First Brexit, then Trump: Has the past year or so ushered in a “wave” (Weisberg), a “barrage” (Desmond-Harris) or a “deluge” (Sidahmed) of that notoriously noxious affect, hate? It certainly feels that way to those of us identified with progressive social and political causes—those of us troubled, not just by Trump’s recent electoral victory, but by the far-right forces to which that victory has given voice. And yet the questions still hanging over efforts to quantify emotional or affective states leaves the claim that there has been a clear spike in hate moot (Ngai 26; Massumi 136-7; Ahmed, Promise 3-8). So let’s try asking a different question. Has this same period seen a rise, across liberal media platforms, in the rhetorical work of “hate-attribution”? Here, at least, an answer seems in readier reach. For no one given to scrolling distractedly through liberal Anglophone media outlets, from The New York Times, to The Guardian, to Slate, will be unfamiliar with a species of journalism that, in reporting the appalling activities associated with what has become known as the “alt-right” (Main; Wallace-Wells; Gourarie), articulates those activities in the rubric of a calculable uptick in hate itself.
Before the U.S. Presidential election, this fledgling journalistic genre was already testing its wings, its first shudderings felt everywhere from Univision anchor Jorge Ramos’s widely publicized documentary, Hate Rising (2016), which explores the rise of white supremacist movements across the South-West U.S, to an edition of Slate’s Trumpcast entitled “The Alt-Right and a Deluge of Hate,” which broached the torment-by-Twitter of left-wing journalist David French. In the wake of the election, and the appalling acts of harassment and intimidation it seemed to authorize, the genre gained further momentum—leading to the New Yorker’s “Hate Is on the Rise After Trump’s Election,” to The Guardian’s “Trump’s Election led to Barrage of Hate,” and to Vox’s “The Wave of Post-Election Hate Reportedly Sweeping the Nation, Explained.” And it still has traction today, judging not just by James King’s recent year-in-review column, “The Year in Hate: From Donald Trump to the Rise of the Alt-Right,” but by Salon’s “A Short History of Hate” which tracks the alt-right’s meteoric 2016 rise to prominence, and the New York Times’ recently launched hate-speech aggregator, “This Week in Hate.”
As should already be clear from these brisk, thumbnail accounts of the texts in question, the phenomena alluded to by the titular term “hate” are not instances of hate per se, but rather instances of “hate-speech.” The word “hate,” in other words, is being deployed here not literally, to refer to an emotional state, but metonymically, as a shorthand for “hate-speech”—a by-now widely conventionalized and legally codified parlance originating with the U.N. Declaration to describe “violent or violence-inciting speech or acts that “aim or intend to inflict injury, or incite prejudice or hatred, against persons of groups” because of their ethnic, religious, sexual or social affiliation. And there is no doubt that, beyond the headlines, these articles do incredibly important work, drawing connections between, and drawing attention to, a host of harmful activities associated with the so-called “alt-right”—from a pair of mangled, pretzel-shaped swastikas graffiti-ed in a children’s playground, to acts of harassment, intimidation and violence against women, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, and LGBTQ people, to Trump’s own racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tweets.
Yet the fact that an emotion-term like hate is being mobilized across these texts as a metonym for the “alt-right” is no oratorical curio. Rather, it perpetuates a pervasive way of thinking about the relationship between the alt-right (a political phenomenon) and hate (an emotional phenomenon) that should give pause to those of us committed to mining that vein of cultural symptomatology now consigned, across the social sciences and critical humanities, to affect theory. Specifically, these headlines inscribe, in miniature, a kind of micro-assessment, a micro-geography and micro-theory of hate. First, they suggest that, even prior to its incarnation in specific, and dangerous, forms of speech or action, hate is in and of itself anathema, a phenomenon so unquestioningly dangerous that a putative “rise” or “spike” in its net presence provides ample pretext for a news headline. Second, they propose that hate may be localized to a particular social or political group—a group subsisting, unsurprisingly, on that peculiarly contested frontier between the ideological alt-right and the American Midwest. And third, they imply that hate is so indubitably the single most significant source of the xenophobic, racist and sexist activities they go on to describe that it may be casually used as these activities’ lexical proxy.
