I had a couple arguments online recently, and came away with bruises. The upside of insult, though, for a writer, is always that you can plow it back into your work and make it pay you. It’s petty, I’ll admit, to turn your frustrated retorts, conceived too late (what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier, staircase thoughts), into end zone dances after your opponent has left the field. But we writers are petty men.
In this case I was informed by two different persons that I was motivated by hate, because of certain opinions I hold on traditional marriage. What intrigues me, now that I’ve had time to think it over down here at the bottom of the staircase, is that my actual attitude was of no real interest to either of the people I argued with. They didn’t care (I’m not guessing; they admitted as much) whether I hated them or not. It was sufficient that my opinions went into a file drawer they had labeled “hate.” Actual personal hatred (contemno in Latin — I looked it up online) was irrelevant to them. When they talked about hate, they meant something else entirely.
Hate has fallen on hard times. It hasn’t been entirely respectable in the West, of course, since the conversion to Christianity. An idea has risen (or so it seems to me) that hate is the worst sin for a Christian. This isn’t true. Pride holds that sorry distinction. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the Gay Movement has adopted Pride as its battle cry?) When the Bible says that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, it isn’t condemning every kind of hate as a mortal sin. We’re instructed in Scripture to hate sin, and God (the God of the Bible, not of American popular religion) often expresses hatred for various transgressions and hypocrisies.
C. S. Lewis, in a memorable passage in his space novel, Perelandra, describes a moment of moral clarity when his hero, Ransom, makes the decision to use his fists to fight a demonic spirit possessing a man:
Then an experience that perhaps no good man can ever have in our world came over him — a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred. The energy of hating, never before felt without some guilt, without some dim knowledge that he was failing fully to distinguish the sinner from the sin, rose in his arms and legs till he felt that they were pillars of burning blood. What was before him appeared no longer a creature of corrupted will. It was corruption itself to which will was attached only as an instrument…. It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for.
The old Christian formula, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” has certainly gone out of fashion, but unfashionability is not a logical refutation. That every human being is infinitely valuable and created for love and glory is a relatively new idea in human history, a gift of Judeo-Christian theology to Western thought. That some ideas and practices are destructive of human beings, and so need to be opposed by every moral means, follows as a necessary corollary.
Even unsanctified hate used to carry a measure of dignity, at least in art. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” cried Captain Ahab. Ahab was a much disordered soul, but the greatness of the whale mirrored the greatness of his pride. The hatred of Edmond Dantès for the men who sent him to prison for no cause was a source of horror and pity to the reader, meant to rouse his moral outrage. Iago’s unreasoning hatred of Othello raised (or lowered) him to the level of the demonic, painting his character in the bright colors of a warning sign: “High voltage. Do not touch.”
This is because hate is more than “that which makes somebody feel bad.” Hate is a profound, visceral response to an offense, to an injury, to an outrage. Those who have no capacity for hatred — who cannot comprehend the hatred of the slave for the master, or of the victim for the criminal — are emotionally and spiritually impoverished.
I’m tempted to suggest that the people I tangled with in online discussions are emotionally and spiritually impoverished in that way; that they don’t understand hate because they lack profound moral depth.
But that would be unjust. They know hate, all right.
They just don’t recognize it where it lives.