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A group of scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles, is determined to better understand why people hate each other and what can be done to stop it.
The university launched a new three-year initiative earlier this month that supports 23 different research projects, exploring how and why different social groups come to discriminate against each other and how to prevent it from happening.
The projects are wide-ranging. Teams of faculty members and student researchers, including some undergraduates, will be studying the neuroscience of hatred, the impact of racial slurs on Latino high school students, how hate speech on social media affects children, why people stigmatize homelessness, how race affects decisions to call security personnel in response to patient emergencies at UCLA Health system hospitals and how video games might serve as a tool to teach tolerance, among other topics.
David N. Myers, director of the initiative and the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, said the study of hate is an ambitious undertaking, but the purpose of a major research university like UCLA is to “ask big questions and seek answers that make an impact in society.”
The idea for the initiative came amid a moment of heightened student activism on campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Myers, also a Distinguished Professor and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History, said he and Chancellor Gene Block wanted to address concerns about antisemitism among the broader Jewish community by engaging in research on the issue, but they quickly realized they were interested in a more comprehensive project, a multidisciplinary research effort “to understand more generally the phenomenon of group-based hate.”
“We recognized that Islamophobia was a prevalent force in American society, and that was also worthy of study,” Myers said. “And then we thought about the persistence of anti-Black racism in the United States and anti-LGBTQ expression. Later came a significant uptick in anti-Asian expression and violence. And I think we had the sense that there’s really, sadly, an unending series of case studies that could be included in our research undertaking.”
The initiative so far involves 31 faculty members and 21 graduate students, as well as some postdoctoral scholars and other researchers, from 20 different disciplines, who will meet for monthly seminars. It’s supported by a $3 million gift from an anonymous donor.
The hope is for “constant cross-fertilization and collaboration, such that scholars in brain science can be in conversation with scholars in communications and social psychology around what different forms dehumanization can take,” Myers said.
He foresees the initiative having a wider reach, beyond the professoriate. At the end of the three years, he’s interested in developing coursework at UCLA on the “genealogy of hate” and using the research to inform sensitivity training for campus staff members, senior administrators and students. He also imagines the research will offer insights on best practices for K-12 schools seeking to foster tolerance and disrupt inherited stereotypes in early childhood and provide guidance to organizations that work with stigmatized populations such as homeless people and people with mental illness.
“We don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but we are really mindful of the ways this research might well be a benefit to the entire university, within the classroom and beyond,” he said.
The Growth of Hate Studies
Hate studies has become a burgeoning academic field in the U.S. as people try to make sense of acts of public violence that have grown more prevalent in recent years, Myers said. After the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, for example, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh created the Collaboratory Against Hate, another research venture focused on how hatred and extremist ideologies take root.
Other instances of mass violence have spurred similar moments of reckoning, including the 2015 shooting at a predominantly Black church in Charleston, S.C.; the shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019; the Atlanta spa shootings that targeted Asian women last year; and the shooting that targeted Black shoppers at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket earlier this year.
“There’s been a series of very public and very lethal forms of hate crimes that I think have drawn wider public attention and the attention of scholars to try and get at what are the motivations, what are the warning signs, what are the interventions that can be considered?” Myers said.
Kenneth Stern, director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College in New York, said Gonzaga University, a Catholic institution in Washington State, was the academic “mother ship” of hate studies. Its Center for the Study of Hate, founded in 1998, produces a journal and hosts an international conference on the topic. But he’s seen interest in the subject proliferate among academics over the last two decades.
“Hatred is something that we see around us in our daily lives, whether it’s interpersonal relations or politics,” he said. “It’s something that’s just part of the human condition … I think there’s a realization that much of what people teach in the academy has a connection to hatred.” Scholars are increasingly aware that teaching history, politics, social psychology and other disciplines requires discussing “the human capacity to define and demonize an other.”
He believes a multidisciplinary approach is key to the study of hate.
When academics approach other human problems, like illness, “we pull together from different fields—physics, chemistry, biology—to give us answers about what do you do about this?” Stern said. “There’s a lot of stuff about hatred, but it’s all siloed.” He sees the initiative at UCLA and similar efforts across the country as part of a positive shift.
Aaron Panofsky, director of the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, said connecting with colleagues in other fields has been one of the main benefits of participating in the initiative. He and postdoctoral fellow Kushan Dasgupta are conducting a research project supported by the initiative that explores how white nationalists use and reject scientific research and language in their rhetoric online.
The project is “a little more abstract or a little bit more theoretical, in the sense that it’s about how the discourse sort of plays out in public,” while other projects in the initiative have “more of an applied bent” and focus on preventing hate crimes, said Panofsky, who is also a professor in the Institute for Society and Genetics and in public policy and sociology.
He believes the variety of approaches he and his colleagues are taking can help to uncover “what hate really is and how it works in the world.”
A popular perception of hate is it’s the emotion felt “when you want to lash out against someone,” he said. But the ways white nationalists painstakingly attempt to back up their claims with scientific research show hate is more than a knee-jerk emotional reaction.
“Part of our study is about how complicated hate can become, especially when it’s connected with science or an ostensibly rational discourse,” he said. He wants to explore with scholars in other fields “what are the species of hate or the different types of hate? Is it just an emotion, or a discourse and a language? Is it something in the brain, or is it something in the world? Is it a part of laws and structures?”
Myers said the initiative will likely last beyond the three years allotted because these questions are so difficult to answer, and the work of understanding hate will certainly remain unfinished.
“I’m inclined to think we will not have said to ourselves, ‘We’ve done all we can’ after three years,” he said. “Nor, heaven forfend, will we have solved hate. But … there’s some who say this is just too big of a question to undertake, and there are some who say this is a big question and I cannot abstain from trying to answer it. We’re going to fall into the latter category.”