What is crystallizing here, I suggest, is what scholars of rhetoric dub a rhetorical “constellation” (Campbell and Jamieson 332)—a constellation from which hate emerges as, a) inherently problematic, b) localizable to the “alt-right,” and, c) the primary engine of the various activities and expressions we associate with them. This constellation of conventions for thinking about hate and its relationship to the activities of right-wing extremist movement has coalesced into a “genre” we might dub the genre of “hate-attribution.” Yet while it’s far from clear that the genre is an effective one in a political landscape that’s fast becoming a political battleground, it hasn’t appeared by chance. Treating “hate,” then, less as a descriptive “grid of analysis” (Sedgwick 152), than as a rhetorical projectile, this essay opens by interrogating the “hate-attribution” genre’s logic and querying its efficacy. Having done so, it approaches the concept of “alternatives” by asking: how might calling time on the genre help us think differently about both hate itself and about the forces catalyzing, and catalyzed by, Trump’s presidential campaign?
The rhetorical power of the genre of hate-attribution, of course, isn’t too difficult to pin down. An emotion so thoroughly discredited that its assignment is now in and of itself a term of abuse (see, for example, the O.E.D’s freshly-expanded definition of the noun “hater”), hate is an emotion the Judeo-Christian tradition deems not just responsible for but practically akin to murder (John 3:1). In part as a result of this tradition, hate has proven thoroughly resistant to efforts to elevate it from the status of an expression of a subject’s pestiferous inner life to the status of a polemical response to an object in the world. Indeed, while a great deal of the critical energy amassing under the rubric of “affect theory” has recently been put into recuperating the strategic or diagnostic value of emotions long scorned as irrelevant to oppositional struggle—from irritation and envy, to depression, anger and shame (Ngai; Cvetkovich; Gould; Love)—hate has notably not been among them. In fact, those rare scholarly accounts of affect that do address “hate,” notably Ahmed’s excellent work on right-wing extremist groups in the United Kingdom, display an understandable reluctance to rehabilitate it for progressive thought (Cultural Politics). It should come as no surprise, then, that the genre of “hate-attribution” has a rare rhetorical power. In identifying “hate” as the source of a particular position, gesture or speech-act, we effectively drain said position, gesture or speech-act of political agency or representational power—reducing it from an at-least-potentially polemical action in or response to the world, to the histrionic expression of a reprehensible personhood.
Yet because hate’s near-taboo status holds across the ideological and political spectrum, what is less clear is why the genre of hate-attribution has achieved such cachet in the liberal media in particular. The answer, I would argue, lies in the fact that the work of hate-attribution dovetails all too neatly with liberal political theory’s longstanding tendency to laminate its social and civic ideals to affective ideals like “love,” “sympathy,” “compassion,” and, when in a less demonstrative humor, “tolerance”. As Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions has recently shown, this tradition has an impressive philosophical pedigree, running from Aristotle’s philia (16), John Locke’s “toleration” and David Hume’s “sympathy” (69-75), to the twentieth century’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its promotion of “tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” And while the labour of what Lauren Berlant calls “liberal sentimentality” (“Poor Eliza”, 636) has never quite died away, it does seem to have found new strength with the emergence of the “intimate public sphere” (Berlant, Queen)—from its recent popular apotheosis in the Clinton campaign’s notorious “Love Trumps Hate” (a slogan in which “love,” unfortunately, came to look a lot like resigned technocratic quietism in the face of ongoing economic and environmental crisis [Zizek]), to its revival as a philosophical project among progressive scholars, many of them under the sway of the so-called “affective turn” (Nussbaum; Hardt; Sandoval; hooks).
No surprise, then, that liberalism’s struggle to yoke itself to “love” should have as its eerie double a struggle to locate among its ideological and political enemies an increasingly reified “hate”. And while the examples of this project we’ve touched on so far have hailed from popular media, this set of protocols for thinking about hate and its relationship to the activities of right-wing extremist movements is not unique to media circles. It’s there in political discourse, as in ex-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s announcement, on MSNBC, that “Americans will unite against [Trump’s] hatred.” And it’s there, too, in academic media studies, from FLOW journal’s November 2016 call for papers inviting respondents to comment, among other things, on “the violence and hatred epitomized by Trump and his supporters,” to the SCMS conference’s invitation to members to participate in a pop-up panel entitled “Responding to Hate, Disenfranchisement and the Loss of the Commons.”
