Unless you've been away on a silent meditation retreat, you've surely heard about (if not seen) KONY 2012, the short documentary by non-profit Invisible Children's cofounder Jason Russell. Posted to YouTube on March 5, it is considered the most viral video of all time, having garnered a spectacular 56 million views in just four days and generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on the first day alone.
After seeing a multitude of posts on Facebook, I sat down two weeks ago to view the film myself. I was horrified by the story Russell told of Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony's merciless preying upon innocent children in Uganda and, more recently, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. For decades, the warlord has been kidnapping boys to serve as soldiers in his militia and forcing girls to be sex slaves. Invisible Children and the UN War Crimes Tribunal want Kony captured and brought to justice.
But as I was celebrating Invisible Children's accomplishment, I began to notice the comments flowing in from other YouTube users. Many of them were attacks along the lines of: "Warning: fraud" and "This does nothing to help!" (Comments on the video have since been disabled.) I felt shocked and disturbed by the vehemence of people's hateful remarks.
In the days that followed, I read numerous tweets and several blogs accusing Russell and Invisible Children of simplifying the situation in Uganda, misusing funds, perpetuating the idea that helpless Africans need Westerners to save them, and encouraging "slacktivism."
Again, the vindictiveness of the attacks bothered me. For nine years, Invisible Children has been raising awareness of a horrendous problem -- and the funds to fix it. What's there to hate about that?
Thankfully, several famous people leapt to the organization's defense, including Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and Bono. But the whole episode left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn't stop turning this question over in my mind:
Why is it that people love to be haters?
I awoke at 3 a.m. with an idea bouncing around the walls of my brain like a ping-pong ball. I turned on my bedside lamp and began scribbling notes in my journal. My husband Kiran grumbled, "What are you doing, my love?" When I told him, he said, "Well, it's not like being a hater is anything new. I've been reading the biography of Cleopatra. People loved to hate on her, accusing her of being a slut and a whore. They attacked her vigorously because she was a powerful woman."
Then Kiran started singing "My Wave" by Soundgarden: "Hate, if you want to hate; if it keeps you safe; if it makes you brave."
So here is my thought: "Hateration" (as Mary J. Blige so brilliantly labeled it in her hit song "Family Affair"), is an ego-driven response to shame: our feelings that we haven't lived up to our own standards, and that therefore we aren't good enough. As a result, other people's success, efforts, and good deeds make us feel smaller. When we have that gut-level, animalistic reaction of wanting to hate on something, it means we've triggered an area of self-loathing within ourselves. But most of the time, we're way too afraid to go there and admit what it is that we've done to disappoint ourselves. It's easier to blame others for our bad feelings and make it about their failures rather than our own.
Coincidentally, I watched Brene Brown's TED talk from February, which addresses the topic of shame. Brown calls shame "the swampland of the soul."
Shame, Brown tells us, is an epidemic -- one that is highly correlated with addiction, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicide, and eating disorders. A little shame is a good thing; having it means we're not sociopaths. But shame can overwhelm us and put us in a straightjacket. It's the inner critic that says, "I'm a mistake." It keeps us from connecting deeply with others and achieving our goals.
The antidote to shame, according to Brown? Douse it with empathy and vulnerability (also the subject of her viral TEDxHouston talk). "Vulnerability is not weakness," says Brown. "It is our most accurate measurement of courage... It is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." We need to be able to sit with each other in our fear and really listen. Vulnerability is key to living in a whole-hearted, joyful way.
I know this is the case because I have experienced it myself. When I was in my early 30s and going through my divorce, I found myself lashing out in anger at the world. I was pissed at my ex-husband, pissed at being the only one of my friends whose marriage hadn't worked out, pissed that I wasn't having children when I wanted them more than anything. I noticed how this anger -- which stemmed directly from my shame about the divorce -- tainted my reactions to people and events. It made me more likely to criticize, less likely to embrace with an open heart.
When I spoke with my therapist about this problem, she suggested: "Lead with your vulnerability." Such simple, powerful words. But I swear, adopting this mantra turned my life around. Instead of trying to hide my pain, I began revealing it openly. "I'm struggling," I'd say to my friends and family. "I need your support. This is a difficult time for me." And of course they were there for me, with love and compassion in abundance.
I grew so enamored of leading with my vulnerability that I started blogging about my trials and tribulations, first for Intent.com, now for The Huffington Post. "The Life Out Loud" is how I've branded my columns because I speak so freely about the lessons I learn by coming face-to-face with my fears and failures.
So, where does this leave us in terms of being haters?
Skepticism undoubtedly serves us well. We can't believe everything we see in the media, as evidenced by This American Life's retraction this week of the Mike Daisey story attacking Apple for its horrific factory conditions in China. But we can express our criticisms and differences of opinion without hating on other people, ever. Especially when they're making heroic efforts on behalf of humanity.
The next time you feel the instinct to make a particularly harsh remark about another's work, pause and ask yourself where that response is coming from. Instead of lashing out, turn inward. Can you connect your anger or righteous indignation to your own shame? If so, what might it feel like to sit with that pain? Or even better, to share it with someone you trust?
Finally, take a step back and appreciate what this person or organization or nation that is troubling you is trying to accomplish in the first place. It takes a great deal of courage to make a video or write a blog, and far more to follow your passion and make a difference in the world, stand up for your beliefs, enact change. Have you accomplished anything like what Jason Russell has, running a non-profit for nine years? It isn't necessary to take such radical action to feel good about yourself, but you can stop hating and start being inspired.
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