When hatred rears its ugly head, anyone can be demonized.

Of course, we’re all guilty of demonizing others in one way or another. Some blame the over-copulating poor, as I’ve heard an otherwise well-intentioned person do at a recent cocktail party—ironically, they came from a historically persecuted culture themselves. Others point the finger at the elite. Islam, socialism, and capitalism are other common objects of demonization.

Is hatred instinctual? 

Studies show that it may be, but that it can be transcended by the more recently evolved centers of the brain. The illusion of separation is rooted in the more primitive parts of the brain, or the reptilian brain.  I’m not talking about the reptilian overlords, I’m talking about the limbic brain. It decides when we should fight or flee.  The more recently evolved brain components, namely the neocortex, have the ability to bypass the primal instincts of fear that lead to hatred.

One basic, but very effective, illustration is provided by experiments in which black people were shown images of white people, and vice versa. 

Without exception participants initially reacted in fear and tension as reflected in polygraph measurements. But if both white and black people were shown images of a situation that went against expectations, the frontal cortex bypassed the fearful response of the reptilian (limbic) brain with feelings of trust. One such image was that of a black doctor treating a white patient.

In turn, we need to re-envision our relationship to the other if we are to create a better world. But that takes effort, openness and the willingness to think differently. 

The problem of demonization has roots in our biological history.

Back in the day, humans organized in tribal units that functioned much as a pack of wolves might, viewing the tribe as self and any outsiders as other. This is reflected in the fact that almost any culture’s translation of their tribal name means “The People”. Other tribes were often viewed as non-human. Our tendency to fear cultures different than ours is rooted in ancient times when different species and cultures did indeed represent a threat that warranted a fight-or-flight response.

We can do better.

Using the more highly evolved centers of the brain can bypass these primitive instincts, or at least manage them. Logic and even compassion are qualities associated with the neocortex, and indeed, brain scans of meditators reveal active frontal lobes with mediating connections to the primitive limbic brain. However, when the limbic brain is activated by a flight or flight response, most often experienced by modern folks as stress, anger, or nervous paralysis, it is cut off from the neocortex. 

When you fear, hate, and demonize others you become isolated from logic and compassion. Likewise, when you meditate, use logic, and make an effort to think differently you activate the “new brain” and mediate your instincts and, most likely, make things a little more enjoyable.