Don't Take the "Hate Bait!"



Newsletter #231 — April 23, 2024



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by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

In 2017, we created a Things You Can Do to Help Blog on Beyond Intractability that had a series of very short essays on things everyone (not just leaders or "influential people") could do to help address intractable conflict and hyper-polarization in their relationships, communities, and nation.  As we explained in Newsletter 229, we are revisiting several of those posts now, as the need for constructive citizen involvement in de-escalating our highly polarized political environment is higher than ever.  Today we look at hate-mongering, and explain what you can do instead of taking "the hate bait."


It is Tempting--But Don't Return Hate 

We wrote in 2018, "as the United States (along with other countries) are becoming increasingly politically polarized, politicians and other politically-engaged individuals are increasingly turning to highly-inflammatory rhetoric to excite and engage their own side. Although such behavior does "get out the vote," which is (in part) why it was so widely done in advance of the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections, it is also a dangerous trap." Little did we know how much worse things were to get! 

We went on to say, "the result is not only deepening polarization, but increased fear, anger, and even hate.  These powerful emotions do much more harm than good to all sides.  They make us fear for the future, disempower us from working together to make wise and needed decisions, and too often, such hate eventually leads to violence." This is why so many people have fallen into the "disillusioned, disengaged, and politically homeless" group we described in Newsletter 229, while others, especially those who have taken the "hate bait," have firmly anchored themselves in the "True Believer" group, and are spreading hate (often unintentionally), themselves.

Even when others — on the other side or on your side — play the "hate-bait" game, you don't have to take the bait.  Instead you can reject such behavior and model respect — a disarming gesture that can help to de-escalate the larger conflict and help move us all toward a more constructive pattern of engagement. In a 2019 update to the Hate Bait article, we noted that it was "a particularly good time to start doing this in the United States, as the midterm elections are over, and we now have a year before the next presidential election moves into full swing.  So there is no better time to try to establish a new type of relationship with "the other side."  We didn't.  Granted, Trump made it hard to do, as he spewed hate himself and his hateful language begot hate in return.  But Hillary Clinton had contributed to the hateful dynamic as well, when (for example), she referred to Trump's supporters as "deplorables." So there was plenty of hate to go around.  And now we are doing it again for a third time, which makes me think of the Pete Seeger anti-war song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and its relevant refrain "When will they ever learn....when will they ever learn?"

Guy has long talked about "the recreational complaint effect" in which we all sit around with our friends and complain about the evils of the other side.  Social media is full of posts that do this — trying with very inflammatory headlines to get our attention and make us mad. Progressives commonly accuse the right of "hate," hate crimes, or being members of hate groups. As they do this, however, they strongly suggest that they hate the right (for instance, by calling them racists, homophobs, or transphobs) and they hate the right's standard bearer, Donald Trump, even more. The Right sees this hypocrisy, and doubles down on their anti-Left rhetoric, and the Left responds in turn, creating  an increasingly intense escalatory spiral.  A quick Google search in 2018 revealed a Wall Street Journal article entitled "Why the Left Is Consumed with Hate" and another entitled "The Left Tries to Blame Trump for their Own Hate Mongering."  When looking for some more recent articles along the same lines, I found the 2022 article "Left and Right More Similar, in Hate Too" which is actually a review of several articles that explored how both the Left and the Right were converging on an equally hateful views of the other,   and one written by Jeremy Shapiro with the European Council on Foreign Relations (sometimes it takes outsiders to see a culture clearly) "Letter from Washington: Why we hate Trump."

Regardless of which side you are on, we suggest that we all watch our own behavior carefully.  We can disagree with things the other side does, but we should state our disapproval in terms of disapproving of the action, not the actor.  Better yet, state your disapproval in positive terms, saying something along the lines that while you understand the concern that might be driving the action, there are better ways to address that issue. Or, better yet, inquire about the concern that is driving the action.  Admit (as is likely) that you really don't understand why someone acts or thinks or speaks they way they do.  You can be pretty sure they aren't thinking "I'm evil, so I'm going to do evil things."  More likely, they are thinking that something they care about deeply (something about which you might care deeply about too) is in danger.  They are speaking out to protect it, probably unaware that their speech is seen as so toxic by the other side, that they are driving escalation further and putting what ever it is they care about in even more danger.  Even when you can't talk with people on the other side directly, you can look for news reports that honestly try to represent the other side's views (rather than the more common and inflammatory reports which misrepresent and demonize those views).

So, for example, instead of accusing Trump supporters of hate in response to Trump's treatment of would-be immigrants (which puts them on the defensive), one can acknowledge that immigration is an difficult issue that has an impact on many peoples' lives and must be handled fairly to everyone involved: current citizens and would-be migrants.  Exploring why the other person disagrees with your view of immigration may show that they are affected by immigration in different ways, they may have a different understanding of facts, or it may show they have different values, based on their upbringing, their socio-economic status, or any of a number of other characteristics. By respecting where they are coming from, but then trying to explore how their interests can be protected while protecting the rights of others (both citizens on the other side and would-be migrants), we can make much more progress on immigration and other tough issues. As it turns out, most people on both the left and the right are in surprisingly strong agreement with one another on these issues. 

