The Hate Contagion

“I’d like to punch him in the face.”

Who ever knew that 8 words could cause so much violence and hate? The words of Donald Trump reverberated throughout a vast social fabric, issuing subconscious marching orders to fight. To clinch your fists, grit your teeth and put an immediate stop to the evil liberal establishment. His followers avidly took up arms, raised the volume, and flexed their muscles unashamedly at the media.

With all of this insanity in public display, you would have to assume that people would snap out of this absurd delusion. Instead we are seeing the exact opposite.

Remember when most scientists assumed that the Universe would reach a point when it stopped expanding and reverse its direction? Well, much to their chagrin, they witnessed the universe do the opposite. It started expanding at a faster rate.

The media has had the same response to Trump. Everyone assumed that his over inflated ego would reach a point when it would start to collapse on its self. Well, like the Universe, Trump’s ego has started expanding at unprecedented rates.

This phenomenon demands that we reconsider metaphors, and ask this critical question: Can hate spread like an infectious disease?

Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist, believes that it can.[1] Trump rallies are often disregarded as a frenzy of racist stereotypes. People argue that this brand of hatred has been dormant for years, and that Trump has provided the green light for these people to come out of the shadows.

This is simply not the case.

We are witnessing something much more profound than that. Anger and hatred are spreading like a contagious disease and no party affiliation will make you immune.

Now I understand that there are legitimate reasons to be angry. Wealth inequality is the highest that it has been in over a century, the criminal justice system is corrupted with major racial bias, and people continue to disregard the major threats to our climate. These are important issues that need to be addressed, but they do not present a new narrative. In fact, prominent GOP and Democratic leaders such as Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, and Barack Obama have devoted the past 20 years to addressing these very issues. There has consistently been good guys fighting in our corner. The question is, are things getting progressively worse, or have we been moving in the right direction all along?

There is no new information that suggests that there should be mass outrage and near social panic. In fact, over the past decade, unemployment has been cut in half[2], the rate of violent crime is half of what it was in 1993[4], and GDP continues to grow. The established government has not stripped us of all of our liberties, nor are we facing major starvation and social unrest. Technological advances have made luxuries in the entertainment and transportation world more available than they have ever been. Our increasing social awareness has prompted countless altruistic movements and nonprofit organizations.

So if trends indicate that things are getting objectively better, why are we so angry?

The answer is because our friends are.

Before I can explain this recent cultural phenomena, you need to understand the evolutionary origins of emotions. Humans did not evolve in isolated settings. Our survival hinged upon our ability to function as a corporate whole. If a human encountered a dangerous predator in the wild, her involuntary shriek would elicit immediate fear and alertness in those around her. Emotions are intrinsically connected to our outward expressions. Without these expressions, they would serve no purpose. When you have an involuntary reaction to something, you are experiencing the evolutionary adaptation to quickly communicate the nature of your surroundings to those around you. [5]

Just the other night, I witnessed my emotion quickly spread to all of my roommates. I was walking up the stairs in the dark when our cat decided to reach his paw through the spokes of the staircase and smack me in the face. I immediately let out a sharp girly cry. Within a fraction of a second, my roommate responded in a tense voice, “What is it?” Once I was able to explain that Fez, our cat, assaulted me in the dark, the entire house erupted with laughter. Within a matter of 5 seconds, we collectively felt fear and laughter. These were responses that required no conscious deliberation.

Emotions can be transmitted within a matter of seconds as well as weeks. Experiments have shown that when college freshmen are paired with depressed roommates, they report higher degrees of depressive behavior within a 3 month period. This evolutionary trait teaches us to mimic the expressions and behavior of those around us. Over time our external behavior will reinforce our internal state. The psychological term for this is called affective afference. If you live with an upbeat joyful person, your unconscious tendency to mimic his expressions will eventually generate a sense of joy within yourself. [6]

If emotions are a shared experience between friends, how do they spread across town, city, and state lines?

The answer lies in the structure and behavior of our social networks.

The web like structure of social networks allow your emotions to not only effect your immediate friends, but also the friends of friends. Nicholas Christakis describes this as the 3 degrees of influence.[7]

This web like structure could also be described as a body of water. Every action you make represents a ripple that expands in all directions. Your decision to eat healthier might be noticed by 5 of your close friends. Each of those friends are then motivated to adopt one or two of these new habits. Each time the habit is replicated, it is adopted to a lesser extent; mimicking a ripple in a pond.

A body of water is not at a constant state of turbulence. It was always seeking an equilibrium. Social networks behave in a similar way. We are not trained to simply mimic individuals, we seek to understand and emulate the behavior of the whole. This adaptation has given us language and culture. Without it, there would be no cities or social infrastructure. This trait first started proving to be successful when people started hunting in packs. Hunting parties are more successful when all members share the same intensity and energy. [8] This trains our eye to instinctually pay attention to the behavior of the collective. In the age of mass media our eyes are perpetually fixed to the beacon of Facebook, Twitter, and the news. It is the most efficient way to understand the behavior of everyone else.

