Where does hate come from? What makes a person want to take a weapon and go into a crowded place, full of people trying get an education or watch a movie or have a night out, and open fire? Why would someone want to destroy so many strangers’ lives?
In this country, we’ve asked that question again and again. We asked why Columbine happened, why Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, why the movie theater in Aurora. And now, most recently, why a club in Orlando, a mainstay of that city’s LGBTQ community, historically one of the few places where often-marginalized and often-persecuted people could feel safe.
We have asked why we can’t agree on sensible gun control legislation. We have asked why one person’s right to own a weapon seems to outweigh, so easily, even a six-year-old child’s right to live in safety. It isn’t my purpose now to talk about the U.S.’s politics, our electoral system, or the gun lobby, though a lot could be said about all of those things. Right now, in answer to our most recent national tragedy, I want to think about what we as people can do to counteract the consuming power of hate.
Orlando was a hate crime. We’ll hear it called domestic terrorism, we’ll hear politicians talk about radical Islam. At core, though, this violence, like so much violence, was the product of uncontrollable hatred.
In this country, we talk a lot about radical and extremist religion and the dangers it presents. In spite of this, we have to look again and again at the fact that at core, none of the world’s major religions advocate such acts. Take Christianity, the religion I grew up in. Christianity and the Christian church have been used as excuses and starting points for any number of atrocities over the centuries, from the Crusades on forward. Those things have been done in the name of a man who, if what we’re taught about him is true, submitted to one of the ugliest and cruelest kinds of death possible as punishment for teaching people about love.
So it’s too simple to say that one religion or another causes the problem, but if we ask where hatred comes from, the real answer is simpler still. It comes from fear. Destructive strength has to start with the desire to destroy. We want to annihilate what scares us, because then we won’t have to fear it anymore.
If we want anything to change, we have to let that sink in. We all know about fear. I certainly do. I know what it’s like to want to reject something because it contradicts what I already thought. I know what it’s like to dislike someone automatically and without any reason other than their obvious external difference from me: the way they dress, the way they act, the way they speak. I know what it’s like to hole up inside my own head, cling to what I’m used to and reject anything that threatens to challenge the status quo.
Why are we scared of new things? New things can mean change, and change can mean losing the sense of control that predictability brings. I’ve lashed out against change sometimes. I know it scares me. I’ve spent a long time trying to teach myself that just because something new happens, I haven’t lost my footing or my sense of who I am. Another person’s differences from me don’t invalidate who I am. If something happens to change my point of view, all it means is that I’ve learned, and I have something new to add to my view of the world.
Over the next days and weeks, we’ll hear more about what was going on in the Orlando shooter’s head, or in any case what we can guess and deduce. There will be anger and a lot of grief. I can’t imagine living through such an event or losing someone I love to such random and hideous violence. I can’t fathom what it must be like to try to keep living after hatred came into my world and ripped it to pieces. The fact remains that we do need sensible gun control laws in this country, laws of the type that the vast majority of Americans, including responsible gun owners, already support and want to see enacted. The average citizen has no need for a semiautomatic weapon that can kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds. The vast majority of us know this, and until something is done about it, we have no safeguard against more tragedies.
But we also have to look at hate. We have to look at what motivates us as people, as common citizens of this country and this world, to turn against each other. The Orlando shooting is the most recent and extreme demonstration of it, but in this country we’ve seen countless incidents throughout our history that show what happens when the fear of other, that other who has different-colored skin or different beliefs or who loves someone of the same gender as himself or who advocates for a woman’s right to control her own body, explodes into destruction.
So we have to start by addressing fear. There again, the answer sounds too simple to have any worth. We have to understand that another person’s differences from us don’t have to be a threat. They don’t have to invalidate us. They are only differences.
I know this is nothing new. We’ve all listened to this kind of language all our lives. But how would it be if, instead of listening and nodding and then going back to our usual business, as I’ve done too many times in my own life, how would it be if we thought about loosening the tight grip we want to have on the world around us? How would it be if we trusted ourselves enough to absorb and embrace different viewpoints and new experiences? If we trusted that we were strong enough to welcome change?
Embrace. That’s the word I want to take forward from this. That’s the word I would urge you to remember too, if we want to counteract fear and its terrible offshoots. Embrace the new and different. Embrace the rainbow of experience.
One of my favorite writers, Terry Pratchett, wrote an allegory of racial hatred in his fantasy novel Thud. As the fictional city Ankh-Morpork braces itself for race riots, one of Pratchett’s main characters tells another that if he wants to do anything to stop what’s about to happen, he should go out and find someone completely different from himself and shake that person’s hand. A tiny act like that is “water dripping on a stone,” Pratchett says, but it can “[change] the shape of the world one drop at a time.”
The words I’ve written here feel like drops of water too, tiny drops that I’ll send out into a huge ocean, where no doubt they’ll get lost. Maybe I’ve only written them because after what happened in Orlando, sitting silent isn’t an option anymore.
But if you are reading this, try something. Find that person different from you and listen to them today. Offer a smile. Let your guard down for a minute and welcome a new perspective into your world. Trust yourself to experience change and come through it and still be the person you are. In answer to hatred, let’s offer strength. Let’s offer an embrace.