By Kathy Berken
Were you as sickened as I was at the killing of eight people in Georgia recently? Six of the victims were Asian. This incident surfaced more national talk about hate crimes, with more video footage and reports of Asian people especially targeted by criminals because of their race.
Since I like to know what motivates people to act, I discovered some useful information, not only about the motives of such perpetrators, but also about ways we can help stop the violence.
I looked to noted research professor, speaker and author Brené Brown for wisdom and advice gleaned from her studies on courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. She says that, worldwide, the primary weapon used in genocide is dehumanization. In her book “Braving the Wilderness” (Random House 2017), she writes: “Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst.”
She adds that once a person employs dehumanizing language and images toward a specific group, it is easier for that person to commit violence against them. We are not born to hate, so we have to create specific weapons that somehow justify our actions to hurt others. These include specific language and imagery. For example, during World War II, the Allies pictured Japanese people as bugs, and we still use the word “aliens” to describe immigrants.
But let’s go back a step. Why do people hate others so much that they use these weapons to make it easier for them emotionally and psychologically to commit hate crimes in the first place? The National Crime Prevention Council mentioned three primary reasons: they are ignorant about people who are different from themselves (and terrified of the difference); they need to be able to look down on others in order to compensate for their own low self-esteem, and, they have been brutalized themselves (though not by their victims) and therefore see brutalizing others as fair game.
Sadly, I doubt that many perpetrators would agree with (or at least admit to) this assessment because, after all, it shines a bright light on psychological and emotional issues that are badly in need of work, so it is often easier for people to deny their own vulnerabilities and project the cause of their actions on something that is “wrong” with those whom they want to victimize. Brown says,
“When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce immigrants to animals. . . [for example] . . . it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity.”
So, it seems to me that if I want to help stop the hate, if I want to take the high road, I’m not sure that I can expect someone who is dead set on committing a hate crime to seek counseling.
It may be more beneficial if I take action. The Southern Poverty Law Center created a 10-step plan to get involved: 1. Act, 2. Join forces, 3. Support the victims, 4. Speak up, 5. Educate yourself, 6. Create an alternative, 7. Pressure leaders, 8. Stay engaged, 9. Teach acceptance, and, 10. Dig deeper. Details can be found on their website: https://tinyurl.com/r8z5nc.
I will end with Brené Brown’s wisdom: “. . . if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)