How do you deal with hatred from people

Show Me The Key To Coping With Hate - A Psychological Perspective

Politicians, LGBTQ people, NGO workers and activists as well as media representatives are often affected by hate speech. Dipl.-Psych. Sophie Leisenberg advises and treats them. Because she is known for her outstanding expertise in the problem area, her schedule is very full. Fortunately, she found time for a fairly detailed interview. Barbara Djassi asked her questions. (Reading time: approx. 7 min.)

What is your advice to those affected when dealing with hostility, insults and threats to which they are exposed? How can you notice early on that you are overwhelmed? What are signs of trauma?
Frequent anger and excessive brooding over hateful comments as well as an increased feeling of fear and stress when using digital media are the first warning signs. If there are insomnia, depressed mood or somatic complaints (asthma, tension, stomach problems etc.), or even the first signs of illness such as panic attacks, listlessness or permanent depression, then it is definitely important to take active countermeasures in a timely manner. Traumatic experiences express themselves through flashbacks / scenic reliving of certain moments, a high level of nervousness, states of emotional numbness (dissociation) and possibly also nightmares or poor sleep. At this point at the latest, professional psychotherapeutic treatment is necessary.

Do you have the feeling that there are really effective approaches to counter the phenomenon of hate speech or to promote good togetherness? What are those from your point of view?

The really effective approaches are of a long-term and societal nature, e.g. emotional and political empowerment of the population, an urgently needed update of education policy and a transfer of norms that have already been negotiated into the digital space.

In the medium term, improved democratic negotiation and participation processes would be very helpful, as they represent a healthy alternative to the helpless aggression that forms the breeding ground for targeted provocation of hatred. At the same time, a better understanding of the strategic approach of the extreme right in the manipulation of emotions - as well as a consistent political reaction to it - is indispensable in my opinion.
In the short term, broad moral courage in the digital space, exemplary polite behavior in online discussions and effective support for those affected are very important. Unfortunately, in my experience, the latter only happens in parts and often inadequately. Here it is important to make massive readjustments (both in training courses for the police and politics, as well as in the expansion of advisory and support structures)

An attempt to counteract this is the concept of counter-speech. We are grateful to everyone who participates. But countering hate speech takes a lot of energy and is frustrating for some. From your point of view, is it even a sensible path? How can committed people work sustainably and keep an eye on their own feelings?
It makes sense to plan certain time windows for counter-speech (e.g. max. 1 hour after work or similar) - as important as this strategy is for society as a whole, it also tends to dissolve boundaries. Discussions with persistent haters cost too much energy, so I recommend rather individual, factual statements that emphasize a meaningful position, without following the further course of the discussion. If possible, you should also deactivate the notifications for the replies to your own post if you want to save energy.

You don't have to have the last word in such situations; the presence of a factual opinion alone is helpful. Anyone who is currently in a low energy situation can also simply like good comments from other participants. Groups like #ichbinhier also offer opportunities to support each other in the comment columns. It is important not to be discouraged by the flood of hateful comments - the more pronounced a person's hatred, the more intensely they comment, which leads to a size distortion in perception.

In addition, the extreme right uses hate comments strategically in order to simulate majorities in a short time with many fake accounts per person under certain threads, which, however, do not exist in this form.

Basically, it often helps to take the pressure off of having to change everything with a comment. Now and then “zooming out” on the individual discussion and wondering whether this discussion is still important for you in a year's time can also help to maintain your perspective. A digital end of work and digital time-outs of several days are also very useful - stable anchoring in reality with positive interactions and activities is a good basis for being able to withstand hate speech better.

Hate attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. What do we do with the causes and where do you see them?
Our democratic system, indispensable as it is, has weaknesses. The current economic system has too great an influence on political decisions and also leads to strong differences between rich and poor. The obvious discrepancy between effort on the one hand and appreciation in the form of reward and social recognition on the other leads to real grievances and insecurities that lead to dissatisfaction among “those up there”. It is easy for the new right to direct this potential for frustration to certain scapegoats or supposed elites and thus gain influence in terms of power politics. In addition, the democratic empowerment processes can be expanded, to say the least. Socially relevant decisions - even at the municipal level - are not made in consultation or negotiation with the population, even if this would be possible in some cases. There is a lack of transparency and a say between elections. All of this reinforces the feeling for many people that decisions are being made over their heads. In principle, many would like to have a say in decision-making - but they must also have low-threshold access to information and structures and be able to use them responsibly.

We continue to live in a time in which social progression - also due to digitization - is progressing relatively quickly and traditional privileges and identities are being questioned. Not everyone is able to deal with this subjective limitation and the rapid change in an emotionally mature way.

