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Healthy Fears Episode 18 – Depths of Hatred

Hatred is not strictly an unproductive, seemingly unnatural emotion. Sometimes hate is understandable, and even a motivation, if directed against an injustice or imbalance. Unfortunately, we too often see it deployed in service of maintaining injustices or imbalances, by powerful people who want to keep–or grow–their wealth and influence. This episode opens with the relatable hatred felt by the character Iraxi, from Zin E. Rocklyn’s novella Flowers for the Sea, and ends with prejudiced, manipulated, and ultimately violent hatred found in the 1976 film Canoa: A Shameful Memory.

Sources

Hall, Andrew B., et al. “Wealth, Slaveownership, and Fighting for the HALL, A., HUFF, C., & KURIWAKI, S. (2019). Wealth, Slaveownership, and Fighting for the Confederacy: An Empirical Study of the American Civil War. American Political Science Review, 113(3), 658-673. doi:10.1017/S0003055419000170

National Justice Museum, Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “What This Cruel War Was Over.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 June 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/.

Pinsof, David, and Martie G Haselton. “The Effect of the Promiscuity Stereotype on Opposition to Gay Rights.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 13 July 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5509117/.

Belli, Humberto, “Liberation Theology and the Latin American Revolutions.” In  The Politics of Latin American Liberation Theology: The Challenge to U.S. Public Policy, edited by Rubenstein, Richard L., and John K. Roth. Washington Institute Press, 1988.

CBS Evening News. “How a Southerner Shed His Racism.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Aug. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJbrLl7ayoQ.

Music Credits

The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.

The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.

Other music for this episode: “Portland Road” by Klaus Hergersheimer, licensed through Shutterstock.

Full Script

Flowers for the Sea written by Zin E. Rocklyn, has nightmares, abominations, body horror, and creepy children. It packs in about as many terrifying elements as you can reasonably expect a novella to contain. What lingered with me after I first read it, however, and what brought me back for a second read, is the level and layers of hatred its pregnant protagonist carries with her.

Hate is sometimes discussed a bit reductively. It’s talked about like it’s a chaotic, incomprehensible demon that possesses some people, and that its sole purpose is to worsen the world. And sometimes that definitely feels true. I’ll come to that a little later.

Hate isn’t always something difficult to understand, however. Iraxi, the lead character in Flowers for the Sea, has multiple reasons to be hateful, and there are certain people who can’t be too surprised to learn she despises them. Her family has been murdered, her home burned. A powerful man demanded her hand in marriage, and her rejection of him has led to disaster not just for herself, but her kin. They treat her with disdain, blaming her for their existence in exile. The man she loved instead is unwilling to match the sacrifice she would make to be with him. The fetus she carries brings her intense pain, discomfort, and nightmares. Her hatred is not a single emotion of a single color, but a collection that can be taken apart from the whole. These pieces are related, but each piece of her hatred has its own catalyst.

As illustrated in this book, hatred can be relatable. Iraxi’s emotions have either been felt by all of us, or felt by someone we know. I am grateful that I don’t believe I’ve ever been close to anyone seemingly possessed by any form of bigotry, but I have known people who’ve held hate for individuals who did something horrible to them, or to someone they loved. I have also felt that hatred before.

What hatred can lead you to do, the decisions it may drive you to make, is what really fuels the story of Flowers for the Sea. As captivating as its nightmares and monstrosities are, the hatred ultimately generates the most fear, and also curiosity. I don’t believe hate, depending on its form, is purely and intrinsically unproductive. Something negative you hate about your behavior can motivate a positive change. Hatred of an injustice can inspire us to demand a level of accountability that can hopefully prevent–or at least limit–repetition of that injustice. That it also has its negatives is well established. Even righteous hatred born in response to misdeeds can easily spawn anger that targets and harms people not associated with the offenses. Zin E. Rocklyn’s story generates considerable interest and horror out of making readers wonder where and how far Iraxi’s hatred will take her.

The episode of Black Mirror titled “White Bear” showcases an initially understandable hatred that grows into something extreme, and purposeless beyond sustaining itself. And I’ll have to get into the episode’s major revelation for this, so consider yourself duly warned.

