In May 2020, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, warned that the ‘virus of hate’ was spreading as fast as the coronavirus. Fear of the disease was triggering acts of hatred towards East Asians and asylum seekers, and threatening discord among nations. Since then, many others have repeated Guterres’s warning, declaring hatred and extremism to be ‘infectious’. Many speak of a pandemic of racism spreading around the globe.
But is this actually the case? Are hate and its various manifestations really contagious? Because they carry the authority of his office, the Secretary General’s words seem to have been accepted uncritically. Many social psychologists, however, would argue that fear, hatred and similar states of mind are not in any meaningful sense contagious.
Social psychology has moved on since the 1930s but not, it seems, political discourse, however well intentioned. One cannot catch hate. Its causes are complex and the starting point for understanding it should be to look deeper into the human condition. One of the greatest weaknesses in our response to hatred is our tendency to see the capacity for hate in others without acknowledging it in ourselves. Like real pandemics, pandemics of hate always seem to come from somewhere or someone else.
In epidemic or pandemic situations, the focus of hatred is typically an outgroup (foreigners), marginalised internal populations or the lower social classes. Quite often this hatred is reciprocated and results in communal violence and even in war. But pandemics do not inevitably result in violence and other acts of hatred. Compassion and mutual aid are equally evident. The question therefore arises as to which conditions allow compassion or hatred to thrive. The answer to this question has important ethical and practical implications because in the context of an epidemic one needs to attend to social needs as well as to public health.
Although we may be entering the final phase of the Covid19 pandemic, the social crises resulting from it may get worse. There is a danger that societies will be consumed by recrimination. In order to understand and deal with this situation, we require insights from a wide range of disciplines and the main purpose of the proposed workshop is to begin this conversation. We remain open to suggestions as to how this event might be organised but one possibility is that someone representing a different discipline takes it in turn to introduce a theme for discussion. The introduction would normally take the form of a 5-10-minute statement or summary of a position for debate but could also be a reading (e.g. of a poem) or a presentation on a piece of art that provides some insight into the topic addressed.
We invite participants to contribute to the workshop, either by giving a short presentation or simply attending to take part in the discussion.