‘The Ideology of Hatred’: An interview with Niza Yanay

Niza Yanay discusses her newest book, and how ‘hatred’ plays a role in politics.

"Often, the ideology of hatred operates side by side and in tandem with humanitarianism - the American initiative to build secular schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan is one example," says Niza Yanay [EPA]

After 9/11, hate began colonising new spheres, operating as a social and political force that manipulates and mobilises entire publics in very specific ways. Niza Yanay’s new book The Ideology of Hatred: The Psychic Power of Discourse may very well change the way we think about hatred and its role in politics. Neve Gordon recently interviewed her in New York City in an effort to better understand her arguments.

Neve Gordon: When thinking of hatred, we usually think of a very strong personal feeling or emotion. What do you mean by the ideology of hatred? Can hatred be an ideology?

Niza Yanay: Let’s begin with the concept of hatred. Before 9/11, the words hate and hatred were mostly used to describe an emotional reaction or byproduct of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and the like. One would say that white supremacists, for example, hate blacks, or alternatively if someone hates blacks, we would say he was a white supremacist. After 9/11, the word hate began colonising new spheres, operating as a social and political force that can both manipulate and mobilise an entire public in very specific ways.

People began using the word hatred in the context of terrorism, particularly referring to Islamic groups who had expressed anger and criticism towards the West and the ravages of capitalism. The word hatred was thus transformed, becoming a signifier for danger, mostly the danger of Islam. In President Bush’s rhetoric, the world was schematically divided between Muslims who hate on the one hand, and the West which had become the target of irrational hate on the other hand. I found it interesting that the West does not hate.

This distinction between hatred as an experience and hatred as ideology underscored the need to ask new questions about the relation between politics and hatred. And these new questions, I believe, need to focus on power relations between different groups, such as coloniser and colonised, ruler and subject, and not so much on the personal experience of specific individuals who experience hatred (though such questions are still important too).

NG: Can you give me a concrete example of this ideology at work?

NY: Most people consider “suicide bombings” as motivated by hate, while very few people consider air strikes on populated areas to be hate crimes. The media often describes the suicide attack as a hate crime, but I have never come across a report describing the US drone attacks in Pakistan – that have killed over 3,500 people – as hate crimes. This suggests that hatred as ideology is at work. And this ideology helps determine who is blamed for being the initiators of hate, who becomes the target of hatred, and, in fact, when hatred counts as hatred at all. 

 Inside Story Americas – US-Pakistan relations:
At a standstill

NG: I see the asymmetrical relationship and the fact that hatred as a causal factor is associated with certain groups and not others, but what exactly is this ideology of hatred?

NY: Let me give you an example to help clarify my claim. Think about a young adolescent Jewish girl in Israel who leads a comfortable life and has never interacted face-to-face with Palestinians. This is a very reasonable assumption, since Israel is a totally segregated society. Why, it is interesting to ask, would a girl who has never met a Palestinian speak with such vehemence and personal hatred against Palestinians and Arabs in general? Why do so many Jewish citizens of Israel, who have never been hurt by Palestinians, openly admit to intense hatred? This articulates a national ideology of hatred and not merely a personal hatred. 

Of course, you can immediately claim that there is a real danger. Many Israeli Jews know someone who has been injured by terrorism. You might also say that since the Palestinians hate us, therefore we hate them.

All of these automatic answers demonstrate the effectiveness and the power of state ideologies of hatred. In the book, I try to go beyond these kinds of normative responses by paying attention to the difference between hatred as a response to power and hatred as the operation of power.

It is not surprising that people react with hatred toward those who humiliate them, control their movement, or deny their rights. There is nothing theoretically interesting in the individual or collective experience of anger and hate as a reaction to power that imposes helplessness on us or denies our very being. This is hatred as a response to power.

But there is also hatred as an operation of power. Israel’s persistent claim that it has no partner for peace is, I would claim, part of an ideology of hatred. The role of Israel’s no-partner myth is to portray the Palestinians as primitive and warmongering and in this way it hopes to circumvent and conceal its own desire to receive moral approval from the Palestinians.

Once we understand how hatred operates as an apparatus of power relations, and particularly how the discourse of hatred is motivated and mobilised in national conflicts, serious questions about misrecognition, veiled desires and symptomatic expressions arise. These questions have, to a large extent, been left unaddressed in studies of hatred between groups in conflict.

NG: I am not sure I follow.

NY: Sometimes when we desire something that is unthinkable (for example, the love of someone who is forbidden) and we repress our desire, it ends up surfacing in different ways. In the book, I examine language, laws and practices that hide that which is repressed; namely, the desires we either fear or refuse to admit to ourselves.

We know that when a child tells his father “I hate you”, it could mean “I don’t receive the love I want from you”. Hate speech often represents such veiled desires and fears. The disavowal of our desires and the misrecognition of our fears are defence mechanisms and these mechanisms, I claim, can have extremely dangerous effects.

