Amanda Ripley is an Emerson Collective senior fellow and a contributor to the Atlantic.
For a brief moment this month, we started to hear the proper words to describe what is happening in U.S. politics. Not the usual, safe and tired words like “polarization” or “incivility.” But more accurate words.
At a news conference ahead of the impeachment proceedings, a reporter for a conservative outlet asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) whether she “hates” President Trump. She rebuked the reporter, denying that she hates anyone. Like many questions lobbed at politicians as they walk away, that one was a trap. But it made me wonder what would have happened if the same question had been asked in a different way, not with malicious intent but with genuine curiosity.
Because hatred is what we should be talking about these days, at least as much as we talk about the facts. The American people appear to be in a “high conflict,” which is a term of art among people who study conflict. A high conflict is one that feels existential and irresolvable, and it continues on its own momentum, even when specific problems could in fact be solved.
About 1 in every 20 conflicts operates this way, as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book “The Five Percent.” High conflicts can be interrupted, but not if we approach them the same way we handle normal conflicts. Left unchecked, high conflicts can become magnetic. Examples include the Middle East, Colombia, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Sudan, Angola and Northern Ireland. “Once we are drawn in, they take control,” Coleman writes. “They tend to enrage us, trap us, frustrate us, drain us of energy and other critical resources, and seem to never go away no matter what we do.”
In high conflict, our brains behave differently. Emotions — specifically, fear, anger and hatred — matter more than all the leaked documents or congressional reports imaginable. Psychologist Eran Halperin, who was severely wounded in high conflict while leading Israeli troops in Lebanon in 1997, calls emotions the “hidden story” of unending wars. But they are not all the same.
Under certain circumstances, for example, anger can be useful. It can boost people’s support for reconciliation and for taking risks in peace talks. Angry people usually want to correct their opponents’ behavior. They still contemplate a future together on the same planet, which is something. Even fear can be managed; it still allows for compromises.
Hatred, though, is different. Hatred assumes the enemy is unchangeable. Irredeemable. Unimprovable. The goal of hatred, generally speaking, is not to correct; it’s to annihilate. Why correct someone who is inherently and immutably evil? Hatred, then, is an impediment to peace, Halperin says. It escalates and prolongs conflict, and it can motivate people to commit massacres.
No one in conflict wants to admit they feel hatred. “If you talk to Israelis and Palestinians, they will definitely agree that negative emotions are a problem,” Halperin says, “but it’s the problem of the other side.”
That sounds familiar. In a 2017 survey of 1,000 Americans, 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said that the other party was “not just worse for politics — they are downright evil,” researchers Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason found. Five to 15 percent said they would support some level of violence against their political opponents. (And this range was the same on both sides.) That’s a minority, but high conflict is almost always stoked by a small number of people. And it doesn’t take many to incite fear and hatred and, ultimately, more violence. “A meaningful minority of ‘haters’ can have more influence on the life span of intergroup conflicts than a majority of non-haters,” Halperin writes in his book “Emotions in Conflict.”
So how do we get the minority of haters to stop hating, if we ever want to get out of this quagmire and move forward as a country? It turns out that — as ridiculously naive as it may sound — Americans’ support for political violence goes down when they are exposed to messages calling for peace. For example, last year Trump tweeted this on the anniversary of the Charlottesville violence: “I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!” In Kalmoe and Mason’s experiments, support for political violence went down after partisan voters read that message.
The same was true if people read this message from Joe Biden, which his campaign posted after an Antifa attack on a conservative writer last year in Oregon: “Violence directed at anyone because of their political opinions is never acceptable, regardless of what those beliefs might be.”
Do people actually become less hateful if someone tells them it’s not cool to be hateful? Yes, it turns out, many do. So this is useful information. Getting politicians, pundits or YouTube stars to make calming statements like these, quaint as they may sound, could significantly reduce violence, particularly as we head toward the 2020 election.
You can even do it yourself, right now, at home. People were also pacified by tweets calling for peace from random strangers, Kalmoe and Mason found.
If we want to resist the pull of high conflict, we will all have to do things differently — not just politicians, who are ensnared in the conflict. Millions of regular Americans still have enough distance from the conflict to step out of it. And that may not always be true.