There is life after hate, as Mr. Picciolini can attest to. The words, “life after hate” constitute the name of the organization he co-founded to help others in an arena he had come to know well, after he escaped from years of his entrenchment in a cult of skinheads and his own reign as leader of hundreds and even thousands of the most vulnerable kinds of people. These were people drawn into the hatred by others waiting on corners to offer them an identity when they have no other.
That is what happened to him, when at 14, he was standing on a corner in Chicago smoking a joint when a guy pulled over, telling him he was smoking a drug of Communists and Jews, and didn’t he want his own identity, one of pride? Yes, of course, was the answer, and so began his years of identity shift. It was only some five years later when he looked into the eyes of a young black man he was beating and kicking that he looked at the man’s face and saw real eyes and real humanity, that he became actively vulnerable to getting out.
The cycles keep appearing as we speak. There is hatred in our nation at an all time high, between partisans who at points cling only to one side—and one team-- of any larger picture. And yet, Picciolini has come to realize that to help anyone escape from hatred, we have to listen and come to know and even respect the narrative that may be different from ours, but still has meaning and needs to be understood.
Picciolini enjoys hearing about the concept of Carl Jung relating to the shadow—that we all are obligated to integrate the various shades of our own emotions so we don’t feel compelled to project them onto others whom we demonize. He has worked on these issues, on realizing hate has been part of him but not the whole of him, that as Bryan Stevenson (social and legal activist and author of “Just Mercy”) says, we are all more than the worst thing we have done.
He wants to talk also of Chicago, of the social realities of poverty, segregation and joblessness creating an alternative existence in many black neighborhoods that are really prisons without the more obvious walls. Picciolini corroborates the worst of what we have been hearing, that Chicago is a segregated community without freedom for its inhabitants and that we need to hear the voices of those who know, including the gang members who recently told journalists of NPR of the jobs so very much needed there.
Picciolini is about building bridges, rather than preaching. He spent a day with a 17 year-old Holocaust denier and a 96 year-old Auschwitz survivor and the experience of listening to each other (the survivor had entered Auschwitz when she herself was 17) proved transforming, humanizing. He calls this immersion, when he helps people hang out with people they think they hate, in a safe atmosphere. When people are heard and feel heard, sometimes they feel freer to enter into a more humanizing dialogue. Picciolini points out, and I so agree here, that sometimes we look for more logical ways of convincing others of our own points and agendas when we are skipping over the emotions that tend to be at the heart of any propaganda of hate.
Picciolini has visited his own history more than a little. The son of first generation Italian immigrants who worked so hard they were hardly at home, he began to hate immigrants as a form of self-hate directed elsewhere, a kind of self-medication. He was shuttled between two worlds, neither of which offered him real warmth and welcome. Through visiting his own vulnerabilities, he has become more open to empathy for the vulnerabilities of others, others of all views and races.
His vulnerability has increased in recent times as he has begun to talk about his brother in his speeches across the nation. His brother, whom he called Buddy, was a kind of lost kid who paled in his brother’s presence as a kind superstar in the skinhead world. Christian’s heart aches for his brother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting by black gang members, when he was there to buy pot with a friend. His heart aches because he wasn’t available as a guide and friend to his younger brother, and because he misses him. As a survivor of hate that is his own, he isn’t prompted to hate the killers of his brother, because he sees them being caught in cycles of violence and revenge without hope of exit for themselves.
Picciolini is a deep thinker and a deep listener. He feels that in the 2016 Election, there was a propagation of hate by the Trump faction that spoke to the disenchanted groups of (predominantly) white males who hadn’t felt heard. The more people are heard and heeded and respected with actions as well as promises, the less they have to rely on hating others to get their needs met.
Picciolini knows answers aren’t absolute or final for the culture wars and hatreds that have existed for a long time. Times change and we have to adjust to the new pictures of things. Meanwhile, he is working at what I believe is our most fundamental issue: hatred of others we demonize and render inhuman.
Life After Hate seems necessary for those who have succumbed to a lifestyle in which hate and violence predominate. It may well be that it is necessary for those of us—on any side of any aisle—who have become snarky and demeaning of those “so stupid” as to be stuck in a position we cannot imagine. (I too need remediation for my own snarky tendencies).
The process is ultimately a humanizing one—knowing ourselves better-- along the way to empathizing with others, any others we might think we hate.