The amnesiac protagonist, played by Lenora Crichlow–who happens to be the daughter of Frank Crichlow who came up in episode 16 of this podcast–she is trying to survive in a strange dystopia where she is being hunted by armed, masked attackers for unknown reasons. She turns out to be a murderer–one who killed a child, no less–who gets her memory wiped daily to relive this hellish experience over and over as her punishment. The facility overseeing her punishment has become a hideous, popular theme park. At the end of every day she is reminded of who she is and the murder she committed, and paraded past people who comprise a chorus of fury and scorn all aimed at her.

The memory of her crime is never truly restored, nor her past consciousness. The exercise here, therefore, is not even designed to punish the guilty so much as punish an innocent person in a guilty person’s skin. She is the person who murdered that girl, strictly speaking, but how much of that is just a technicality at this point? Imagine there was some science-fiction, foolproof method of clearing out someone’s memories, and once they’re gone they’re not coming back. Now they restrain you on an operating table and make you the next unwilling participant of this procedure. Your physical body will wake up from it, but you–your entire identity, every piece of consciousness that forms who you are–will not wake up, and instead will disappear forever.

I think most people, were this to happen to them, would experience a fear pretty close to that of their fear of dying. You are, for all intents and purposes, being erased. So what happens to Lenora’s character in “White Bear,” I would argue, is happening to a different person from the one who committed the crime, and that’s by design. And that, in my opinion, is what gives the episode its biggest impact from a story perspective, and what makes the concept of it all so despicable and indefensible. The idea of repetitive, agonizing punishment with no designated endpoint–essentially a form of Hell on earth–is troubling to say the least. But other stories–even ones told in a very similarly themed television series–have tread that same terrain without feeling quite as disturbing, to me, as “White Bear.”

The Twilight Zone did that sort of thing a few times. The closest version of it being, I think, the episode “Judgement Night,” in which a German U-boat captain who sinks a cargo ship without warning is forced to spend eternity reliving the event from the perspective of a passenger. One who knows what’s going to happen but can’t explain why, and so desperately, futilely spends each night trying to prevent the inevitable. The key difference between “Judgement Night” and “White Bear,” however, is the absence of retributive hate. The captain is not reliving this night from this new perspective because he’s in a simulation created by people wanting him to suffer. Very clearly something supernatural  is at play.

Similarly, in the episode “Shadow Play,” the condemned man reliving his death sentence is experiencing an unexplained, never-ending literal nightmare. An episode from the early 2000’s revival of The Twilight Zone that seems to take inspiration from “Shadow Play” is titled “The Pool Guy.” It reflects “White Bear” in that the condemned person’s punishment is developed by people. Where it departs from “White Bear” is in the punishment’s apparent intent. The killer, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, suffers through induced dreams that see him murdered in the same fashion as the murder he committed. This is observed by a few scientists, rather than crowds of people ravenous for emotional torment. His early failure to understand what’s happening is explained as him working through the “acceptance” phase of his punishment. He then enters the “retribution” phase in which he must live through 47 more deaths, per his sentencing.

The fact that it’s finite, that the program is meant to reawaken the killer to his crime as a progression toward the finish, that it’s not an expensive public spectacle, and that its ostensible endgame is some form of rehabilitation, makes it quite different from the carnival of shame, loathing, and psychological torture from “White Bear.” Critically, cruel and unusual though it may be, what Mr. Phillips goes through in “The Pool Guy” has a purpose well beyond simply seeing him in agony. In “White Bear,” perpetual hatred becomes the objective. That is a frightening thing.

The seed for this episode’s topic came from a highly unexpected and more lighthearted place, and I’m going to share that here just to give myself a micro-respite from the bleakness of this subject, because it only gets harsher from here. There’s a YouTuber whose work I enjoy named Simon Miller. He’s a fairly funny and friendly Brit who does workout videos along with professional wrestling coverage, being a pro wrestler himself, and it’s all of the harmless happy sort. Based on his content, and from what people who’ve met him in person say, he’s somebody who you can’t imagine being sincerely disliked by anyone. But in one video he made a passing mention of some of the hate mail he has received where people wish him dead, and he made a joke about how much of a wasted wish that would be. You get a genie or some other mystical, superpowered being to give you anything you want in the world, and you blow it on wanting the death of a jovial YouTuber with fitness and wrestling opinions.

