The War We Must WinWriting
Tragically, and highly disturbingly, hatred directed toward vulnerable groups is on the rise in the United States.
According to data published by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, the number of hate crimes in the U.S. recently hit record highs, with Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Jews and members of the LGBTQ community among the most frequent targets of crimes. We see evidence of this troubling trend in the news — less than two months ago, we were shocked to learn of the horrific Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs — and all too often, we feel the effects of this hatred in our own lives.
One of the features in this issue of the magazine focuses on a new interdisciplinary initiative that seeks to help scholars better understand and combat the virus of hate infecting American culture. The UCLA Initiative to Study Hate, spearheaded by historian David Myers and backed by a $3 million gift from an anonymous donor, supports 23 research projects that examine different aspects of the topic. The projects involve researchers from across campus and cover an array of subjects, including the mechanisms in the brain that lead to dehumanization of others, social media hate speech and its effects on children, the role of misinformation in spreading hate, discrimination against individuals with disabilities, hatred directed toward people experiencing homelessness, and more.
I am grateful that our scholars are taking on this issue — not just because of its urgency, but also because UCLA is one of only a few universities that can bring together such a diverse set of researchers to tackle the subject. Our depth and breadth of academic expertise, commitment to collaboration across disciplines, and public orientation all contribute to our capacity to effectively study group hate and develop solutions that will help society counter it.
Hatred is not the only human experience that UCLA scholars are looking into.
The UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, established in 2019 as a multidisciplinary program dedicated to researching kindness, might initially seem to offer a striking contrast to the study of group hate. However, according to the institute’s director, evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Fessler, the spread of both phenomena may be closely linked to social exposure. Professor Fessler’s research suggests that our minds contain mechanisms sharpened by natural selection that lead us to adjust our behavior to match the behavior of those around us — whether that’s performing acts of kindness or participating in hateful and bigoted acts.
What this means is that both hatred and kindness may be, in essence, contagious. While the Initiative to Study Hate will soon tell us much more about how and why hatred manifests in society, this finding alone gives me hope. It tells us that while hate surely exists in the world, if we are mindful, we can decide whether we choose to spread hatred — or to spread kindness instead.