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Why We Hate. Photo/Getty Images

Why We Hate: Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney explore the roots of tribalism

Is there anything more pressing than getting a grasp on one of humanity’s most destructive impulses?

It’s five years since Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney began work on a documentary series examining the roots of human hatred. In 2019 – and perhaps especially in post-mosque-massacre New Zealand – Why We Hate (Discovery, Sky 070, Sunday, 8.30pm) seems particularly timely.

The project began when Discovery Channel chief David Zaslav asked Spielberg, “What’s the story you want to tell? What’s the story you want when you and I are gone?”, Zaslav told an audience at a Royal Television Society conference last month.

“Little did we know five years ago where we’d be, and not just here in the UK or US but everywhere in the world,” he said. “For most of my life, I thought things were getting better, that we were working towards better respect towards people. But we’ve found in the past five years that things are much more of a challenge. Hate is significantly on the rise. Hate connected to skin colour, hate on people for religious reasons.”

For his part, Spielberg says that the series comes from the same urge to understand the human condition that led him to make Schindler’s List, and Why We Hate emerges as a kind of confluence of his high-minded philosophising and Gibney’s virtuoso touch with library footage.

“Humans have an unparalleled ability to love and co-operate,” evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare says at the opening of the first episode. “So why do we sometimes act cruel and hateful? Not just as individuals, but as whole communities or nations.”

Hare goes in search of an evolutionary explanation for why we’re like this. His amiable account of the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos jars alongside a torrent of images and video clips of humans being terrible to each other.

Just as it seems we’re watching a natural-science show, we’re tilted into expert explanations of the commonalities of mass shooters – resentment, alienation, an inability to perceive the humanity of others – and then, in a final moment of hope, the story of how a patient online interlocutor helped one woman walk away from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

Why We Hate, at least in this first of six episodes, seems to consciously distance itself from the fast-twitch takes that tend to drive our day-to-day thinking about its subject. It’s as if it’s trying not to make us angry about things we feel we should be angry about. And perhaps that’s the point.

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.