Don't Take the "Hate Bait"

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Original: November, 2018, Updated: November, 2019

Even when others -- on the other side or yours -- 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 de-escalate conflicts and help move toward a more constructive pattern of engagement.

Other things you can do to help.

What This Means and Why it is Necessary:  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.  

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 often, such hate eventually leads to violence. 

Even when others -- on the other side or on your side -- play the "hate-bate" game, you don't have to take the bait.  Instead you can reject such behavior and model respect -- a disarming gesture that can de-escalate conflicts and help move toward a more constructive pattern of engagement. 

This is 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's no better time to try to establish a new type of relationship with "the other side."

How To Do This: There are several ways to do this.  The first step is to look at your own behavior. 

Most of us enjoy engaging in what Guy calls "the recreational complaint effect" in which we 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 get us mad. 

Things You Can Do To Help
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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Liberals are wont to accuse the right of "hate," but in so doing, we are actually dealing in hate ourselves--as our accusations strongly suggest that we hate the right and we hate their standard bearer, Donald Trump, even more. The Right sees this and accuses the left of hate right back-- a quick Google search revealed a September, 2018 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."

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. 

So, for example, instead of accusing Trump and his supporters of hate in response to his treatment of would-be immigrants, one can acknowledge that immigration is an important issue that has an impact on the economy of this country, but it is better handled by treating people with respect, assuring their safety, and looking at how would-be immigrants can best be accommodated.  Certainly, I think, liberals should acknowledge that we can't have completely open borders and there is a limit to the number of immigrants we can accept.  But we can and should have compassion and we should consider why the immigrants want to come here. We could go on to explain that our economy actually needs immigrants as workers in several industries (such as agriculture, construction, and high-tech) are currently in very short supply. 

Acknowledging that we can't have completely open borders, I suspect, is a "disarming statement," as many conservatives seem to think that the Left wants totally open borders.  I doubt they do though--they don't want ALL of the world's "tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free" because they know we would be totally overrun. So instead of accusing each other of hate, why not work with the other side to develop a reasonable solution to the immigration issue?

A second 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 you "look in the metaphorical mirror" and see yourself as the other side sees you.  Do you look "ugly"?  What can you do to change that perception?

While you are learning what you do that makes them angry, can you see any of their grievances that are legitimate?  If people are afraid they will lose their jobs, that's a legitimate grievance.  What can we do to address that, short of saying "move to a different part of the country, learn a new skill (with no money to go back to school) or tough!"  How can we find or create jobs for people at risk of losing theirs? If you consider that to be a joint problem, not "their problem," you will go a long way toward reversing the hate and gaining a friend.

A third 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 are scared of the other side, and they are scared of the other side because of all the hate that is being spewed around --coming from both sides!

A fourth 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.

And lastly..consider what we call the "power strategy mix."  This idea says that there are three ways to gain and use power:  through threat and force, through exchange, and through collaboration.  Relying on threat and force makes people angry and invites a backlash.  Gaining power thrugh trade and collaboration in 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.

For more on these topics see:

Other Things to Do to Help Posts:

Conflict Frontiers Posts:

Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base Essays:

Question for You:

Think about your attitudes about "the other side."  Think about the way you express those attitudes--to people on "your side," as well as to "the other."  Might your thoughts be unfair? Might your statements contribute to further polarization?  How might you reframe your thinking or statements to help de-escalate the conflict you have with the other side?   Answer in an email, and we'll post your answer here!