Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Power of Hate Speech

To the Editor:

Re “The Neuroscience of Hate Speech” (Op-Ed, Nov. 1):

Dr. Richard A. Friedman rightly points to “the power of political speech to foment physical violence.” To make matters worse, there is evidence that our brains are hard-wired to react aggressively to visual images of those who don’t resemble us — the feared “other” so often targeted by unscrupulous politicians.

The work of Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University biologist, has shown that when subjects are shown the face of someone of a different race (compared with a same-race face), the brain region associated with fear, anxiety and aggression is activated. Let’s call this the “us” versus “them” response.

But Professor Sapolsky gives us a “powerful cognitive tool” for counteracting this automatic response: “Pretend you’re a ‘them’ and explain your grievances. How would you feel? Would your feet hurt after walking a mile in their shoes?”

This empathic metaphor seems particularly apt as we view images of the much-reviled migrant caravan making its way to the United States.

Ronald W. Pies
Lexington, Mass.
The writer is an ethicist and a professor of psychiatry affiliated with SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts University School of Medicine.

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