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Is the time right for a field of hate studies?

A single interdisciplinary field would bring new insights and understanding to this very human reality, say proponents, but others aren’t sure it’s necessary.

by Maggie Ma

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Illustrations by Cristiana Couceiro.

Hate has probably caused more human misery than anything else and it seems to cut across all timelines, all political systems, all economic systems and different religions,” says Kenneth Stern, a U.S. attorney, author and expert on hate groups who strongly advocates for the creation of a new academic discipline to analyze the evolution of hate and ways to counter its spread.

“We’re living in such a complex world that is also much more interconnected in some ways [and] it’s increasingly important to have … a home in an academic setting that will give us guidance and testable theories about what works, what doesn’t and why,” says Mr. Stern, who also serves as a specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee.

Yet, hate studies as a unique program or field of study has so far failed to catch on. Universities offer up dozens of interdisciplinary programs – child studies, environmental studies, gender studies, to name just a few – so why not hate studies?

Why not indeed, says John Shuford, director of the Gonzaga University Institute for Hate Studies in Spokane, Washington. Although hate is explored in many academic disciplines – psychology, sociology, law, history, political science, conflict studies, philosophy and so on – a single interdisciplinary field focused on the study of hate is yet to exist outside of Gonzaga, a Catholic institution with a Jesuit tradition.

The institute has been working to spread the word since its first international conference to establish a field of hate studies in 2004, which was followed by the creation of two courses and the proposal of a concentration in hate studies. The institute also publishes the annual Journal of Hate Studies, which began in 2001.

The institute held its second international conference on hate studies this past April. One of the key goals of the conference was to bring scholars together from different fields, institutions and countries to look at ways of working together to develop hate studies along the model of other cross-disciplinary endeavours, says Dr. Shuford. “People were very excited, very hungry for this kind of community, and the energy coming out of [the conference] was just wonderful,” he says.

Barbara Perry, associate dean in the faculty of social sciences and humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, presented a paper at the conference, sharing her recent research on the community impacts of hate crimes. The chance to listen to and converse with academics from various disciplines was exciting, she says, “and I think it provides deeper and more nuanced answers to some of the questions that we pose around hate crime.”

Phyllis Gerstenfeld, chair of the criminal justice department at California State University Stanislaus, teaches a course on hate crime and says it “really opens my students’ eyes.” However, she isn’t sure that a separate field devoted to hate is necessary. She suggests that it may not be immediately evident to students that such a field is of great practical use: “You have to have a critical mass of people who really want to do something before anything happens.”

Christopher Burris, a psychology professor at St. Jerome’s University, federated with the University of Waterloo, also points out the core dilemma of defining what hate is. In most of the journal articles on hate, the common denominator always seems to be the lack of consensus on the definition, he says.

“Unless the core definitional issue is resolved, I am concerned that what constitutes ‘hate studies’ will be decided based on an unarticulated, intuitive, ‘know it when I see it’ approach, which will probably lead to disagreements further down the road.”

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Dr. Perry of UOIT says even the search for an umbrella term to describe the field continues to be a challenge because of the emotional link to the word itself. However, Gonzaga’s Dr. Shuford says that definitions evolve over time and that in any academic endeavour there’s bound to be debate and disagreement. In fact, creating venues for more inquiry, research and conversation is what’s needed, he says.

According to the Gonzaga institute’s website, hate studies consist of “inquiries into the human capacity to define, and then dehumanize or demonize, an ‘other,’ and the processes that inform and give expression to, or can curtail, control, or combat, that capacity.” Its journal publishes a wide range of articles on topics such as hate crime, genocide, racism, religious extremism, forgiveness and healing, gender identity and homophobia.

As for the lack of an equivalent institute for hate studies anywhere else in the U.S. or Canada, Dr. Shuford suggests that this might have something to do with the discomfort surrounding the word hate. “It’s not a phrase to be thrown around lightly,” he says. “Yet, I think if you don’t try to understand something at its most basic dimensions, you’re missing quite a lot.

“Whether [scholars] actually name it hate or whether they weave it into their courses or their research doesn’t really matter,” says Dr. Shuford. What’s important is that they see themselves as part of a community that’s working to build a common field.

Dr. Perry can think of a couple other reasons why hate studies programs haven’t popped up in Canada. “One of the issues, especially in countries like Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., which at least tout themselves as strongly committed to eliminating prejudices and racism, [is that] there’s a failure, or a denial even, to acknowledge that hate and the violence associated with it remain a part of our culture.” Another issue is the way a field of hate studies contradicts the long history of disciplinary silos at postsecondary institutions, she adds. The faculty of social sciences and humanities at UOIT is non-departmentalized, she says. “So, it’s easy for me to think that way, but it’s very unusual in North American universities in general.” Mr. Stern the attorney, who sits on the board of the Gonzaga institute, says “Universities are institutions [that] can sometimes be resistant to new ideas and change.” But more than anything, he says, the biggest challenge is money.

Dr. Gerstenfeld at California State agrees that a difficult economic time isn’t the best for starting new disciplines. However, academics can also turn the economic situation to their advantage. “In a lot of universities, there’s a push towards having departments and fields collaborate more, to make good use of resources. So, this might actually be a good opportunity
for people to do that,” she suggests.

Field or no field, Dr. Gerstenfeld recognizes the power of hate and the importance of discussing it in academic settings. “[Hate is] unfortunately a very important aspect of human life and it’s something that we see repeated time after time and culture after culture,” she sighs. “Almost every day, we look at some part of the world and see it going on.”

If departments at universities ever manage to overcome the many difficulties and consequently create a field of hate studies, UOIT’s Dr. Perry is sure that they would see positive results. “Our students will become leaders in the community and leaders in human public service,” she says. A multidisciplinary perspective “gives them the understanding to really make a difference when they enter the field and they’re able to put [what they’ve learned] into practice.”

Proponents of hate studies suggest taking small steps, starting with a symposium on the topic or a team-taught undergraduate course and then moving on to more ambitious goals. “If I can convince my faculty to even start with a specialization or a minor in the area, I’d be very happy,” says Dr. Perry. Currently, she’s drawing up a new course with a University of Toronto professor she met at the hate studies conference in April. She hopes to bring a future conference to Canada – perhaps co-hosted by UOIT and another university – to get more Canadian and European scholars involved.

“I think we’re on our way,” says Dr. Perry. In the meantime, she’ll work with what she has and continue to encourage her students to become engaged in the field. “If I can inspire a handful of students a year to pursue this area as a career, or even in terms of public service, I think that that makes an incredible difference.”

Maggie Ma is a recent graduate of the bachelor of journalism program at Carleton University.

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