All we need is hate


December 25, 2021 — December 28, 2023

incentive mechanisms
social graph

Assumed audience:

Bleeding hearts interested in steel-manning the bloody-fist side

Content warning:

Serious consideration of the effectiveness of hate and intolerance as a strategy for governance; pogroms, ethnic cleansing, genocide, violence

For me, the most troubling part of (my understanding of) the neoreactionary agenda is about out-groups. You know how every fascist regime seems to benefit from an predatory relationship with out-group which the masses are invited to abominate, and this seems to be very helpful in cementing the regime. “We need to unite against the communists/jews/muslims/catholics/decadent westerners/Tutsis/Bosniaks/trans people/whomever” does in practice seem to be a very effective way to get people to act together for the common good of those who are not the subject of the hate. If we are wearing “liberal enlightenment” hats we sneer at such a tactic, emphasising how authoritarian dictators benefit from such a thing, which is axiomatically bad. At the same time, we cannot help but notice that it seems that the campaigns that do emerge and prosper in the partisan divided world, even ones with a notionally tolerant, liberal agenda, benefit greatly from having a villain.

A world built on the most tolerance and kindness for possible is my jam. But maybe the most tolerance possible is not universal tolerance but maybe within some blessed in-group, attained within that group by hating on the outsiders. Indeed, campaigns that do have a villain seem to be more effective at getting people to act, and they do fly off those shelves in the marketplace of ideas.

Here is the notebook where I try to solve for maximal tolerance, given the constraints of the world as it is, and wonder about whether there is an irreducible and high level of hate in our future.

Due diligence requires us to evaluate the effectiveness of intolerance, whether as a strategy for ultimately increasing tolerance, or as a replacement for tolerance. Independent of whether it is intrinsically good to choose someone to hate for instrumental reasons, is it effective? That is, is it good in the utilitarian sense? Is ignoring the usefulness of hate net bad because a society with ordered use of hatred might be overall kinder even with respect to kindness than a society that is unwilling to use hate as a tool?

I see many people making this trade-off tacitly, and I see no reason to support making such a choice self-deceivingly. If we, humans I mean, are going to choose a hateful path, I believe we should do it consciously, take full responsibility for its consequences, and mitigate them as far as possible. Let me muse for a moment about what that would mean.

Figure 1

1 Universal tolerance considered harmful to society

Given that hating out-groups is so effective in practice, and that friendly liberal democracies seem to be struggling right now to be internally respectful enough to make good decisions in mutual interest, I must also consider the possibility that choosing someone for us to hate might be optimal in terms of providing cohesion to the us that does the hating. If hating an out group leads to everyone else rallying together, then maybe the society of those that remain in the in-group is better off, because they can govern themselves effectively.

When would this happen? When would a society be better off with an out-group to hate? Would the in-group always slide into authoritarianism for the remaining members of the group, or could the increment in their well-being counterbalance the decrement in the well-being of the out-group? Would an enlightened governor find an enemy for us to hate, because that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number?

This is not my preferred world to imagine. I, myself, struggle for a world without enemies (or where the only enemies are abstractions), but I cannot be sure that this is optimal; maybe my agenda for peace and love will only be enacted if my fellow citizens have the spur of hate. Maybe by being too squeamish to choose an enemy, I am dooming us all to a world of ineffective governance and poor decisions.

In which case, is it better to have a great hate? To give up on the peace and love part? Is the best ROI on collective action, collective action against something, and we cannot afford the luxury of inferior collective action?

2 Universal tolerance considered harmful to tolerance

Figure 2

Enemies seem to be helpful to motivate mass action, which suggests a utilitarian case for treating people as instrumental targets of hate.

If we believe that much of human dysfunction is systemic, and that most people could be on the same side, should we remain silent on that in favour of making enemies of the individuals within that system? Should we in fact behave as if they are irredeemable in order to motive our allies to action, thereby making pawns of both in-group and out-group?

The case here would be: If, in fact, in a democratic society, the only messages that “win” in the free exchange of ideas, that motivate people into action, are the one that depend on fear and caricature, then rather than let bad ideas win, one is beholden to propagate “good” ideas via fear, or “bad“ ideas will win.

I am not a fan of this hypothesis, instinctually, although that does not make it wrong.

Some research on these lines is summarised in Bowles (2011):

The parasitic liberalism thesis, advanced in many variants over the past two centuries, holds that markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals depend on family-based, religious and other traditional social norms that are endangered by these very institutions. Liberal society thus fails Rawls’ test of “stability:” it does not “generate its own supportive moral attitudes.” (Rawls, (1971):399). It is often countered that, by comparison to other allocation mechanisms, markets economize on virtue, meaning that “Market-like arrangements reduce the need for compassion, patriotism, brotherly love, and cultural solidarity” (Schultze, (1977):18). But because enforceable contracts do not cover all that matters in economic exchanges, the proper functioning of markets nonetheless depends critically on social and moral preferences such as reciprocity, a strong work ethic, trust and a commitment to ethical behavior. The same is true with even greater force of other institutions, with the result that: “no social system can work …in which everyone is …guided by nothing except his own …utilitarian ends” (Schumpeter, (1950):448). Consistent with the parasitic liberalism thesis, experimental evidence suggests that while the “moral sentiments” underpinning the workings of markets and other institutions are common in most human populations (Camerer and Fehr, (2004)), market-based incentives that appeal to self-interest tend to compromise individual preferences for fairness and public generosity (Bowles, (2008), Bowles and Hwang, (2008).) If incentives that appeal to the material interests reduce the salience of ethical motives on which the functioning of markets and other institutions depend, does the cultural dynamic of liberal society then lead eventually to economic dysfunction, instability and collapse?

