Practicing Compassion When Hate Is So “Murderously Sweet”

[Engage! is proud to introduce a new contributor to the blog, Alycee Lane—Editor.]

When hate is so “murderously sweet” by Alycee Lane

After the release of a video that showed members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) on a bus chanting “There will never be a nigger in SAE./There will never be a nigger in SAE./You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me/There will never be a nigger in SAE,” writer Shaun King asked three questions of enormous import: “Notice the excitement? The Joy? The fun of it all?”[1]

Indeed, by all appearances these young white fraternity men were having a wonderful time. The verve with which they chanted, the smiles on their faces, the joy in their eyes and the laughter in their voices announced, in no uncertain terms, that for these young men chanting in support of segregation, racism, and racist terror was an absolutely joyful experience, one that bonded them as brothers.

“Giddy happiness, by whites, at black pain and misery isn’t a new thing,” King observed. “It’s old, very old. Seeing these young people, with such fun fervor, talk about ‘lynching niggers from trees’ has roots. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find lynching photos of African Americans without smiling white faces.” To drive home the point, King offered along with his analysis six photographs of a lynching. In each photo, the charred or hanging black body is surrounded by white children, women, and/or men. Most smile as they pose for the camera. Some lean in in ways that suggest that the last thing they wanted was to be left out of the picture.

A similar kind of exuberance is evident in the beheading videos released over the last year by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL). It is hard to miss the excitement with which the assailant, identified as “Jihadi John,” metes out his gruesome punishment to his terrified, bound hostages. In at least one of these videos, we can hear singing and chanting in the background, suggesting that, for some, the brutal killings were the occasion for joy, celebration, and song.

When I saw these videos for the first time, I found myself at a loss and wondered: if this is hatred – and it clearly is – then where in the world is the suffering? Not the suffering that these men caused, but instead the pain that they felt from their hateful acts. I asked myself, how am I supposed to practice lovingkindess (metta) and compassion (karuna) in the face of hatred that appears to be, for these perpetrators, so “murderously sweet”?[2] Did I even have the capacity, without seeing the evidence of their suffering, to open up my heart to Jihadi John or to the young men who could apparently imagine, with unmitigated glee, my black body hanging lifelessly from a tree?

A defilement of the mind

When I asked myself these questions, I did so from a place of knowing that hatred is, as the Buddha taught, a poison or “defilement of the mind” that we are drawn into (to quote Jeffrey Hopkins) because we misapprehend “the status of persons and things” – that is, because we believe people and things to be unchanging, permanent, and solid. Indeed, “not knowing the real nature of phenomena,” we are “driven to generate desire for what we like and hatred for what we do not like and for what blocks our desires.”[3]

Hatred is not the only defilement of the mind, however. So, too, are attachment (craving/greed) and delusion (ignorance). All three poisons not only “manifest in different ways,” as Rupert Gethin explains, but they also “combine and interact” with one another and, in the process, cause tremendous suffering.[4]

Thus, we can become so attached to certain beliefs, ideas or concepts that we are willing to hate anyone who calls them into question. Or we can cling so tenaciously to the illusion of a separate, fixed self and what is “me,” “mine,” or “my” that we’ll hate whoever or whatever we believe threatens to disabuse us of our fantasy. And the hate that arises from such an illusion of “self” and, by extension, “other,” can become for us an absolute necessity, a thing that we crave since the more we hate, the more we can convince ourselves that the “I” and the “Other” are real – that our ideas about others, in fact, are their truth, their reality, their substance. For these reasons, “‘the hater,’” as Vaclav Havel wrote, always “‘longs for the object of his hatred.’”[5]

Driven by such craving, then, hatred plunges us into a state of ignorance about ourselves and others, about the world in which we live. And from our ignorance, even more hatred, attachment and delusion inevitably arise. Ignorance, as Hopkins notes, “drives the entire process,” for it is an “active misapprehension of the status of oneself and all other objects,” the “conception or assumption that phenomena exist in a far more concrete way than they actually do.”

I hate, therefore, I am

But if the joy that SAE members apparently got from chanting about lynching African Americans or the excitement with which Jihadi John decapitated his victims is any indication, then this “active misapprehension” that Hopkins identified can be quite pleasurable.

Ignorance, it seems, is bliss. Hatred is bliss.

And what makes it bliss is that it satisfies our need to be right, legitimizes our death grip on the concepts and views that we hold dear, and validates our belief that we and others are unchanging, graspable, and knowable. Hate is bliss, in other words, because when we devour the “Other” with our animus, we fill ourselves up with solidity and a sense of me-ness, and thus satiate (at least momentarily) our craving for a fixed, bounded and permanent identity, if not for certainty itself.

Just look at the SAE video, for instance. Look at all the fun, the delight. Notice how much self-satisfaction the young men apparently got from chanting hatred and imagining racist terror, the joy with which they seemed to proclaim, I am this! You are that! Forever unchanging and separate!

Part of what was so challenging for me when I saw the SAE video (and those of the beheadings) was not merely that it seemed to belie (at least on a surface level) the notion that those who hate suffer from their hatred; what got under my skin was that it seemed to demonstrate that those who hate actually benefit from hatred. I mean, these guys were having a fabulous time!

Equally disturbing to me, however, was the fact that SAE’s jubilance lured the viewer (me, all of us) into the delusion that it conveyed – namely, that this joy (or, rather, this self, other, separateness, hatred, racism) is solid and permanent. Look! There simply is no escape.

