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Pondering Hate and its Political Abuse

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I have assigned Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers to my graduate seminar concerning Nongovernmental Organizations and International Development since its publication in 2012.[1] I have done so for three principal reasons. First, the volume offers a sympathetic, but unsparing and multi-faceted portrait of the lives of a deeply poor community of individuals living adjacent to a sewage lagoon in a former swamp along the highway that serves Mumbai International Airport in Mumbai, India. The inhabitants of that community, Annawadi, lack all meaningful services and live in conditions of deprivation well-beyond anything Virginia Tech’s students and most Americans can imagine. In physical terms, at least, these residents’ immiseration could not be more complete. I want my students to grapple with the fact that people today live in such absolute poverty not only in India, but in communities throughout the world, that their continued existence is at stake each day. Each year, seminar participants tell me how eye-opening the work proved for them.  

I also ask students to read this volume to provoke them to struggle with the stories of the families that unfold within it. The book’s narrative highlights the ability of the individuals it follows to act with kindness, perseverance and love despite the depredations of their lives. Many of those living in Annawadi never lost hope and never stopped striving for a better life for themselves and their families and friends, even as they were bitten nightly by rats while sleeping, dealt with the capriciousness of petty government official corruption and risked their lives daily as trash pickers along the high-speed airport access road.

A third reason I assign the book is to acquaint students with one individual in it, a Hindu woman named Fatima, who had the use of only one leg and was a prostitute, and who embodies the depths of depravity and cruelty to which humans may descend in their covetousness and quest for imagined superiority. She concocted a plot to self-immolate and to blame Abdul, the otherwise innocent and hard-working 12-year-old Muslim trash-picking son of her neighbors, for that awful turn. Fatima took this step believing that Abdul and his family, through their unflagging energy and thrift, were rising above their rightful place in her vision of an appropriate social order. Muslims were not supposed to stand higher than Hindus economically or socially in Fatima’s worldview and she thought she could undermine this ignominy by ruining the offending family with her accusation. She nearly did so, but unexpectedly killed herself in the ugly game she set in train.  

Boo’s account of Annawadi’s families also illustrates two additional points on which I want my students to reflect. First, it suggests that intervening in human communities is never merely, or even principally, a technical and rational matter. Nor is development, however conceived, likely to be linear in character. This is so not only because community conditions and relationships shift on the basis of many factors in unpredictable fashion, but also results from the fact that individuals take actions that affect the course of those processes as well and often, in unexpected ways. Most students have never considered these realities. Second, this narrative reveals to seminar participants the lengths to which human beings are willing to go to create social orders that accord with their beliefs and prejudices, even in the midst of the direst of physical circumstances. As degraded as the conditions of her life were, Fatima could not accept the fact that individuals who she perceived as of a “lesser” faith and lower social standing could fare better than she and her family. Her envy, jealousy, hate and desire for ascendancy resulted in a scheme that ended her life.

All of this serves as a reminder that hatred is endemic to the human condition and not simply to one or another religious, ethnic or socio-economic group. For thousands of years, individuals of all social and economic strata have found reasons to loathe their fellow human beings on the basis of all manner of constructed grounds: perceived slights, imagined superiority, feared inferiority, different religious faiths, ethnicities or races and so on. Ironically, despite this proclivity, as a matter of genetic make-up, the differences among humans are extremely small. So, Fatima’s tragic story also raises the question of why a person would kill herself in a twisted effort to establish a social difference when none such can ever exist in scientific terms. Perversely, her tale underlines how deeply such behavior nonetheless inheres in humanity.

Fatima’s narrative and the propensity to hate that underpinned it came to mind when I read Barnard College faculty member Jennifer Finney Boylan’s account of her receipt of a Robo-call on Christmas Day regarding the death of 18-year old first-year Barnard student and Charlottesville, Virginia native, Tessa Majors, two weeks earlier:

I wasn’t expecting to get any messages on my answering machine at Barnard College on Christmas Day. But there was one. So I hit play, thinking it might be greetings from an old friend, or even a stranger, wishing to share the good will of the season. What I heard instead was a racist message from a white supremacist group in Idaho, using the incomprehensibly tragic death of a first-year Barnard student, Tessa Majors, as an occasion to promote hatred toward African-Americans. She had been fatally stabbed during a mugging on Dec. 11, not far from campus. It was one of the most awful things I’ve ever heard.[2]

Finney used her essay to seek to make sense of how to respond to someone seeking to use Majors’ death at the hands of an underaged would-be robber[3] to spread hate:

‘So much death,’ laments King Theoden in Tolkien’s ‘The Two Towers.’ The question he asks next is one that I too struggle to answer, ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’ Because it’s just not possible to ‘delete messages’ for every terrible thing the world contains.[4]

Ultimately, she concluded that those who wish to combat such vacuous enmity should not descend to the same level of its proselytizers in addressing it. Rather,

A better response would be to try to open hearts. There are many ways of going about this, including getting involved in communities that seek to illuminate the human spirit, communities like Barnard. Another thing we can do is to gather together in defiance of the darkness. On Sunday, tens of thousands of New Yorkers did just that, at a rally against anti-Semitism. Events such as these can bring about the very thing Tessa Majors tried to do in her short life — the tethering of one soul to another.[5]

In a time characterized by the rise of hate-filled, racist and race-tinged social demagoguery across the world—including in the United States, Turkey, the United Kingdom, India, Italy, France, Hungary, Poland, Brazil and many other nations—I find myself asking the same question that Finney raises. Analysts and Americans who do not support these political stands or the leaders who press them cannot simply pretend that such individuals are not exploiting hate. Nor, can they imagine that millions have not responded to those officials’ claims that “their” religious, racial, ethnic or other group is morally superior to others. Nor, can they ignore the fact that many Americans have become convinced they should be outraged at the alleged impertinence of malignant others—always minorities, however cast—challenging their “rightful” standing.  To a person, the leaders who have employed these demagogic arguments have suggested that the individuals and groups they malign have “taken” standing, resources or both from those citizens these individuals purport to represent, and they have argued that self-consciously cruel steps now must occur to set matters right.

Given that this scenario continues to unfold here in the United States as I write, four conclusions seem apt. First, history and our ongoing experience suggest that we cannot expect that any effort, now or in the future, will eliminate the human disposition to hate. Second, that fact implies that our citizenry collectively must discern ways to instill values that predispose its members to dismiss calls to hate by leaders who would seek to harness it for their own power-related purposes. That is, citizens must learn to recognize and call out such contentions as the viciously small and self-diminishing malice they represent. These alternate civic values, including a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the community, to discipline one’s individual desires for goals and ideals beyond self and a capacity to listen to opposing points-of-view in the name of identifying potential common interests, have long existed, but they do require a measure of self-discipline, self-awareness and tough-mindedness. All friends of freedom need to instill this nation’s citizens with a sense of the vital importance of the moral claim attending human political equality and help each come to see how closely tied that imperative is to the preservation not only of their own freedom, but of democratic civilization as well.

Third, with President Donald Trump and many other GOP leaders daily preaching hate, citizens must join together and remind their fellows that party or other group affiliation does not license officials to dehumanize other citizens or to terrorize or demonize groups that hold alternate views. Finally, Americans must recognize collectively as a people that we are unlikely to progress toward eliminating the human misery linked to poverty, for example, while simultaneously constructing a priori reasons to hate one another and/or to blame others for those conditions. These are questions not only of which values our society should encourage in our classrooms, but more broadly and deeply, which we should enshrine as important in our families and other social institutions as well.

Hate is alive and well in our nation and in the world today. Ignoring it will only permit its deeper infestation of our society. The question is not how to eliminate this penchant among a share of our citizens, but instead how to discipline it into submission and to “open hearts” and “tether souls” to one another as Boylan suggested, to preserve our way of life. It remains an open question today whether Americans and the residents of many other nominally democratic nations across the world will prove capable of meeting this challenge effectively. Hate’s most recent upsurge has already imposed enormous social costs. Indeed, history teaches the sober-minded that the costs hatred may impose are unfathomable. There are few concerns more vital than preventing its continued usurpation of our nation’s democratic way of life.

Notes

[1] Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. New York: Random House, 2012.

[2] Boylan, Jennifer Finney, “Tessa Majors and the Worst Thing I ever Heard,” The New York Times, January 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/opinion/tessa-majors-barnard.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_200108?campaign_id=2&instance_id=14981&segment_id=20136&user_id=0100ea161cc78533fc4fac5d8cf3a77c&regi_id=400875340108, Accessed January 7, 2020.

[3] Paybarah, Azi and Alex Traub, “Killing of Barnard Student Unnerves Campus and City,” The New York Times, December 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/12/nyregion/tessa-majors-barnard-stabbing.html Accessed January 11, 2020.

[4] Boylan, “Tessa Majors and the Worst Thing I ever Heard.”

[5] Boylan, “Tessa Majors and the Worst Thing I ever Heard.”  

Publication Date

January 20, 2020

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