In August, French blogger Pauline Harmange published a booklet titled Moi les hommes, je les déteste (Me, men, I loathe them),1 which caused quite a stir in France (and a little bit outside France as well). The book – supposedly – is a protest against misogyny (hatred of women), by taking up the opposite point of view of misandry (hatred of men). “Supposedly”, because I’m not sure exactly about the book’s arguments as it is no longer available and I have thus been unable to read it.
In any case, it is not this book itself that is the topic of this post, but something that was attributed to Harmange in the ensuing controversy. According to the Guardian she said that there should be “a right to hate men”. It turned out almost immediately that this wasn’t what she said, but supposedly she did say that there should be something like “a right to dislike men”.2 These I find interesting notions: a supposed “right to hate” or a “right to dislike”.
Regardless of what Harmange exactly said or wrote, it should be clear to every open-eyed observer that there are many people who claim a right to hate or a right to dislike. Last month, Laura Bates published Men who hate women3, which describes various movements of men that claim (for themselves) the right to hate women, from “men going their own way” to “incels” and so forth. And so-called “white nationalists” claim (for themselves) the right to hate (or dislike?) anyone who isn’t white. Compared to these kinds of misogyny and racism, Harmange’s misandry appears rather gentle and innocent, but again, that’s not really my topic here. Rather, what I want to discuss here is whether the notion of a right to hate or dislike makes (much) sense. Or in other words, whether there can be such rights.
Let’s start with a bit of conceptual groundwork. “Hate” is often assumed to imply a desire to see the hated suffer, but that understanding ignores the fact that one can hate other things besides people. One can hate the summer heat, for example, or one can hate toxic masculinity, but neither the summer heat nor toxic masculinity can suffer. In any case “hate” is a very strong and very negative emotion towards someone or something. “Dislike” is similar, but much weaker. “Dislike” involves a desire to avoid, but “hate” might not. If you really “hate” someone, you might want to hurt that person, which you can’t do while avoiding someone, but this doesn’t have to be the case. And again, you can’t hurt the summer heat. Both “hate” and “dislike” appear to involve a desire for non-presence (or absence) or even non-existence. In the case of “dislike” this might just be a desire for the absence of the disliked thing or person in one’s (immediate) sphere of life or neighborhood; in the case of “hate” it is more likely to involve the desire for the non-existence of that what is hated. If you “hate” something or someone, you want that thing or person to not exist (anymore).
As I have pointed out before (in a short article on the supposed “right to your opinion”), rights are defined by duties, often negative duties. Most commonly, having a right to do X means that you cannot be punished (by the government) for doing X. So, having a right to dislike Y means that you cannot be punished for disliking Y, and a right to hate Y means that you cannot be punished for hating Y. The term “right” is also sometimes used in reference to something like social acceptance. Having a right to do X then means that one isn’t “punished” by society, in the form of social ostracization or a similar “soft” sanction.
A third more or less conceptual issue has to do with the notion of “doing X” in the previous paragraph. Any action can be described in multiple ways, and if these various descriptions are thought of as different actions (rather than as different descriptions of the same action), then I’m always doing several things at the same time. If, by kicking a ball I hurt my toe, I do several things at once: I kick the ball, I set the ball into motion, I hurt my toe, and so forth. Or actually, I’m really doing only one thing, but that one thing can be described in these various ways.4 When I speak, I’m also breathing out. When I chew, I’m also eating. And so forth. Virtually any action can be described in multiple ways.
This matters in the present context, because you may have a right to do something under one description, but not under another, and this is something that isn’t always well understood. For example, if I say something that causes a lynching, then I have done several things at once, and I don’t have a right to do all of those things. I have a right to free speech, but I don’t have a right to cause a lynching. If I’d be punished for causing that lynching, that wouldn’t be an infringement of my right to free speech. It would be punishment for doing something else – something punishable – at the same time. In other words, a right to free speech doesn’t automatically protect one from the consequences for whatever else one does by (or at the same time as) saying something. So, a right to free speech means that you can say whatever you want, but if by saying something you are doing or causing something else that you don’t have a right to do or cause, you may still be punishable for that “something else”.
Similarly, a right to hate would just be that – not being punished for hating someone or something. It would not necessarily imply a right to act on that hatred. It doesn’t even involve a right to express that hatred, because that is a different right: the right to free speech. And if by expressing hatred, I would cause actual harm or suffering, then neither a right to free speech nor a right to hate would make me immune from repercussion. A right to free speech is not a right to harm. And neither would a hypothetical right to hate be a right to harm.