Where developmental psychological processing patterns (e.g. long-term thinking, value tolerance, complexity tolerance, individual instead of group identity, etc.) have not yet reached a more mature level, the susceptibility to dysfunctional coping with stress is higher. Under stress (e.g. increased influx of refugees), these groups slip more easily into regressive behavior, i.e. they react with more fear / catastrophization, powerless / defiant anger, a strong self-reference, black-and-white thinking and possibly also with violence. The identification then takes place rather via group affiliations, which appear subjectively to be in danger and justify a "resistance". The “outside” appears hostile and must be kept away, the past and the retreat into a protected space, in which it is only about one's own needs, is idealized. In this way, national (or gender) boundaries often fulfill the function of a psychological boundary against excessive demands, complexity and fear-inducing changes for these groups in addition to tasks that create identity.

This tendency is reinforced by an intensification of fear through right-wing populist activities. Fear is fundamentally regressive and increases the need for strong authorities. Of course, the new rights know this and make use of it.

As activists, we often feel as though we are only reacting. Do you have any ideas how we can get out of the reactive position into action?
I see the most promising approach in developing projects for a healthy overall societal handling of change and stress factors.

From a psychological point of view, hatred is a dysfunctional coping strategy for fears, doubts about self-worth and belonging, insults and complex adjustment requirements in times of globalization. Unlike some politicians, it is important not to address the content of the fears, but rather to look for ways to better cope with fear.

In other words, to find formats in which people have low-threshold access to political information and actors, can ask questions, check fears and get the feeling that they are being taken seriously. To be able to express and negotiate your needs, to be valued. Basically, it is about political disenfranchisement and consideration of the basic psychological needs of the population: understandability / avoidance of helplessness, recognition, belonging and (resource) security. In the new federal states in particular, there was a massive frustration of these needs once through the GDR dictatorship and then through the fall of the Wall, which are emotionally reactivated (or consciously reactivated by certain political groups) during today's challenging times. Studies also show that political action is more group-based according to religious patterns rather than rational considerations. The government neglects the emotional perspective of the population too much, which right-wing populist actors take advantage of.

Apart from this approach, it is important to demand from the political side a more proactive approach to the new right-wing extremist scene, which operates mainly digitally and globally. Better and internationally networked investigative structures must be created here that keep an eye on funding flows, right-wing networks and terrorist activities and not only act when something has happened. This includes a more consistent handling of right-wing extremist associations, cultural events and strategically embedded threats from political or media representatives.

What buttons are political actors pushing who use hatred and agitation to polarize and yet are successful with voters?
The internal strategy papers of right-wing movements make it clear that the provocation of strong feelings such as fear, defiance, anger or pride (with regard to one's own in-group) is calculated and is part of careful planning in the context of campaigns. Feelings are often addressed that are more likely to be assigned to the childish or pubescent spectrum of emotions and are difficult to regulate or block logical thought processes due to their violence.

Manipulating people with such emotions is very easy because higher thought processes are bypassed and the feeling is addressed directly, often together with preconscious associations from the biography of the target group. How well this works can be seen, for example, from the frequent references to the GDR, which contain right-wing populist slogans - these so-called "affect bridges" trigger strong memories that lead to a distortion of perception in the present. Suddenly the democratically negotiated sanction of racism or sexism is linked to the word “(opinion) dictatorship”, or the election of a certain party is linked to the liberation feelings of the turn. These suggestions are repeated so often that the fears and memories of the target group finally overlay reality and they actually feel (again) a disenfranchisement against which they have to defend themselves. A reality check no longer takes place due to the strong formation of filter bubbles, which is why people then become more and more susceptible to political influence.
In addition, there is an immunization against differentiating or critical information by labeling other messages as “lying press”. What remains is an explosive mixture of childish-aggressive impulses, the uncontrolled acting of which is strategically encouraged by right-wing actors and directed towards political opponents. The problem is that in today's social reality incapacitation and disadvantage not only exist in memories or fears, but also occur in real life. The interests of less privileged people are underrepresented in political decisions and quite a few rightly get the feeling that the right to have a say in political decisions between elections is poor. It is correspondingly easy to establish corresponding affect bridges from the right.

So if a society wants better resilience to anti-democratic movements, then it should make people feel respected and heard. The ability to differentiate necessary for this with the associated information must, however, be trained in society and supported by political transparency.

From a psychological point of view, are we even able to be good democrats? Or is democracy abolishing itself in the end?
The key to a functioning democracy is the emotional maturity of its members. In concrete terms, this means that conflicts are not resolved in a dysfunctional manner, but rather through reflected, objective negotiation. This is a fine art that needs to be practiced - in schools, in projects, associations, communal meeting places and in participatory processes on a communal and national level. Democracy empowerment has to be taught across a wide range - and given people enough time, resources and knowledge to form a responsible opinion. Taking these seriously and including them in political decisions (especially at the municipal level) is then the second step. The more you invest in step one, the safer step two is.

