Throughout history, there has never been a social group without collective hatred for another social group, with the result of persecution, abuse, and slaughter. No society escapes it, from Ancient Civilizations to modern ones, and each society divides into an “us vs. them” mentality in a new way. Hatred is intrinsic in our humanness, but it is also the very worst human nature has to display.
Widespread hatred has always troubled my soul, because hatred is one step away from depersonalization, which is an easy hop to genocide. If hatred is all we see, the object of our hatred no longer has conscious awareness; their suffering does not touch us, and we feel nothing but gratification in their death. This is the mindset that led to the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Romans eradicating Jerusalem, to slave ownership, to unfair treatment and murder of the Native American tribes, and is what we face with radical Islam. It is the mindset of people in ancient civilizations watching humans ravaged by lions in the arena or dismembered by gladiators; the attitude of people through the Victorian era who attended public executions; and the attitude of modern people watching shaky cams of Saddam Hussein led to his execution.
When that happened, I watched the video because I wanted to know, to get a sense, of the awfulness of seeing someone going to his death. I never forgot it. It hit me on a visceral level, even though I did not see him hang; the awareness of a human being going to his death was awful. Worse, I saw people all over the world, Christians included, celebrate this man’s death. I expected hatred from the masses, but not fellow believers, to whom Jesus urges “love your enemies… pray for those who persecute you…” and gives us a limitless bar to set in terms of “how many times must I forgive?” (Jesus’ response was not to set a number, but to hint that you are asking me the wrong question; the question you should ask is, how can I develop the desire to have a spirit of forgiveness?)
I wondered how this reaction could come from many in “the Church.” Had it failed them? Or had culture and their own natural instincts influenced them?
Last weekend, I saw a similar event unfold that horrified me, in a celebration over the death of a fictional character on a popular HBO series. Now, you might wonder why I manifest concern over a public reaction to a fictional death, but fiction is never just fiction. People argue because it’s pretend, it doesn’t matter. If it isn’t real to us, do we put so much energy, passion, and emotion into it? Why do we argue at the water cooler over Kylo Ren’s redemptive arc? Why do we cry when Han Solo dies, and Leia feels his death through the Force? Because it’s real. To our minds, to our hearts, it’s real. These characters are real people to us.
Why was there such a backlash recently on The Walking Dead, where the graphic dismemberment of a character on-screen aroused visceral disgust in the viewers? It was not purely a reaction to the gore, but because that character felt like a real person… and the audience had a front row seat to his gruesome demise. Fiction is never just fiction, it teaches us, it trains us to think in certain ways, and it biases our opinions through what it chooses to show us, and whose perspective narrates the story. Imagine our opinion of Harry Potter if Snape had narrated the books! That damn, troublemaking, rule-breaking little brat is just like his father.
Which brings me back to hatred and Game of Thrones. A friend asked me how, after I expressed similar dismay over the Stannis Baratheon arc, I could still watch it, and I replied, “Because I want to know where it goes.” Moreover, as the most popular series in the world, I’m curious about the messages it teaches the audience. It has never been mindless absorption for me; I’m aware of the journey it takes its characters on, and it’s not good. Arya Stark has become a murderess. She went from a pampered child to a ruthless murderer without a shred of remorse. In last week’s season finale, she slit a man’s throat as he begged for mercy and watched him bleed out on the floor… and apart from me (and a handful of his “fans”), the entire world cheered. They cheered because they hated him, they “wanted to see him die” (in the most awful way possible), and they praised his execution by the Stark children as “family loyalty.” I saw tweets like, “Watching him choke on his own blood is my life,” “I have waited six seasons for this bastard to die, and it was glorious,” and “I am so proud of Sansa right now for killing that f—!!”
This character is certainly not a noble, moral soul, but in the hours before the episode aired, I felt the same sense of deep spiritual sorrow I did waiting for Saddam Hussein’s execution; and as I watched him grovel and beg for his life with tears in his eyes, all I saw was a human being, with fears, feelings, unrequited love, and a desperate need for acceptance – in short, someone exactly like me, with a heart, a mind, a body, and a soul. And the Starks took it from him, became no better than anyone else in the “game,” and the world cheered… as if his death was a victory, not a horrific event, both for his sake and because of what it makes the Stark children: murderers.
I understand hatred; I felt a blind-rage toward the Starks’ lack of compassion, an immediate reaction of “I hope you all die,” an instinctive response that was… not like tender-hearted me, it came from something that is not me, but is so woven into my human nature it shook me to the core. I have read theories of group “evil” that activates when people focus negative energy in the same direction; and I wonder, even though my rage was separate from the world’s collective gratification at a man’s suffering and death, if I got caught up in it, the same as everyone else—but the same hatred they focused toward him, I focused toward his merciless executioners.
When Jesus asked us to love unconditionally, it was the most difficult thing He could have asked us, because deep in our souls, we want the people we hate, who wrong us and those we love, to suffer, to pay for their crimes; deep down, we don’t want Hitler in heaven with us. We take secret comfort there is a hell… but Jesus understood what we do not, that our enemies are humans just like us. Could you forgive your murderers as you hung on the cross? I couldn’t, but Jesus did. What this tells me is, God forgives. Everyone. And asks the impossible: for us to want to do the same.
Sometimes, I think we focus too much on superficiality, and not enough on the true danger. I have read countless reviews cautioning people to avoid this show due to its graphic content; I argue that Game of Thrones is insidious not because of the violence, sexual content, nudity, or profanity (although those things matter) but because it conditions the audience to actively root for revenge without mercy, fosters intense hatred toward certain individuals and “rewards” us with graphic, de-humanizing deaths where we “cheer on” those responsible, as if the other characters becoming hardened murderers is good, rather than horrible. And it works.
Stories have power, and when you choose to watch them, it’s important to understand what they are doing to you.