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Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Getting to the root of hate in a challenging world

By Kenneth S. Stern
Special to The Times

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March is usually Gonzaga University's month to shine, as its overachieving basketball team competes in the NCAA tournament. This month, Gonzaga deserves even more attention: It is the first university in the world to launch an academic field of hate studies.

Why "hate studies"? Because hate is normative, yet we know too little about it. Throughout history and regardless of the different variables — epoch, religion, economic system, political structure — people have always found a way to classify an "other," sometimes with deadly results.

But while various academic disciplines have important things to say about hate, they are all prisoners of their own methodology, and each looks at the phenomenon in frustrating isolation.

Hate, however, doesn't work in such piecemeal fashion. It impacts all aspects of our lives, and is not just a matter of a hate group here, a discriminatory practice there. It informs hundreds of wide-ranging concerns, among them how we prepare our children to live in an increasingly diverse nation, how we train our police, and how America will be viewed by friends and foes around the globe. An interdisciplinary approach is needed.

What makes individuals hate, and what makes some act on that hate while others would not? What influences do groups have on individuals and their capacity to hate? How do groups — religious, ethnic, national, international — make choices and act when they navigate the challenges of life? What are the roles of ideologies and theologies, memories of the past and hopes for the future? Why is hate of the other so often denied by those who practice it, but justified in the next breath as love of self? What are the roles of stress, envy, race, land, power, biology, sex, symbols, sovereignty and layers of identity? What role do conspiracy theories play, and the human capacity to ignore or dismiss or distort evidence that doesn't comport with firmly held beliefs?

How do our institutions deal with hate? On many campuses and in many corporations, people probably know better how to report a leaky faucet or a bad meal than a hate incident. While local governments have to think about the environmental impact of new construction, shouldn't they also have to consider the ways publicly funded programs may unintentionally exacerbate intergroup tensions or, even better, consider ways to use a park, an arena and other community initiatives to break down tensions?

We expect our high schools to produce graduates proficient in basic societal skills such as math and reading and, nowadays, computing. Shouldn't skills to live in an increasingly complex and diverse world also be considered a fundamental subject? Yet our educational system largely relies on outside agencies to provide anti-bias programs for a week here and a semester there. And do these initiatives work? There has been no long-term study to show they do, and some evidence to suggest they may not.

In the political world, hate only seems to come up when a leader says something embarrassing, or one party or the other is accused of playing the "race card." Candidates are asked tough questions about what they would do about the economy, health care, foreign policy. We should ask what they would do to help America more intelligently approach hate, not just when it comes to hate-crime legislation, but in all relevant aspects of society.

From Thursday to Saturday, experts in social psychology, sociology, media, law, history, education, religious studies, political science and other disciplines will come together at Gonzaga in Spokane to dissect how their respective fields approach hatred, and to identify how these approaches can be blended together in a new interdisciplinary methodology that will be greater than the sum of its parts.

This launching of the field of hate studies will be the first step toward pulling the various disciplines together so that they can cross-pollinate each other, and give special focus to how they intersect with the outside world. Then we can create a generation of scholars who will look with a wide gaze, keeping in mind all the interrelated aspects: how hate impacts the individual alone, the individual inside the group, the group, the community, the nation, the world.

Testable models will come forth to guide institutions, including government, education, law enforcement and nongovernmental groups as they work to combat hate in an ever-more-challenging world.

Hatred is the most destructive aspect of human history. If we approach it more intelligently and comprehensively in the years to come, it will in no small measure be because of what happens off the court at Gonzaga this March.

Kenneth S. Stern, based in New York City, is the American Jewish Committee's expert on anti-Semitism and extremism. He will be the keynote speaker this week at the Gonzaga University International Conference to Establish the Field of Hate Studies.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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