Phelps-Roper says, “If I was ever going to change, it needed to be a very deliberate questioning of what do I believe, why do I believe, where do these things come from?” You can’t watch Why We Hate without beginning to ask yourself those questions. Must see television.

WHY WE HATE, Discovery Channel, Sunday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.