Episode 146 – “I am the Night – Color Me Black”

It is widely recognized, by philosophers but also by many others, that feelings can be communicated from one person to another, where it isn’t just that one person can understand what feelings another person is having, but one person is caused to have the same, or similar feelings experienced by the other person. On a chance encounter with a friend who has a happy and cheerful disposition, and who, on this occasion, greets us with a smile, we often acquire that cheerfulness, and smile back. If, on another occasion, that same friend appears sullen and sad, as a result of a death in her family, we share that sadness.

Is hate communicated from person to person in this way? It is a central theme of “I am the Night – Color Me Black” that hate, like a sickness, can be “contagious and deadly.” If hate is contagious, does it spread the way other emotions, such as grief and sadness spread, via sympathy? If hate does not spread this way, how does it spread?

Jagger, having been convicted of murder,  is awaiting execution by hanging in a small midwestern town. The case is not straightforward. The person Jagger killed was a white supremacist who was advocating violence against the town’s black residents. The trial itself may have included testimony by a deputy sheriff who committed perjury.

The phenomenon of hate spreading like a contagious disease is represented by the somewhat murky picture of the sequence of events. A series of hateful acts is carried out by a white supremacist, followed by a challenge from Jagger, who attempts to call out the hateful acts as wrong, but winds up in a deadly brawl. This leads to the trail and conviction, both of which are clouded by accusations of wrong-doing, leading finally to the public execution of Jagger, at the hands of the local sheriff.

Examining any two links in this chain of events, we can see instances of hate, followed by other instances of hate, but is it correct to describe hate has transmitted from one event to the other? For example, Jagger admits that when he reacted to the hate-filled acts of the white supremacist, and caused his death, that his actions were motivated by his own hate of his adversary. But the objects of hate are clearly different in the two cases. The white supremacist hates non-whites. Jagger hates the hater of non-whites. Clearly the character and actions of the white supremacist play a causal role in Jagger’s actions. But while the actions of both involve hate, it’s not clear that this is a contagion phenomena.

Maybe it’s the feeling of hate that is the same in the different events that make up the chain of events. Is there something felt in common by people, even when the objects of their hate is different? This question is briefly, but perhaps crucially, raised in the episode, when the black minister asks Jagger about his feeling of hatred when he committed the act of murder. He asks Jagger how he felt when he committed murder: When he came at you, did it feel good to you then? When you killed him, you enjoyed that didn’t you?” Jagger responds: “You know it!” This occurs right before Jagger’s hanging, and the crowd which formed is also experiencing enjoyment at the prospect of Jagger’s death.

Hume contrasts hate and love, where the feeling of love is an agreeable feeling, and the feeling of hate is a feeling of uneasiness.  But Jagger, his antagonist, and some of the townspeople appear to experience hate as a form of pleasure. In “Of Tragedy” Hume points out that something like this reversal of sentiments happens when we are presented in tragedies in literature. We take pleasure in observing tragic events when they are portrayed in literature and poetry.  Hume suggests that this can happen outside of our engagement with fiction as well. “Nothing endears so much a friend as sorrow for his death. The pleasure of his company has not so powerful an influence.”

The fact that hating can be pleasurable may account for its spread. Why would we so apt to hate if it always made us uneasy? In this episode, the metaphor for hate is darkness, a darkness that also spreads from this nexus of pleasurable hate, a hate that plunges us into darkness.

When the minister finds out that Jagger’s act was committed through pleasurable hate, he condemns the act, even though Jagger’s motivation was to protect black residents of the town from the white supremacist. The consequence that the white supremacist was silenced does not reduce the wrongness of Jagger’s action.   What really matters is the “quality of mind” which causes love or hatred. Hume writes: “In every case, therefore, we must judge of the one by the other; and may pronounce any quality of the mind virtuous, which causes love or pride; and any one vicious, which causes hatred or humility.”

Further Reading:

Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 2, Part 2, Section 1.

Hume, David, Miller, E. F., ed., (1987)  Essays, Moral, Political, Literary, Liberty Press.

Sayre-McCord, G., “Hume and Smith on Sympathy, Approbation, and Moral Judgment,” Social Philosophy and Policy, 30: 208–236.


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