Now, I’m leaning toward the idea that the people who’ve sent him such messages are probably trolling, which certainly doesn’t make it acceptable, but the idea of someone being hateful enough to spend a wish that could give them anything their heart desires on the death of someone who has no impact whatsoever on their life, is alarming to me because I don’t think it’s farfetched. I have a very unscientific theory related to this that I call the “Vote for Pain” theory. If you held an election and the choice on the ballot was either everyone in the world will feel intense, unnecessary pain for next few years, or they simply will not, you’d be surprised how many people would vote for pain. Not because they’re masochists who think they might find that appealing–no judgement here, although that would be a pretty damn selfish vote, so some judgement. No, they’d vote for pain because it means the people they hate will suffer, and that’s more important to them than their own well-being, or the well-being of their friends and relatives. The objective is hate.

On a micro level this is scary enough, but it worsens when the hatred objective is used by influential figures to motivate and mobilize the masses. Worse still when they can embed the hate so deep as a default emotion that it can appear dormant despite endlessly erupting. This is one way for an insidious, supremacist ideology to sustain itself. The dreaded normalization; turning sincere bigoted beliefs and statements that reflect those beliefs, into jokes, or debatable talking points as if they have merit, or things so woven into the daily routine and line of thinking that the idea of removing them, or even just scaling them back, makes people think society is unraveling.

This was a key tenet of the Confederacy in the United States, as indicated by James Henry Hammond,  governor of South Carolina from 1857 to 1860, and Joseph E. Brown, governor of Georgia through the duration of the Civil War. Both men made the point that, in the South, even “the poor white laborer” is insulated from having to feel like he is unequal to any other white person, because there is already an unequal class of people that he can never belong to. Indeed, Brown went so far as to make the argument that poor, non-slave-owning whites had more to lose from the abolition of slavery, and would therefore fight the hardest to keep it, than did rich slave owners. Because the rich could just fall back on their money and assets to keep themselves at a higher station, while the white poor would have to face the new reality of being on the same level as the newly emancipated black poor. I can’t personally imagine being said poor white laborer, knowing that’s what the governor and other wealthy men like him thought of me, and thinking, “Yeah, he’s making a great point about how a system built to keep me from aspiring for more for my family–because I’m expected to be content with at least not being like those black slaves–is something I need to go fight a war and very possibly die for.”

Worth noting here: While the southern army was overwhelmingly comprised of soldiers from non-slave-holding households, a Cambridge University Press article written by Andrew Hall, Connor Huff and Shiro Kuriwaki, provides evidence that slave-holding households provided a higher ratio of their own able-bodied men to fight. This runs contrary to how wealth normally correlates with the propensity to enlist in combat, because in this case said source of wealth, slavery, was the cause of the fight, being directly threatened. So on one hand, you have the words of Joseph Brown, attempting to convince the poor that fighting for slavery is more valuable to them than it is to the rich who actually own slaves. On the other hand, you have the actions of those rich men revealing that the cause is at least as important to them, if not more so, for obvious reasons.

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The lie had to be sold to maintain as much mass support as possible, and it’s a much easier sell if the hatred essential to it is already so baked into your society that most people won’t begin to question whether getting rid of slavery might actually benefit them. The notion would have been absurd. Even for people who would never get to experience owning another human being, slavery was the cause because the status quo of the lowest class had to be maintained, and in order to achieve that, a level of hatred so normalized that to the everyday person it doesn’t feel like hatred, had to be achieved.

The South was by no means alone in its racism in the United States, but long after the Civil War and even the Civil Rights movement one hundred years later, it sustained an earned and easily proven reputation as a place where racism was more than just an issue. It was a way of life. The standard. Pulling that implanted prejudice out of your mind and soul can be painful enough for some people to fear the process and aftermath. There’s a brief video I revisit on YouTube, a clip from a CBS News interview with Franklin McCallie. It’s titled “How a Southerner Shed His Racism,” and what I find so compelling about it isn’t the “how” referenced in that title, but the pain so evident in Franklin’s voice and eyes. I think of it as him processing the greater pain he and the people he used to think like inflicted on others, and I don’t think Franklin would disagree. But I find it uplifting, from that point of view, to see someone endure the emotional weight and shame that comes from just talking about the arbitrary hate they used to hold on to, the larger hate they once contributed to, all while surely aware of how much worse it was for victims of bigotry. That awareness is what makes it painful, and what makes his endurance commendable. And possibly what scares many bigots who aren’t brave enough to live with embarrassment, regret, and a responsibility to do better.

To say that the leaders of the Southern states weren’t alone in history in recognizing and utilizing hatred’s potential to control and mobilize the populace would be an enormous understatement. Powerful forces from governments to corporations to religious groups have taken advantage of the power of hate. It’s not uncommon for more than one of these types of groups to collaborate in using hatred when they see a mutual benefit.