Yet while the labor of hate-attribution to which many progressive forces have become attached carries an indisputable rhetorical force, it also has some profound rhetorical flaws. The very same stigma, after all, that makes “hate” such a powerful explanatory grenade to throw also makes it an incredibly tough one to land. As Ahmed’s analysis of the online rhetoric of white supremacist organizations should remind us (Cultural Politics), most groups structured around inciting and promoting violence against women and minorities identify, perversely, not as hate groups, but as movements propelled by the love of race and nation. And while left-wing pundits pronounce “hate” the signature emotion of a racist, misogynist Trump-voting right, supporters of Trump ascribe it, just as routinely, to the so-called “liberal elite,” a group whose mythical avatars—from the so-called “Social Justice Warrior” or “SJW,” to the supercilious Washington politico—are said to brand “ordinary [white, male] Americans” indiscriminately as racist, misogynistic, homophobic buffoons.
Thus, for example, The Washington Post’s uncanny, far-right journalistic alter-ego, The Washington Times, dubs the SPLC a “liberal hate group”; the Wikipedia mirror-site, Conservapedia, recasts liberal objections to gun violence as “liberal hate speech” driven by an “irrational aversion to weapons”; while one blood-curdling sub-genre of reportage on Steve Bannon’s crypto-fascist soapbox, Breitbart News, is devoted to denouncing what it calls “ ‘anti-White Racism.’” It’s easy enough, of course, to defend the hate-attribution genre’s liberal incarnations while dismissing its right-wing variants as cynical, opportunistic shams, as Ahmed does (Cultural Politics)—thereby re-establishing the wellspring of hate where we are most comfortable locating it: among our political others. Yet to do so seems, in some sense, to perpetuate a familiar volley of hate-attribution. And to the extent that, as many media scholars have shown (Philips; Reed; Tett; Turow), our digital, networked political landscape is in danger of being reduced to a silo-ed discursive battleground, the ritual exchange of terminological grenades that everyone seems eager to propel across ideological lines, but that no one, understandably, seems willing to pick up, seems counter-productive to say the least.
Even beyond the genre’s ultimate ineffectiveness, what should strike anyone used to reflecting on affect is how little justice it does to the ubiquity and intricacy of “hate” as an affective phenomenon. Hate is not and cannot be the exclusive property or preserve of one side of the political spectrum. One doesn’t have to stretch one’s critical faculties too far to see the extent to which the genre of hate-attribution participates in the emotional ballistics it condemns or seeks to redress. While trafficking in a relatively simple hate-paradigm (as a subjective emotional state that may be isolated to a particular person or group), the genre itself incarnates a more complex, socially dynamic model of hate in which the emotion operates through logics of projection perhaps best outlined by Freud. In the “hate-attribution” genre, that is, hate—like those equally abjected categories “sentimentality,” “worldliness” or “knowingness” broached by Sedgwick in her bravura analyses of “scapegoating attribution” (150-158)—finds its clearest expression in and through the labor of its own adscription. And it should come as no surprise that an emotion so widely devalued, where it is not openly prohibited, might also find expression in less overt form.
Yet to say as much is by no means to discredit the genre. As legal scholar Jeremy Waldron has recently pointed out, there’s no particular reason why “the passions and emotions that lie behind a particular speech act” (34)—even up to and including hate—should devalue the speech acts they rouse. On the contrary, to pin the despicable and damaging activities of the so-called “alt right” on “hate” is, if anything, to do an injustice to a rich and complex emotion that can be as generative as it can be destructive. As Freud suggests in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” for example, hate may be the very seed of love, since the forms of “social feeling” (121) celebrated under the liberal rubric of “tolerance,” “love,” and “compassion,” are grounded in “the reversal of what was first a hostile feeling into a positively-toned tie in the nature of an identification” (121; italics mine). Indeed, Freud projects this same argument across a larger, historical canvas in Civilization and its Discontents, which contends that it is in our very struggle to combat our “aggressive instincts” that human communities have developed “methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relationships of love” (31). For Freud, that is, the practice of love is a function of ongoing efforts to see hate harnessed, commuted and transformed.