So, for me, this intense ideology of hatred signifies the return of the repressed; the return of that which is denied and reappears as a symptom in “hate” speech and practice. I therefore consider the cultivation of hatred in national discourse to be a psychic political defence strategy. Of course, on the individual level hate can be accompanied by a visceral experience, but as a political concept and as part of the national discourse hatred is a word that serves more to conceal than to reveal.

NG: So you are saying that there is something new going on here? How is today’s ideology of hatred different from other forms of hatred we witnessed during the 20th century?

NY: I am not saying there is something necessarily new, but rather that we need to broaden our understanding of the ideology of hatred, its motivations and the way it operates.

Anti-Semitism is an ideology of hatred and so are racism and homophobia. But studies of anti-Semitism have taken hatred as an obvious emotion of separation and exclusion. What I am saying is that that the concept of hatred is much more ambivalent than we tend to acknowledge, and that without understanding the attachment and intimate relations between the Jews and non-Jews in Germany, we cannot really understand the hatred.

The fear of “Judaisation” (Verjudung) or “Jewification” of German culture, the fear of the “Jewish spirit” overtaking the German nation, was not only a fear of contamination and contagion, as many scholars have remarked. These concepts allude to a deeper anxiety regarding the invasion of the German body, in spirit and mind, from within. Thus, this anxiety signifies a deep sense of intimacy and perhaps a desire to mimic the Jew. Psychoanalytically speaking, such prohibited thought often transforms itself into a symptomatic form of speech and behaviour. This approach to the concept of hatred leads me to ask what, for example, the relation is between intimacy and genocide.

NG: Am I correct then to say that you are using the term ideology not in the Marxist or liberal way, but rather in a way that is more attuned to psychoanalysis?

NY: To a certain extent, yes. The point I want to make is that we need to start thinking about the ideology of hatred as a symptom of desire. This might sound contradictory to many people, but actually hatred is always constructed within an already inevitable bond between two unequal groups or sides of rival power. Intense hatred assumes a prior and intense relationship.

Consider the famous speeches of President Habyarimana of Rwanda between 1973 and 1994. He continuously attacked the Tutsi for being counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie traitors; but at the same time, he constantly referred to them as brothers. This, I argue, is typical and symptomatic.

The use of intimate familial language to characterise the so-called traitor is a common practice in many ideologies of hatred. So, when we hear, speak of, or examine hatred, we must pay particular attention to issues of proximity, attachment, intimacy, desire and even love. Of course, these forces are not obvious when we think of hatred. But, if we want to understand how people become our hated enemy we must study the conditions of closeness and proximity. 

 Pro-palestinian activists detained in Israel

NG: Someone might say that this is counter-intuitive. Don’t we commonly understand hatred in terms of distance, difference and enmity?

NY: You are right to say that the ideology of hatred produces and means to produce separation and estrangement. But this is exactly my point. The paradox of hatred is that hatred aims to produce distance precisely because the two rivals are considered to be too close, too intertwined.

Think about the Hutu and the Tutsi, the Serbs and the Croats, the Turks and the Armenians, the Israelis and the Palestinians, and so on. I am not simply saying that love can turn into hatred or vice versa, but that hatred is always an ambivalent experience and a hyperbolic concept. One cannot hate an individual or a group without attachment and closeness, without love. Lack of attachment tends to produce indifference, not hatred. 

NG: What then is the relation between the psyche and politics?

NY: First of all, the psyche and politics are not separate spheres. They operate together, although the mechanisms they deploy and their forms of visibility differ.

I am certainly not the first to highlight the absent, repressed, or the hidden in the political; how what is said often conceals what is left unsaid or how the visible veils what goes unrepresented. In a world characterised by a multitude of conflicts and hatreds, it would be misguided to continue overlooking the forces of the political unconscious.

Yet, my contribution has to do with my examination of the ideology of hatred. I believe that by excavating the ideology of hatred we can reveal how the political unconscious operates in the current political climate – through desire and its repression, through love and its disavowal, and through attachment and its elision. Once the unconscious workings of the ideology of hatred are laid bare then other future discourses, which recognise their ambivalence towards the other, suddenly become possible.

Let me give another example. The Israeli government forces the Palestinians to declare loyalty to the state of Israel as the condition for entering dialogue. No matter how many times Palestinians in Israel declare loyalty to the state or denounce terrorism, their words will not be heard and accepted because for Jewish Israelis this is not enough; they want the Palestinians to love them. Without love it is difficult for them to maintain their moral superiority. But at the same time the Jews in Israel will never ever admit to this.

So for me, the discourse of loyalty and betrayal, and particularly the repetitious demand that the Palestinians be loyal signifies that something else is going on here. It is about something the Jews want and will not get, or want and will never acknowledge. The repetition suggests that unconscious forces are at work here and in this case they are not individual but political.