In 1976, a powerful film was made and released in Mexico depicting just such an occasion. When politics, business interests and the church converged to incite violent hatred among people who likely had little grasp of why they were being called to hate the men they would attack and soon kill.

The film, based on a true story and directed by Felipe Cazals, is called Canoa: A Shameful Memory.

Manufactured and manipulative hatred, once it reaches the floor level, so to speak, can take on somewhat absurdist properties. Displays of prejudice can seem ludicrous on the surface, but it’s a papery veneer covering darker intentions and histories.

A misogynist expressing anger at women for having dyed hair, for instance. Seems like a laughable tantrum being thrown by a manchild, but it carries the history of societies trying to control what women can do with their bodies.

Jokes about black people loving fried chicken and watermelon might seem somewhat frivolous if you don’t trace them back to a preponderance of past depictions and descriptions of black folks as simple and lazy people who are easily contented with…well, the same things that white people like, but it’s somehow different for the Blacks. It doesn’t have to make sense as long as it’s effective at making people appear inferior while simultaneously making them self-conscious, and depriving them of the same basic pleasures others get to enjoy.

The long-running stereotype of homosexual promiscuity is another example of this. This has dogged gay men in particular–although its impact on them inevitably has to spread to the larger queer community. Anecdotally, I can think of a couple of instances where I’ve seen gay men react strongly and negatively to the suggestion that they were out “playing the field,” so to speak. In both cases, from later conversations I had with the individuals who made the initial comments, they weren’t even aware of the stereotype, much less its impact on opposition to gay marriage. For anyone wanting to read more on this, an article on the topic, written by David Pinsof and Martie G. Haselton can be found on the National Institutes of Health website.

Again, if you can infect people’s everyday lives with stealthier elements of hatred, you can make people unwitting instruments of it, sow discord among friends, and destabilize any resistance by diverting focus from where it should be.

Early in the film Canoa, it is made clear who the true enemies of the titular town’s people are. The poor citizens are being bled beyond dry by the forces led by the most recently assigned priest, a man who arrives with a checkered past, and a lust for power. Under the guise of progress he, the local politicians and unscrupulous businesses find new ways to charge people for things they did not ask for, or that they do not fully benefit from. The running water, for instance, seems beneficial and convenient, but it’s also pricier than people hardly making any money–or none at all–can afford. The electricity and highway access is borderline worthless to most of them. These are people trying to grow crops that frequently fail, who are cutting down trees illegally to be sold as wooden beams for walls, or burned down for charcoal. People who can’t afford to send their kids to school beyond the eighth grade. It is depicted early that certain people in town are also aware that the unnamed Priest is likely lining his pockets with taxes paid for some of these new amenities.

The Priest–who is based on Father Enrique Meza Perez–has no aspiration to bring genuine prosperity to the town. But he does aspire to maintain control, and his reassignment to Canoa was due to previous, probably similar controversies. Some townspeople have gone so far as to write a letter  to the Pope, decrying the Priest’s abuses. In order to maintain his grip on the town, in service to his political and business associates, he latches on to a trigger word that in the climate of Mexico at the time–1968–could easily generate sufficient hatred to distract people from what should really concern them. That trigger word is Communist.

There are multiple things that make the Communist fearmongering in the film Canoa so unsettling, not least of which being that those most riled up at the sound of it seem to know little about what Communism entails, much less whether the people they’re being directed to attack are even Communists at all. They only know what the state-run media and local officials have told them, which includes rumors that the Communists will take away their children… The more things change.

If they did know more about Communism, they would likely have many valid reasons to not want it to secure a foothold in their town or country. There were already a couple of a famously catastrophic examples of Communism gone wrong they could point to, for starters. But allowing that would require actually encouraging people to be informed, and permitting discussions that may produce unpredictable results, and if you’re among the town’s most influential citizens, why risk that? Particularly when all you really want to do is make people look away and not see that you’re up to elbows in the public coffers. When attempting to make hatred itself the objective, it’s imperative to muddy the facts, deploy outright lies, and invoke the things people cherish the most–even if they’re just barely related.