Nothing but grief

And yet.

When I looked at the video again, I realized that I glossed over an obvious but crucial detail: not an African American was in sight. What our absence indicated to me was just how much these young men actually needed to imagine us in, or to call us into their presence, needed to see in their minds’ eye our black bodies somewhere, anywhere, in their midst. In other words, they needed us not merely to have their fun, but more crucially, to define themselves as SAE, as white, as men, as powerful and thus to have a sense of solidity, permanence, and self. That not an African American was anywhere in sight – that what was actually in SAE’s presence was their own thoughts, their own fiction of African Americans – betrayed the attachment by which these young men were driven, the craving that underlay their pleasure, the hunger that lurked behind their racist chant (what would they have done without us, I wondered? Who would they have been? How would they have related to one another?).

This level of attachment was true for Jihadi John as well; that is, as horrifying as his excitement and pleasure was, it could not distract from his terrible need for the enemy to whom he spoke, his utter dependence on the Other for his – and ISIL’s – identity.

Isn’t this just how hate works? Don’t those who hate always call into their minds or carry with them, like a ball and chain, the hated and empty forms of their imaginations?

The palpable absence of African Americans in the SAE video actually helped me to see in the young men’s joy the suffering that they harbored and that they would inevitably experience. For no matter how much or how often they chanted, not only would their joyful moment of bonding eventually fade away, and not only would their “negative actions” ultimately “reach fruition,”[6] but the very things that they craved would never be anything other than empty and impermanent. Consequently, the solidity for which they yearned would remain elusive. “Static (racial) identity,” writes Charles Johnson, “is an illusion. We are constant change, reborn moment by moment. We have no nature, no essence, no self, no substance as our identity.” And of course, African Americans have “no relation whatsoever to the evil, racist iconography that caricatures black people in popular culture and the national consciousness.”[7]

But of course, I didn’t really need to “not see” African Americans in the video in order to recognize the suffering in the young men’s enjoyment. And I didn’t need it for this simple reason: I, too, have taken pleasure in my own anger and ill-will toward others, have grasped onto an illusion of self and other, and have at times felt downright gleeful in causing harm. In other words, I have been “the fool” who “rejoices in her evil deed,” and I have harvested “nothing but grief” when “the action” reached its “fruition.”[8] Thus, my experience of looking at the videos (of SAE, of Jihad John) was akin to looking into a mirror and seeing the seeds of my own hate, my own anger, my own ability to cause harm, and my own suffering.

A practice of love

Whatever compassion and lovingkindness that I learned to extend to myself so that I could heal my ill-will and move beyond my suffering are precisely what I must, without hesitation, extend to the young men of SAE and most especially to Jihadi John, whose suffering is immense and unspeakable. Doing so does not mean that I in any way condone, accept or acquiesce to their hate, cruelty and violence, or that I take lightly the terrible suffering that they have unleashed upon others. Nor does it imply that I need not do the work that is required in order to make a more peaceful and just world. Extending compassion and lovingkindness is simply a way for me to remember and to honor our shared humanity, and to do that for SAE and for Jihadi John until they are able to do it for themselves.

Does my compassion come easy? I wish. But I am mindful of Joseph Goldstein’s challenge to all of us who care about justice, reconciliation, and peace: “We may have compassion for the victims of social or political injustice, but can we feel compassion for those who perpetrate that injustice? Our tendency might be to feel a righteous anger towards such people, forgetting that their actions are coming out of an ignorance which is not only causing pain to others, but sowing the karmic seeds of their own future suffering.”[9]

So in the spirit of not forgetting, to SAE and Jihadi John I therefore say: May you be free from the suffering of hatred, violence, craving and delusion. May you be safe and free from harm. May you know peace. And may you guided by love, kindness, and compassion for yourselves and for others.

[1] Shaun King, “A deeper examination of the sheer joy of Oklahoma students chanting about n*gg*rs from trees.” March 9, 2015, Daily Kos, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/03/09/1369591/-A-deeper-examination-of-the-sheer-joy-of-Oklahoma-students-chanting-about-hanging-niggers-from-trees.

[2] Although the Buddha refers to anger as murderously sweet (“Anger, with its poisoned source and fevered climax, murderously sweet, that you must slay to weep no more”), the same is true of hatred.

[3] Jeffrey Hopkins, Introduction to The Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life (Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p.4.

[4] Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.74.

[5] Quoted in Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1995), p. 69.

[6] Ananda Maitreya, trans. The Dhammapada, (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1995), p. 33.

[7] Charles Johnson, Taming the Ox, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2014), p. 76.

[8] “Until he feels the effect,

The fool rejoices in his evil deed.

When the action reaches fruition,

The fool harvests nothing but grief.” The Dhammapada, p.18.

[9] Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987), p. 132.

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2 thoughts on “Practicing Compassion When Hate Is So “Murderously Sweet”

  1. “For no matter how much or how often they chanted, not only would their joyful moment of bonding eventually fade away, and not only would their “negative actions” ultimately “reach fruition,”[6] but the very things that they craved would never be anything other than empty and impermanent. Consequently, the solidity for which they yearned would remain elusive.”

    And this is why, sadly, people perform acts of racist hatred and violence over and over again, because the thrilling “hit” they got from previous acts is over and gone in a few days, setting up an addiction to get that same “hit’ again and again by staging still more violent racist acts.

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