But then, what would this hypothetical right to hate amount to? Not much, it appears. It would just be a right to have a certain kind of sentiment – that is, a right to think or feel in a certain way. There are two reasons to doubt the existence and/or desirability of such a right, however.
Firstly, it is doubtful that merely thinking or feeling something or in a certain way would even be punishable. What would count as evidence that someone thinks or feels something? There can be evidence of what someone does or says, of course, but that is not necessarily (reliable) evidence of what someone thinks. Perhaps, some form of neuroimaging technology may be of help here, but I don’t think that this technology is sufficiently advanced to reliable tell what exactly some hates (or dislikes).5
Secondly, while thinking or feeling something may not be punishable, the notion of a right to X typically also involves being allowed to (continue to) do X. However, if X is something that tends to cause harm, then that would be a good reason to not allow X. Many things are not allowed (and often made illegal) because they tend to cause harm – from lying and promise-breaking to selling crack-cocaine and driving while drunk or at very high speeds.6 If hating Y tends to cause harm – regardless of whether that is harm to Y or someone else – then that would be a good reason to not allow hating Y for the exact same reason that we don’t allow people to lie or to drive while drunk.
Because hatred of people involves a desire for the suffering and/or non-existence of those people, it is very likely that hate tends to cause harm. For this reason, there can be no right to hate. If hate tends to cause harm it cannot be tolerated and must be countered by something like therapy. Such “therapy” would have to take very different forms depending on who hates and who is/are hated. Therapy for an individual is very different from therapy for a larger group or society as a whole, but that topic is well beyond the scope of this post.
But what about the right to hate something rather than someone, and what about the weaker right to dislike? Merely disliking someone is far less likely to cause harm. And hating the weather is not particularly likely to cause harm either. On the other hand, hatred of ideas or institutions can cause harm. A judge who hates the idea of a fair trial is quite likely to cause harm, for example. But let’s focus on the case of disliking kinds of people right now, and turn to the issue of disliking or hating other kinds of things later.
Could there be a right to dislike some group or kind of people? Because dislike is even harder to observe and confirm with sufficient certainty than hate (see a few paragraphs back) it is not likely to even be a punishable offense, and if something cannot be punished anyway, then it makes no sense to say that there is such a formal right. What can be observed, of course, is whether someone says that they dislike a certain group of people, but a right to say something already exists – that is the right to free speech – and another right allowing someone to do the same thing would be redundant. Furthermore, likely criteria to assess whether someone dislikes X would not actually measure dislike, but something else – they might establish the expression of dislike, for example. And if someone is punished for saying that they dislike Y (or for discriminating against Ys), then that is a punishment for saying something (or for discrimination), and not the disliking itself.
For a right to dislike Y to be meaningful, it must be a right to behave like one dislikes Y. If it is likely that behaving like one dislikes Y causes harm, then it is doubtful that there can be such a right. However, making behaving-like-one-dislikes a punishable offense may actually cause much more harm. Nevertheless, as a formal right a right to behave like one dislikes something is almost certainly redundant, because most conceivable expressions of dislike are either already covered by other rights, or are harmful and, therefore, cannot be subject of a right.
As mentioned, a right to X can also be a more informal right. The notion of a right then refers to social acceptance. Moderate misogyny is a de facto right in most societies, as few societies “punish” moderate misogynists by ostracizing, avoiding, or marginalizing them, or by some other kind of social, “soft” punishment. Indeed, moderate misogyny often even appears to be the norm. However, whether there can be a right to dislike groups or kinds of people in general is very doubtful. Demanding such a right is demanding social acceptance of disliking some of the other members of that society (or actually, behaving as if one dislikes some of the other members), but it is hard to see why a society would accept that except in specific cases (i.e. not in general).
Let’s say that in society A there are people with brown eyes, people with green eyes, and people with blue eyes in roughly similar proportions. Why would the members of that society accept my behavior as if I dislike blue-eyed people? Obviously, blue-eyed people themselves are unlikely to accept it.7 But unless many other people recognize that eye color is a good reason to like or dislike people, it is unlikely that the rest of society would accept it either. More likely, they would ridicule me and/or ostracize me or “punish” me in some other way.