A micro-level version of this appears in the legendary film, The Seventh Seal. A petty and pathetic man named Raval–out of bored sadism and to make himself feel better after an earlier humiliation–drives the patrons at the local inn to bully and attack a traveling actor, Jof. While doing so, he steals the same threat used against him earlier by the large, intimidating squire who observed Raval stealing from the dead, and who stopped him from assaulting a young woman. In order to enflame one of the locals, a blacksmith, Raval links Jof as guilty by association with one of his colleagues who has run off with the blacksmith’s wife. Raval and the blacksmith know that Jof has nothing to do with this, and wasn’t even aware of it. Otherwise he wouldn’t still be in town, eating at the inn. But Raval knows this won’t matter. Jof is an actor. The blacksmith’s wife has left him for another actor who knew Jof. That’s the only link that needs to be made.

The original, Marxist and Leninist form of Communism was anti-religious. In 1846, Pope Pius IX referred to communism as an “infamous doctrine.” Over a century later, however, certain Latin American Bishops within the Catholic Chruch were trying to mold Communism to fit what would become known as “liberation theology.” A key point for this push for reform to better assist the poor was the Second Episcopal Conference of Latin America, also known as the Medellin Conference, held in late August and early September of 1968. The same year, as a reminder, that the events in Canoa took place. The same year that a larger massacre of hundreds of college students also took place in Mexico, also under the guise of protecting the nation from Communism, an anti-religious philosophy in a very Catholic country.

By that time, however, the idea that Catholicism and Communism could coexist and might have significant commonalities is something that the Priest in Canoa is at least aware of. And while the notion had as much opposition as support, the Medellin Conference did conclude with the agreement that the Catholic church should take up a “preferential option for the poor.” A principle emphasizing better treatment of poor or otherwise marginalized members of society, essentially using that as a vital measuring stick for economic morality. As it relates to Communism, here’s the following from Humberto Belli’s book, The Politics of Latin American Liberation Theology, “In regard to Marxism and Communism, positions of Christians in Central America at that point ranged from the earlier distrust and unambiguous rejection, through advocacy of understanding and dialogue…to implicit or explicit defense of the Marxist analysis.” A far cry from the earlier, unilateral dismissal of Marxism within the church.

I say all of this not because I’m in favor of Communism–again you can point to multiple examples of it being at least as easily exploited by people in power as any other political system, resulting in spectacular failures. Nonetheless, the context is important when viewing the film Canoa, which was made at a time when the Medellin Conference and the massacres during student protests would have been fresher in the minds of the intended audience. When the Priest begins to spread talk of Communists coming to Canoa, one of his followers immediately brands them as “children of Satan.” The Priest’s earliest castigations of these phantom Communists, who never actually materialize in Canoa, paints them primarily in the context of being sinful, opponents of the church. In a later sermon he warns the people of town that “the devil is loose,” even among other among other priests with Communist sympathies, whose thoughts, he says, are dictated by the devil. Representatives of these people are coming soon, he says, within two weeks, and with intent to kill him.

The economic concerns of the town are now far from the minds of his congregation. The Priest provokes their anger and paranoia, so that when five young men who work for the university do arrive, just wanting to hike the nearby mountain, not only do the townspeople see them as the anti-Catholic, murderous outlaws promised to come, they believe they’re just the first of many, and that if they don’t do something immediately, they will be overrun.

There are some people  wanting to address issues of corruption negatively impacting the poor. You know who else wants to address such a thing? Communists. University students protesting wider-scale corruption have been protesting Mexico City at around this same time. And who has arrived recently in Canoa, claiming that all they want to do is climb the local mountain trails? A handful of college-aged boys who are associated with the university. It is a situation reminiscent of Raval, the actor, and the blacksmith’s wife in The Seventh Seal, only the connection being made here between imagined threat and someone with nothing to do with it is even more tenuous. And of course, an even bigger difference, while The Seventh Seal presents a realistic scenario, Canoa is based on real events.

The film also opens by telling you how things will end. Based on part of the title alone–A Shameful Memory— you can probably guess we’re headed toward a violent, harrowing, criminal tragedy. It’s horrifyingly effective and more than a little tough to watch, but really needs to be seen.

Days after everything transpires, the town of Canoa is being distracted by bread and circuses, while donations are being taken up, door to door, because Canoa is facing charges from the government. Those who did not participate in the violence have to come out of pocket just like those who did. The economics are immediately an issue once again. At least for most of them. The Priest remains in his position, and maintains a following, however, insulated from any economic or legal blowback. This explosion of hatred has done nothing but kill innocence, exploit ignorance, and increase the vulnerability of an already powerless population. Which, for the Priest and his true peers and partners, qualifies as an objective completed.

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