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Ken Stern promotes academic study of hate

Citing the recent climate of hate, Ken Stern, a New York attorney and author who serves on Gonzaga University’s Hate Studies Institute board, believes the academic field of hate studies can “have a huge impact on a global scale.”

Ken Stern
Ken Sterns, American Jewish Committee, New York

The director of the anti-Semitism and extremism division with the American Jewish Committee is on the board because of his commitment to developing testable theories to combat hatred.

“Hate has harmed more people than anything else through human history,” said Ken, who was the keynote lecture at the recent “Take Action Against Hate” banquet at Gonzaga University.

“We need to understand it better,” said Ken defining hate studies as: “Inquiries into the human capacity to define and then dehumanize or demonize an ‘other,’ and the processes which inform and give expression to, or can curtail or combat, that capacity.”

The need in these times is critical, he believes, listing recent incidents: a New York City gang recently torturing a gay man; anti-Islam sentiments stirred over a mosque near Ground Zero; a pastor threatening to burn the Koran; Iran’s President continuing to deny the Holocaust while trying to obtain nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map; a small church spreading their hate of gays, and media coverage of immigration creating animosity toward Hispanics.

Ken wants academic discussion to raise understanding of why some people vilify other people with whom they disagree and to provide effective ways to counter hatred.

For example, at Stanford, when debate on a student petition for the university to divest from Israel became heated, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students were shocked at the vitriol unleashed.

“Rather than let it continue, they decided to table the petition and speak openly about their experiences and perceptions.  Jewish students gained understanding of what it meant to live in the West Bank and Gaza,” he said.  Palestinians learned that hearing of a proposed boycott of Israeli goods for many Jewish students was reminiscent of the history of anti-Semitism and boycotts against Jews.

“With any political issue, from immigration to the Middle East, there can be an environment of vilification that starts to be expressed,” Ken explained.  “Each side feels justice is on their side, and their juices start flowing.”

Ken wonders if there is a correlation between hatred and how right and virtuous one feels in his or her position.

“I have heard supporters of Israel say things are not so bad for Palestinians.  I have seen people who are critical of Israeli policy vilify Israelis. I’m critical of some Israeli policies, too, just as I am of some American policies.   People sometimes want to speak to their own side to score points.”

He suggests people put themselves in the other’s shoes and ask: “What do we have to do so the grandchildren of today’s Israelis and Palestinians aren’t still killing each other, but have their own national self expression and maybe even cooperation?”

Ken calls for quantifying the cost of hate, adding up the cost of war, the cost of discrimination, the cost of lost production, which result from hate,” he said, noting that it’s hard to determine a scale by which to measure those costs.

Just as medicine is a combination of the academic fields of biology, chemistry and related fields to address the fact that people  have physical illnesses, Ken hopes the academic field of hate studies can pull together knowledge in various academic fields to help reduce the illness of hatred.

Ken, who grew up on the East Coast, graduated from Willamette Law School in Oregon and often came to fish and visit a friend in Spokane before the Aryan Nations came to the region.  He previously came to the Northwest to speak at conferences of the former Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.

About 10 years ago, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center came with Ken and met in Unity House at Gonzaga with George Critchlow, Bob Bartlett and others in the community.  At that meeting, the idea for the academic institute arose.  Ken offered to serve on the board.

Then he and Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment founder Bill Wassmuth, a former priest active in the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, approached two Northwest universities proposing the idea of hate studies.  “Great idea,” they said, but asked, “Where’s the money?”

“The Gonzaga community saw the need because of community response to threats made to an African-American law student,” Ken said.  “Gonzaga understood both the importance and the promise of the idea, and began asking how they could help implement it.  They established the Institute for Action against Hate, published The Journal of Hate Studies, convened  an international conference and offered the first interdisciplinary course in any college to look at hatred.

The institute has now helped start to two classes, one in the undergraduate school and the other through the School of Business.

At the second International Conference on Hate Studies in April 2011 in Spokane, Ken expects participants to look at how hate studies can inform governmental and other decisions.  Two representatives of the U.S. State Department—one who deals with anti-Semitism and the other with anti-Muslim sentiment—will give keynote addresses.

Ken hopes that in the next 10 years, 10 universities will work with the Hate Studies Institute, and offer their own hate studies courses, concentrations, minors and majors.  

In 20 years, he hopes government, diplomats, media, NGOs and religious groups will “use the knowledge hate studies produces so they will know at least how not to make it worse and at best how to combat it effectively,” he said.

The challenge will become more critical, Ken said, because by 2050 the majority of Americans will be non-white and “we’re already seeing how hatred about this demographic change is playing out in the anti-immigrant movement.”

His motivation is practical, believing that without academic research and education, few resources will be generated to overcome hate.

“The institute will make us smarter and better,” he said.

On an issue like the Middle East, Ken worries that “people talk to themselves” and lack “the capacity to put themselves in another’s shoes and imagine themselves as Palestinians or as Israelis.

“Ideologies paint their side as all correct, and the other side as all incorrect,” he said, “Some believe Israel is always wrong, so the debate becomes ‘how wrong’ rather than looking at complex issues and their impact,” said Ken.

 “We need to look at the impact of our political passions on each other’s communities,” he said.

For information, call 212-891-1444 or email sternk@ajc.org,

Copyright © November 2010 - The Fig Tree