‘Anatomy of Hate’ dissects violence

Anatomy of Hate, Run Time 86 minutes
Under The Hood Productions, Mike Ramsdell, Director.

Reviewed by Henry Richards

This film, like medical anatomy, cuts to reveal, and in deeply revealing it moves us toward healing. Amidst a welter of powerful images and confessional/testimonial interviews of adults caught up in vicious circles of violence, producer Mike Ramsdell brings us the haunting faces and voices of children learning and practicing hate. Later he shows us children being taught compassion through play—opening up to what philosopher and mythoanalyst Sam Keen refers to in the film as humanity’s “bright potentialities” for happiness and fulfillment, potentialities that are squandered daily by us adults in wars and ubiquitous hot and cold internecine conflicts.

The film does not spare us the brutal facts and images of violence and hate, from the holocausts in Europe and Rwanda to lynchings and gay bashing in America. But this is not the pornography of war and hate. The viewer’s need for a safe distance to consider these nightmare realities and the hunger for hope and meaning that they engender are met with, in exquisite timing, by the authoritative voices and surprisingly warm presence of scholars and scientists such as philosopher Sam Keen, and social psychologist Sheldon Solomon, who show us that there is a possible escape from the dismal trajectory of human history.

These scholars rely on Ernest Becker’s powerful insights to reveal the underlying causes and potential solutions to war and senseless violence. Central to Becker’s thought is the idea that the super-normal potential for violence in humans stems from exactly the same self-affirming meaning systems and identifications (god, country, tribe) that validate our lives and actions and empower us to avoid the otherwise paralyzing apprehension of the inevitability of our personal death and of all those we cherish. The light of these meaning systems casts an ever broadening and darkening shadow—the creation and demonization of human enemies who are seen as essentially different from us. The fuel of violence and hate is fear—fear of powerlessness in the world and fear of the other, the enemy—who also is always the enemy of our God and our good. As Keen says in the film, war is always a theological act, a method of destroying the enemies of God.

The film never breaks the trance-like experience of having more reality before us than we are used to, but it is nevertheless not emotionally relentless. Animation with voice-over narration is used to clarify and give emphasis to theory—and provide a break from brutal images and powerful monologues—without breaking the tone of serious challenge and opportunity that undergirds the whole film. The stories of diverse individuals are interwoven in clear counterpoint to each other throughout the film. We are shown the redemption stories of a murder and a would-be bomber of a gay congregation, and follow combatants on opposing sides in the wars and hot conflicts of the Middle East. We are shown no demonized caricatures. Even in the unredeemed, the film reveals humanity in its complexity.

Anatomy of Hate is recommended for anyone who wants to move beyond naive or cynical views of human nature to more deeply understand the psychological and cultural forces that have tied history to repetitive violence and which provide the clues to undoing the knot.

Reviewed by Henry Richards, a Seattle-based forensic psychologist and longtime Ernest Becker Foundation (EBF) member.