NG: This brings us to the second part of the title of your book, “The Psychic Power of Discourse”. When you say that to understand hatred we should focus on unconscious mechanisms, you obviously allude to a political unconscious. What do you mean by political unconscious? Are you saying that political discourse has an unconscious?

NY: I know that for most political scientists or sociologists, theorising the psyche within the political and the social is irrelevant to practice and to questions of war and peace. But I believe that this pervasive perspective will lead us nowhere in terms of changing the conditions of conflicts rooted in hatred.

Just think of the repeated, obsessive notice in the NYC subways: “If you see something, say something.”

Such an utterance not only speaks of suspicious objects, but creates relational mistrust that paradoxically bonds people of all walks of life together through a fearful gaze, suspicion and prejudice. So, hatred has become a political apparatus that creates a community through the horror of the strange and the different.

The pervasive refusal to raise the question of the unconscious, dismissing it as irrelevant to politics, engenders all kinds of theoretical blind spots. This is not to say that hatred is only unconscious or invisible. On the contrary, hatred is a forceful experience with devastating and injurious consequences. But in sharp contrast to its manifestation, the mechanisms of its production remain obscure.

For me, the most urgent task is to explore these blind spots, which I believe can shed light on how the ideology of hatred is manufactured. This, in my mind, is the key problem of the ideology of hatred. 

 Israel continues to build settlements on
Palestinian land

NG: This appears to be connected to the relation you mention between the ideology of hatred and humanitarianism. Can you say something about this?

NY: Often, the ideology of hatred operates side by side and in tandem with humanitarianism. The American initiative to build secular schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan is one example, while Israeli food and medical aid to Gaza in the midst of Israel’s military attacks on the Strip is another.

Such humanitarian acts allow the Americans and Israelis to think of themselves as decent and righteous people. But in effect, these humanitarian interventions are the continuation of war and violence in a language of “love full of hatred” or “hatred full of love”. It is precisely this language that sheds light on the political unconscious and the psychic power of discourse. 

NG: Could you further elaborate on the phrase “hatred full of love”?

NY: I would begin by responding with a rhetorical question: You intuitively seem to understand the notion of “hatred full of love”, and yet doesn’t this notion depend on a politics of the unconscious?

But, your question is well taken, because “hatred full of love” (and also its reversal) depicts concrete situations and relations. These phrases are not a metaphor for conflict relations. The prohibition to love the other, at work within national politics, is perhaps the core paradoxical symptom of nationalism and its defence mechanisms.

Albert Memmi provides a poignant example of how this works in the colonial context, when he describes how the colonial experience is informed by the paradox of love and hate. On the one hand, the colonialist wishes to dismiss the colonial subject from thought and to imagine the colony clean of its natives, but, on the other hand, the coloniser knows that without its colonial subjects the colony and his domination has no meaning.

The coloniser’s desire of the colonised signifies an unconscious politics according to which the coloniser must keep the colonised subject alive. Only when the coloniser becomes indifferent to the life of the other does genocide or ethnic cleansing may occur. This leads me to maintain that acknowledging intimacy may actually prevent the genocidal impulse.

NG: I understand that hatred is constituted through the repression of love, denial of attachment and fears of dependency. What will happen if we do come to recognise our state of dependency on the despised other, or our desire of the hated other? Are you saying that hatred can ipso facto form the possibility of love in spite of a history of hatred? That appears to be a very optimistic theory!

NY: Absolutely. In hate, love is never lost. And under the right circumstances it can always be remembered.

This is precisely why I conclude the book with the idea of political friendship. I believe that the politics of hatred can change because the enemy is forever the lost friend. Political friendship calls for peace without any prior conditions. It means a certain way of coming together with those who are not “one of us”.

When Anwar Sadat declared in public that he was willing to visit Jerusalem, he was taking a risk that Egypt might “lose face”. He sent out his call for friendship and peace presumably without knowing whether and how Israel would respond. In that particular case, Menachem Begin returned the call by inviting Sadat to Jerusalem; a year later that visit was followed by a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Someone must offer friendship, and it cannot be the one who has no power to lose.

You might, of course, ask, what happens if the other refuses the request for friendship.

In this case, one must follow the footsteps of Sadat; the risk must be taken in the face of a possible refusal. It is important to keep in mind that no friendship is devoid of disputes, injury, pain, betrayal, tensions and hate, but friendship, for the sake of peace, can embrace hatred and indeed diffuse it. This new demarcation of relations gives rise to a radically new discourse of peace. I am not talking about “true peace”, “perpetual peace”, or “absolute peace”. All these terms have only served to sustain war. I truly believe that by forcing ourselves to choose friendship, the unthinkable peace becomes thinkable. The attachment, which was disavowed, becomes possible to reclaim.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation and can be reached through his website