Note that this idea is completely compatible with the idea that one might engage with any individual personally and persuade them through reasonable, constructive dialogue; the question is rather about whether mass dynamics will wash out individual action at the population scale.

3 Dog-whistling peace and respect

There is a possibility that that even movements concerned with enlightened engagement and tolerance should still spread by fear and intolerance. In that version, we have an outer circle, and an inner circle. In the outer circle, we are intolerant, conspiratorial, we talk about kleptocrats and/or deep state etc, we are firebrands who rail against the oppression of some other, and use that xenophobic/bigoted message as the vector to deliver the our recruitment payload. Then, once the target minions are engaged and invested, we do a switcharoo and reveal that the real plan is to spread tolerance and understanding.

That is, we are dog-whistling tolerance by mentioning secretly tolerant attitudes that our backers will understand, but that the general public will safely interpret as intolerant and blameful?

Once again, I do not love this idea, because for me it seems fundamentally immoral to treat humans instrumentally.

Also, there is an elitist assumption here. While “we” elites long for peace and respect, this argument goes, the lumpenproletariat need to be tricked into it by hate and fear.

But are my qualms about this just performative moral purity when a real change-agent would do what it takes to bring about positive change? In this scenario, if I have a message about universal tolerance and reasonableness, but insist on propagating it by tolerant and reasonable means, which will fail in the face of less tolerant ideas, then I am throttling my own message of tolerance in the cradle by failing to spread it through fear and bigotry. I am, that is, being vegan, in focussing on the means at (potentially) the expense of the ends.

Connection: Symbolic insurrections.

See also the simulacra model. Recall

…what it means to say “There’s a lion across the river”[…]

Level 1
There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2
I do’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3
I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4
A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus-grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

If public discourse is about influencing public engagement via “level 4” messaging, which is about recruiting people to engage with things, then maybe we should not be interpreting it as contentful, but as a pure recruiting funnel to actual content, and then judging it based on which actual content people were eventually recruited to.

4 Shared hates bond more strongly than shared loves

I do not know how well these studies replicate or generalise, but there are papers quantifying the cliché that nothing unites us like a shared enemy (Bosson et al. 2006; Weaver and Bosson 2011).

Figure 3

5 Selection pressure and banal evil

If there is an identifiable figurehead individual or group of some out-group and they really are doing something widely agreed upon as bad (e.g. genocide) then we might find it easy to coordinate on combating them. World War II had this vibe.

This suggests to me that we might experience selection pressure towards the propagation of inequities that we cannot find a hateful anthropomorphic adversary to blame for. Confusingly diffuse and systemic inequities are difficulty to rally against, and even there we find it easier to address them if we can turn systemic inequities into personal ones. Who is the bad guy in the tragedy of the commons? Can the graziers more effectively share their pasture if they are united against Big Agriculture?

6 Optimal investment of tolerance capital

Suppose the parochial altruism theories (Bernhard, Fischbacher, and Fehr 2006; Boyd and Richerson 1999; Choi and Bowles 2007; Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life 2006; Hetzer and Sornette 2013; van den Bergh and Gowdy 2009) are good models of human generosity. To a rough approximation, they explain how we have attained, not universal generosity, but rather preferential generosity towards the in-group at the expense of the out-group. If every scrap of cooperation is gleaned from the carcass of hate, then we might think about it as a resource that we need to optimally husband, use and re-invest.

7 Optimising enemies

a.k.a. If the devil does not exist it becomes necessary to invent him

“Biggest us, smallest them” is a mantra of campaigners for social change. If we must choose an enemy to mobilise the public against, can we minimise harm by choosing the smallest feasible group? Or one who will likely weather the storm alright? Or one upon whom vilification will have the smallest negative effects? Or who consent to be scapegoats for a vengeful public? By its nature, this grim utilitarian calculus must be carried out in private, I assume.

Figure 4

This suggests another alternative: Abstract enemies, can they do the job? Can we make do with hating the sin, not the sinner?

As an atheist I find this tricky. Am I in a position to advocate the use of a devil, when I do not believe in one? Is it more honest to single out an out-group made of flesh-and-blood humans, or can we make do with “the patriarchy” or “the system”, or Moloch, or yes, good old Satan?

8 Weaknesses of intolerance

How does this argument that we need to manufacture enemies potentially fall apart?