The notion of a general right to dislike some group of people, then, doesn’t make much sense. However, claiming a specific right to dislike might – in some circumstance – make perfect sense. If there is a de facto right to dislike women, as appears to be the case in most societies, then it is only fair that there also is a right to dislike men. If there is a de facto right to dislike black, brown, and/or Asian people, as appears to be the case in parts of North America and Europe, then it is only fair if there is a right to dislike white people as well. There shouldn’t be a “right” to misandry, but as long as some forms of misogyny are effectively socially accepted, kinds of misandry that are less or equally harmful should be socially accepted as well.
This leaves us with the hypothetical right to hate or dislike something other than people, something like the summer heat or the idea of a fair trial. As the latter example reveals, there cannot be generalized right to hate or dislike “things” (in the broadest possible sense of “thing”) either. Hating or disliking ideas or institutions or other kinds of “things” can be as harmful as hating or disliking people. Perhaps, there can be rights – albeit in a rather loose sense of “right” – to hate or dislike particular “things”, however. Because of the inobservability of hate or dislike itself, for such a right to be meaningful, it has to be right to act as if one hates or dislikes something (as explained above). In a loose sense of “right”, one may have a right to act as if one hates the summer heat. However, because acting as if one hates the summer heat is unlikely to be punishable anyway, calling this a “right” doesn’t make much sense.
Of course, the summer heat is a rather innocent example. How about toxic masculinity, capitalism, fairness, climate change, liberalism, and so forth? Can there be rights to hate (or dislike) those? Saying that one hates one or more of those is already a right – namely, the right to free speech – so that’s not what a right to hate (or dislike) one or more of those could be about. Moreover, hating or dislike one or more of these is unlikely to be formally punishable. Hence, demanding a right to hate toxic masculinity, for example, is a right for it to be socially acceptable to hate toxic masculinity (rather than a demand for legality) – it is a demand for the absence of social sanction or “soft” punishment. Perhaps, there should be such rights, but as they cannot be formal rights, a demand for such a right is really nothing but a demand for cultural change (i.e. a change in the “normal” or average values and/or attitudes of a society). And from a moral perspective, not every “thing” that could be the object of such a right to hate or dislike would be an equally suitable candidate. There cannot be much doubt that toxic masculinity, capitalism, and climate change are harmful and that hating those is likely to be beneficial, but if that is the case, it can easily be argued that hating those should be an obligation rather than a right, which further undermines “rights” talk in this context. Acting as if one hates fairness, on the other hand, is quite likely to cause harm, and thus cannot be object of a right at all. So, it seems that hating particular “things” is never a right – dependent on the “thing” (or actually, on the harmfulness of that “thing” and of hating it), it should either be a moral obligation or not accepted at all.
The notion of a right to hate or dislike, then, is a mere rhetorical device. Regardless of what is hated or disliked, the idea of a formal right to hate or dislike doesn’t make much sense, and even in a loose sense of “right” there cannot be a right to hate or dislike anyone or anything (i.e. hate or dislike in general). At most, there might be “rights” to dislike particular (harmful) things in a very loose sense of “right”. Demanding such a particular right to dislike is, therefore, not demanding a right in a strict sense, but demanding cultural change. It is demanding that a certain attitude or point of view is tolerated and/or that another, contrasting point of view or attitude is no longer tolerated. As such, demanding the right to dislike something – or even some group or kind of people – can make perfect sense. Strictly speaking, no one has the right to hate or dislike anyone or anything, but with the foregoing considerations in mind, I wholeheartedly agree with Harmange that there should be a right to dislike men.8
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- Pauline Harmange (2020). Moi les hommes, je les déteste (Monstrograph).
- And the Guardian changed the title and text of the article accordingly.
- Laura Bates (2020). Men Who Hate Women: From incels to pickup artists, the truth about extreme misogyny and how it affects us all (Simon & Schuster).
- This point was also made in my previous post on an aspect of Kantian ethics.
- And probably it never will, for reasons explained in my paper “Patterns, noise, and beliefs” (Principia 23.1 (2019): 19-51).
- Of course, lying and promise-breaking are not necessarily illegal (although that depends on circumstances), they are still not allowed and tend to be punished in some way or other by other people.
- Unless it is common in that society to dislike blue-eyed people, because then they would have gotten used to it and (might) accept it in practice. It is quite common that members of a discriminated group grow accustomed to that discrimination and even tacitly accept it.
- Regardless of what exactly she meant with that statement, assuming that she actually made it.