The structure of social networks allow emotional and cultural trends to impact vast amounts of people. The Behavior of social networks dictate which trends become the predominant rule for the rest of the network. In the modern age, media outlets have unprecedented influence on this behavior. They are the epicenters of influence. These key factors are what make emotional states transmittable across state lines.

So where did the recent trend of bigotry and hatred come from?

To better understand this, you will need to rewind our nation’s history by 6-8 years. At the time of the housing crash, Americans from every sphere of society were outraged. It was during this time that we begin to see movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Both movements were made up of very different demographics and agendas, but both were responding to the same stimuli. The effects of these movements rippled far beyond the boundaries of their actual members. They created two narratives that the majority of Americans would soon come to accept.

The Tea Party’s narrative stated that all of our problems stem from too big a government. They believed that corrupt officials were manipulating the system for their own gain. Some even believed that there was a Liberal/Muslim agenda to corrupt government from the inside out. As this narrative became more accepted, people began to lump all the corruption and evils of big government into one elusive identity; The Establishment. Soon, everyone within the Tea Party’s demographic were expressing their outrage for The Establishment. Fox News and other public figures like Glen Beck took advantage of this sentiment when reporting the news. In order to maintain ratings, they would report news in a way that reinforced this narrative. They would preface stories with inflammatory headlines such as Rise of Radical Islam, Murder Movement (referring to Black Lives Matter), and Screw Global Warming (radio rant from Glenn Beck). This caused their viewers to be angry before they even heard the story; resulting in a dangerous snowball effect of delusion.

Occupy Wall Street’s narrative was slightly different. This younger and more progressive demographic believed that this corruption existed within the top tiers of our economic structure. They were arguing that the infamous 1% were the architects of the recent economic collapse. Their outrage and demand for justice quickly spread throughout their social networks. As time progressed, the antagonist of their narrative evolved to include the unholy alliance between the top 1% and legislators. This nuance changed the name of their antagonist from the 1% to The Establishment. Before Trump was ever in the picture, The Establishment was public enemy number one.

Now, I am not arguing that these narratives did not included elements of truth. The nature of social networks produced emotional outrage that was less about reality, and more about our evolutionary instinct to mimic the emotions of those around us. The reporting decisions of news outlets reinforced this behavior as the direction that the populous would follow. Before Trump entered the scene, the American public was prepped with an exaggerated mistrust and anger for The Establishment.

When Trump rode down the escalator to announce his run for presidency, he gazed down from his podium at the gasoline drenched kindling that the vultures of 24 hour cable news left for him. With a vile smirk, he lit the match and watched their effigy erupt in flames. He fundamentally altered the narrative, and it took no effort at all. Trump’s opening statement about immigrants gave the elusive Establishment its false prophet. There was now a darker face from below the border that people could direct their anger at. The Establishment was not only manipulating the system for its own gain, but it was also stealing your potential wealth and opportunity to give to foreigners. The anger and frustration of the Tea Party quickly transformed into hate and bigotry, and it spread like chickenpox at a preschool. People within the Tea Party demographic began to mimic Donald Trump’s vitriol and anger. This new leader of the hunting party was raving with vengeance, and their evolutionary instinct told them to emulate the same behavior.

With violent clashes between Trump supporters and protesters on the rise, we are witnessing the Hate Contagion reach pandemic levels. The phenomenon that primarily existed within the GOP demographic is now expanding beyond its borders. The Tea Party movement evolved into the Trump phenomenon and the Occupy Wall Street protest morphed into the Bernie Sanders revolution. Now not all people subscribe to either identity; however each movement represents the driving social force (dictating the behavior of the networks). When the American public witnessed Trump supporters verbally and physically assault protestors, it triggered a vicious cycle of vengeance. When one group publically attacks another member of their group, it triggers a cascade of violent acts. This is most commonly seen with competing gangs. Like the famous feud between the Hatfields and MacCoys, people within the Bernie movement will react to attacks from Trump supporters as if they were attacked themselves; perpetuating the cycle of violence.

As this vengeful behavior spreads from network to network, the strong impulse to hate will not be exclusive to backwoods racist stereotypes. Anyone with a pulse is exposed to the behavior. We are not witnessing a conservative or liberal phenomenon, nor is this just a Trump phenomenon. We have a front row seat to the world’s most popular drama: Humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Christakis, Nicholas. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Brown Little, 2009.

 

[2] “Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject.” Bureau of Labor Statistics Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

[4] “Crime Statistics.” FBI – Crime Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web.

[5] Christakis, Nicholas. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Brown Little, 2009. (pg. 37)

[6] Ibid., (pg. 39)

[7] Ibid., (pg. 36)

[8] Ibid., (pg. 36)

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