What might it mean, then, to call time on this round of hate-attribution? What sort of “alternatives” might emerge when we abandon the assumption that political engagement entails a “struggle over who has the right to declare themselves as acting out of love” (Ahmed, Cultural Politics 131), and thus, by that same token, a struggle over the exact location and source of hate? One boon, I suggest, is the license it gives those of us on the progressive left to simply own our own hate. There’s little doubt that reframing the dangerous and destructive forms of speech fomented by Trump’s campaign, not as eruptions of hate, or even as “hate-speech,” but as speech we hate would be more consistent with what once seemed affect theory’s first commandment: to take our own affective temperature before launching headlong into critical analysis. After all, when Lauren Berlant (“Trump”) takes a stab at economist Paul Krugman’s cautions against “the Danger of Political Emotions” with the timely reminder that “all the messages are emotional,” the “messages” she’s pointing to aren’t just those of our political others, they’re ours; and the “emotions” she’s pointing to aren’t just the evacuated, insouciant versions of love championed by the Clinton campaign, they’re of the messier, or as Ngai might put it, “uglier” (2) variety—from shame, depression and anger, to, yes, I want to insist, hate.
By way of jump-starting this program of hate-avowal, then, let me just say it: this essay was animated, in part, by a certain kind of hate. The social critic in me hates the breathtaking simplification of the complex social, economic and emotional forces animating Trump voters that seem to actuate some liberal commentary; the psychologist in me hates the self-mystification palpable in the left’s insistence on projecting and thus disowning its own (often very well justified) aggressions; and the human being in me, hating the kind of toxic speech to which Trump’s campaign has given rise, wishes to be able to openly declare that hatred. Among its other effects, hate is characterized by hypervigilance for lapses or failings in an object it deems problematic, a hypervigilance that—sometimes—animates analysis (Zeki and Romoya). In this sense, “hate” seems entitled to a comfortable place in the ranks of what Nick Salvato has recently dubbed criticism’s creative “obstructions”—phenomena that, while “routinely identified as detriments” to critical inquiry, may also “form the basis for … critical thinking” (1).
Yet while one boon associated with this disclosure might be a welcome intellectual honesty, a more significant boon, I’d argue, is what getting this disclosure out of the way might leave room for. Opting out of the game of hurling “hate” back and forth across a super-charged political arena, that is, we might devote our column inches and Facebook posts to the less sensational but more productive task of systematically challenging the specious claims, and documenting the damaging effects, of a species of utterance (Butler; Matsuda; Waldron) we’ve grown used to simply descrying as pure, distilled “hate”. And we also might do something else. Relieved of the confident conviction that we can track “Trumpism” to a spontaneous outbreak of a single, localizable emotion, we might be able to offer a fuller account of the economic, social, political and affective forces that energize it. Certainly, hate plays a part here—although the process by which, as Isabelle Stengers puts it, affect “make[s] present, vivid and mattering … a worldly world” (371) demands that we scrutinize that hate as a syndrome, rather than simply moralize it as a sin, addressing its mainsprings in a moment marked by the nerve-fraying and life-fraying effects of what has become known across the social sciences and critical humanities as conditions of social and economic “precarity” (Muehlebach; Neil and Rossiter; Stewart).
But perhaps hate’s not the only emotion tucked away under the hood. Here’s something affect theory knows today: affect moves not, as more traditional theorists of political emotion have it, “unambiguously and predictably from one’s cognitive processing,” but in ways that are messy, muddled and indirect (Gould 24). That form of speech is speech we hate. But it may not be “hate speech.” That crime is a crime we hate. But it may not be a “hate-crime.” One of the critical tactics we might crib from Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism is that of decoding and decrypting, in even the most hateful acts, an instance of what Berlant, herself optimistically, calls “optimism.” For Berlant, after all, optimism is very often cruel, attaching itself, as it seems to have done in 2016, to scenes, objects and people that, while ultimately destined to “imped[e] the aim that brought [it to them] initially,” nevertheless came to seem, to a good portion of the electorate, the only available exponent of that classic good-life genre, “the change that’s gonna come” (“Trump” 1-2) at a moment when the Democratic party’s primary campaign promise was more of the free-market same. And in a recent commentary on Trump’s rise in The New Inquiry (“Trump”), Berlant exemplified the kind of critical code-breaking this hypothesis might galvanize, deciphering a twisted, self-mutilating optimism in even the most troublesome acts, claims or positions. Here’s one translation: “Anti-P.C. means: I feel unfree.” And here’s another: “people react negatively, reactively and literally to Black Lives Matter, reeling off the other ‘lives’ that matter.” Berlant’s transcription? “They feel that they don’t matter, and they’re not wrong.”
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