In addition to enabling democracy, the school system should also convey more meta-knowledge (= skills for acquiring knowledge) instead of pure factual knowledge. In times of information overload, people have to learn how to find valid information and how to recognize false news and manipulation.

Basically, we need a second, digital age of enlightenment with the ability of people to distinguish truth from untruth on a well-founded basis. In fact, as the former Google developer Tristan Harris recently correctly noted, we are currently back on the way to a “digital middle age” dominated by superstition and ideologies.

Those who achieve emotional maturity - and everyone can do this in a conducive environment -, on the other hand, does not need an authoritarian state that promises protection in an incapacitating way. Nor does he lose himself in fears or project them into certain population groups. And last but not least, such a person will also be less susceptible to manipulation, deal with changes more constructively and thus less often feel so powerless that violence is used as a last resort. All of this would weaken right-wing structures that use regressive impulses from the population to build up critical masses and groups of voters.

However, if the state fails (as was the case in the Weimar Republic) to deal adequately with social insults and to train the population in a more independent, mature way of thinking, then the danger of an “elected dictatorship” is very high. In this respect, the government is well advised to invest resources in making the society it governs capable of democracy, even if it then has to share its power more. In the long term, however, such a step is essential to maintain democracy itself.

Democratic coexistence and resistance to political manipulation - online and offline - must be learned. If you compare how digital natives and their parents and grandparents deal with online hatred, are there any glaring differences? What can we learn from young people? What can parents do to strengthen and protect them well, even though they do not even know the dangers themselves?
Today's generation of children and young people are very media-savvy, but have below-average media skills. Above all, this means responsible and informed use of media, with full awareness of the dangers lurking there and the opportunities that exist at the same time. Therefore, an authoritarian limitation of media use is also not a sensible option, because it does not lead to a higher level of competence among young people. It would be better to engage in an interested exchange between the generations and let the younger generation explain the things that inspire them. It often helps to understand the attraction of certain formats, and the children get the feeling that their interests are being taken seriously. And maybe it is also exciting for older people to play a computer game with their grandchildren or to post something on social media?

At the same time, questions and open discussions can be used to discuss certain problems, e.g.the excessive focus on external feedback to stabilize self-esteem, which makes people highly susceptible to hate speech. If parents are not very familiar with themselves, they can still research the problems with the young people - but I also urgently recommend further training / literature on the subject. This is worthwhile in the digital age and makes it possible to close educational gaps that the rather outdated curriculum in schools in the digital age leaves open. There are also very creative learning formats, e.g. the creation of your own “fake news” to send to friends and relatives: here it is made clear in a playful way how easy it is to falsify information and how quickly the reference group falls for it. This is much more effective than giving lectures with a raised index finger. You can also practice with your own children how to check sources from the Internet and recognize manipulation. Of course, this does not preclude the establishment of rules; ideally, you create an age-appropriate mix of exchange, reflection and limitation. Children should also be explicitly informed about cyber-grooming and other dangers on the Internet.

What do you want from politics?
In addition to all of the above-mentioned qualifications for democracy, a population must also be able to live in the context of an appreciative, participation-open and as fair as possible social structure. Realizing this is also the responsibility of the state.

In order to achieve a better resilience of the population, the focus should also move away from ineffective “one-time projects” towards the permanent consolidation of well-evaluated concepts and structures - so that especially the elementary small projects in communal and rural areas do not go from one time limit to the next have to take. The funding landscape should move more towards best practice, culture / participation and sustainability. As I said, it is essential to combat right-wing extremist structures in the judiciary and the executive as well as more political knowledge of the new alt-right formats and their strategies. This also includes protecting those affected more and creating legal contact points that are really familiar with the subject. Organized hate speech, which is massively directed at those affected and whose aim is to systematically destroy it on all levels (financial, psychological, social), is often still mistakenly misinterpreted as an insult. This massively underestimates the strategic component and also overlooks the overall political context with the gradual dehumanization of political opponents. I think that is extremely dangerous.

Would you like to get rid of something else?
The key to managing hatred is emotional maturity. I urgently advocate greater support for all institutions that have this developmental effect on people (youth and sports clubs, more modern educational approaches in family aid and schools, small communal get-togethers, cultural events, projects promoting democracy, direct democratic and participation approaches, etc.). They are the heart of social maturation processes. I would also like to quote Prof. Heitmeyer, who long ago proposed a “culture of appreciation and recognition” in order to remove the psychological breeding ground for violence. I would fully agree with that.

Barbara Djassi

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