8.1 Few want to be the scapegoat

People might not want to be the scapegoats who must be sacrificed to the abomination of the society for the greater good. There will probably be some conflict over who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes, who will be preferentially imprisoned, deported, excoriated in the media, and subjected to mob justice. If the enemy is chosen by something changeable, like a purely social category such as religion or subculture. This is the motivation for basing the hate on difficult-to-choose criteria. If the enemy is some profession (“bricklayers are the enemy”) then the enemy can just stop being a bricklayer. But if they are an ethnic group who might easily be distinguished, by their language and culture, or better yet, by their appearance, then they would be easier to find and persecute. I wonder if precisely this issue has been used as a utilitarian justification for pogroms and ethnic cleansing before now?

8.2 Intolerance may spiral out of control

Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials are all usually cited as examples of how intolerance can spiral out of control.

8.3 “My country, right or wrong” produces little pressure to be right


8.4 If intolerance leads to genocide then you kill people AND have no enemy left

Dog whistling tolerance is a hard coordination game to play.


8.5 Virtue ethics says no


9 Incoming

A troubling example, for me, which has arisen in practice.

Let us say that you and I are debating whether a symbolic corporate diversity program is tokenistic or not and you are doubtful about said program, but I think it is great. If you critique this intervention by discussing the weak evidential base, then it sounds like you are opposed to diversity and equity as ends. If you critique the intervention by asserting that this type of program arose from HR departments attempting to preserve an inequitable status quo (Dobbin and Kalev 2021) then it looks like I am for diversity. This does not change the evidential base, but it changes how the argument is likely to be received, by switching it from “will this thing do what we want?” to “Are we allies against a nefarious third party?”

This technique absolutely works on me, despite my resistance tof the premises. I doubt HR departments are smart enough to proactively think up a diabolical strategy of ineffectual and mediocre interventions design to hamstring real progress, or even that they are particularly invested in doing so. I also doubt that they could conspiratorially coordinate on or communicate that strategy. It is way more likely that mediocre, performative attempts to make the world better arise because people are just generally incompetent when their incentives are not aligned with the outcomes they are trying to achieve. I believe all that because of considered reasoning, but in general ascribing to malice what could be ascribed to incompetence is great at motivating me to take action. It is not exciting to righteously take down the unjust if the unjust is an emergent epiphenomenon instead of, say, an actual Hitler. And this is probably why conflict theories prosper in the marketplace of ideas.

10 The moral

I am not a fan of hatred as a means for bringing about peace and harmony, but it seems to me to be an empirical question about whether it is the most effective alternative, and whether other strategies are evolutionarily stable in the presence of hatred-based organising.

These are some arguments for social-engineering-based blaming and scapegoating, and maybe they are better than my sentiment that society “should” operate through mutually respectful dialogue. Maybe the only way I can have my precious mutually respectful dialogue and respect is in the lee of sheltering blame.

I am not passionate about that strategy, and I am not yet persuaded to pursue it. Maybe I’ll be shown to be a fool, and the only way that most of us get to heaven is stepping on the bodies of those bastards we send to hell, and I am part of the problem if my moral daintiness keeps me from doing whatever it takes to make sure someone else takes that fall than my people.

11 References

Bernhard, Fischbacher, and Fehr. 2006. Parochial altruism in humans.” Nature.
Bloom, and Moskalenko. 2022. QAnon, Women, and the American Culture Wars.” Social Research: An International Quarterly.
Bosson, Johnson, Niederhoffer, et al. 2006. Interpersonal Chemistry Through Negativity: Bonding by Sharing Negative Attitudes about Others.” Personal Relationships.
Bowles. 2001. Individual Interactions, Group Conflicts, and the Evolution of Preferences.” Social Dynamics.
———. 2004. Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution.
———. 2011. “Is Liberal Society a Parasite on Tradition?” Philosophy and Public Affairs.
Bowles, Choi, and Hopfensitz. 2003. The Co-Evolution of Individual Behaviors and Social Institutions.” Journal of Theoretical Biology.
Bowles, and Gintis. 2004. The Evolution of Strong Reciprocity: Cooperation in Heterogeneous Populations.” Theoretical Population Biology.
Boyd, and Richerson. 1999. “Complex Societies: The Evolutionary Origins of a Crude Superorganism.” Human Nature.
Choi, and Bowles. 2007. The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War.” Science.
Demetriou. 2016. Fighting Together: Civil Discourse and Agonistic Honor.” In Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Honor and Obligation in Liberal Society: Problems and Prospects.
Dobbin, and Kalev. 2021. The Civil Rights Revolution at Work: What Went Wrong.” Annual Review of Sociology.
Hetzer, and Sornette. 2009. Other-Regarding Preferences and Altruistic Punishment: A Darwinian Perspective.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1468517.
———. 2013. The Co-Evolution of Fairness Preferences and Costly Punishment.” PLoS ONE.
Montrey, and Shultz. 2019. Outgroup Homogeneity Bias Causes Ingroup Favoritism.” arXiv:1908.08203 [Econ, q-Bio].
Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. 2006.
van den Bergh, and Gowdy. 2009. A Group Selection Perspective on Economic Behavior, Institutions and Organizations.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.
Weaver, and Bosson. 2011. I Feel Like I Know You: Sharing Negative Attitudes of Others Promotes Feelings of Familiarity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.