In 2019, More Like US partnered with the global research firm YouGov to survey 2100 Americans on a host of politically hot issues.  They asked them what they, themselves believed about those issues, and what they thought "the other side believed."  They discovered that Americans have a "deeply distorted understanding of each other" — a situation they named "The Perception Gap"  Even on the most deeply controversial issues, both sides thought the other side was twice as likely to hold an extreme view as they actually were. For example, about 80% of Republicans agreed with the statement "Properly controlled immigration can be good for America." Democrats estimated that fewer than 50% of Republicans believed that. Only about a quarter of Democrats agreed with the statement that "the U.S. should have completely open borders, though Republicans thought about 65% of Democrats believed that.1  So the public is not nearly as far apart on this issue as it seems. If politicians would stop posturing and start talking about real numbers and real problems, it is likely that they could actually get take broadly supported steps toward resolving a wide range of difficult issues. 

Rather, Change Your Response

While we may not be able to change how Trump or Biden campaigns, we can change how we respond to their campaigns.  We can start posing thoughtful questions on social media, instead of inflammatory ones. We can question their most inflammatory rhetoric and try to find out for ourselves what the other side thinks or does. (We'll explain how to do this just below.) We can urge our local government authorities to bring people together across political divides to talk about local problems with immigration, or any other challenging local issue.  We can learn more about issues we care about — seeking information not just from our "usual" partisan sources, but from reputable sources on the other side.  (AllSides Media is a good place to do this. A similar organization, AdFontes Media doesn't have substantive articles as AllSides does, but they do have another Media Bias Chart, which will show you what are "reputable sources" on the other side. You can either focus on middle-of-the-road sources or can look at more partisan sources on both sides.

Another useful thing to do is to learn more about "the other" to figure out what makes them so angry at you.  Then, to the extent possible, don't do that.  We call this "mirror building."  We suggest all of us "look in the metaphorical mirror" and see how how you look to the other side. Do you look "ugly"? If you are calling other people names, if you say you are going to "wipe them out," silence them, prevent them from voting, from getting a job, from going to a good school — yes, you are going to be seen as "ugly" and "hateful" and as a person who should be treated the same way in return.  If this is the case, you should obviously start thinking about what can you do to change that perception?

While you are learning what you do that makes them angry,  you can also think honestly about which of their complaints might, in some way, be legitimate.  If, for example, people are afraid they will lose their jobs because of some policy you support, that's a legitimate grievance.  In response, you might want to think about what could be done  to  address that, short of saying "move to a different part of the country, learn a completely new skill (with no money to go back to school), or telling people to quit complaining.  If you can consider how can we find or create realistic and attractive alternative jobs for people at risk of losing theirs, and treat that as a joint problem, not "their problem," you will go a long way toward reversing the hate and gaining an ally and, perhaps, a friend.

Another important thing to do is to avoid what we call the "worst-case bias."  Just because one or a few people on the other side are awful, that doesn't mean everyone is.  Just because some men really did molest women, most have not and would not. Just because one person (even one very highly-placed person) has no compassion, or empathy, that doesn't mean all of his followers have no compassion or empathy.  Most do.  They just follow him because they can't imagine trusting a group of people that holds them in such obvious contempt. 

Another suggestion is try to get to know some people on the other side personally.  Find opportunities to work together.  Talk to each other.  When you can do that, look for common interests.  Figure out why they believe what they do and how you can help allay their fears. The more cases in which people have personal experiences that disapprove the inflammatory media-driven stereotypes, the better.  A big part of the reason why destructive stereotypes flourish that so few people have direct contacts that cross the political divide.

Lastly, in your advocacy efforts, consider using Constructive Confrontation techniques and, especially what we call the "power strategy mix." This approach is based on the fact that there are three ways to gain and use power:  through threat and force, through exchange, and through persuasive appeals for people to do the right thing  Relying on threat and force makes people angry and invites a backlash.  Gaining power through trade, collaboration, and persuasive appeals based on shared principles of fairness is much more stable, gains friends, and solves problems, usually, much more effectively than does force.  So try to avoid using threats and force whenever possible.  It just drives the hate spiral, while exchange and collaboration break it down.

None of these are new ideas, of course.  They are standard fare of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields.  But they are ideas many people — even people in those fields (including us, sometimes) — forget (or argue they don't apply) when they get caught up in a heated conflict. But as long as you are dealing with people who are acting in good faith (and we believe most people are), you are much better off treating them with respect. It is free and it will yield far more rewards than treating people with disdain or hate.


We are getting these numbers from two charts that appear on The Perception Gap website. The exact numbers are hard to discern, so our numbers here may be slightly off.  But they are close to what the charts show.

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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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