We’re living in the ‘Age of Hate’. Crime driven by prejudice is exploding, the online world is a bear-pit, and politics is one endless source of division and rage. Criminologists, philosophers, and evolutionary biologists are all trying to work out what’s gone wrong. Neil Mackay, Writer at Large, talks to the brightest minds in Britain as they explore why we can’t stop hating each other.

THE best minds in Britain are focused on one burning question today: why is society saturated in hate? What’s gone wrong with us as a nation?

Of course, hate isn’t an issue confined to Britain as a whole or Scotland in particular. Hate is now the common currency of the Western world. But something has gone particularly awry across the UK. Look at the hate crime map of the globe and Britain stands out – stark red as the country with the highest number of recorded offences.

That’s partly down to the fact that Britain has a pretty good system for recording hate crime, and so the true level of offences in other countries is likely downplayed – but there’s no escaping the daily cascade of hate across our society. Hate has poisoned politics, ruined sport – it’s made social media a no-go zone for many. We must never forget that an MP – Jo Cox – was shot dead during the Brexit campaign.

Even a cursory glance at news headlines this week shows the all pervasive nature of hate crime here at home and in other Western nations: the mass shooting of Asians in America; a spike in hate crime against Asians in Britain linked to Covid; Facebook actively allowing calls for the deaths of public figures online; concerns over hate crime against gay people in Italy; racism blighting the lives of school children here in Scotland. Evidently, the daily grind of verbal abuse on the street, threats on Twitter, and low-level intimidation at work go widely unreported. There’s just too much hate to fully come to terms with – it is shamefully commonplace.

In Scotland, the SNP Government is trying to rein in the problem with a Hate Crime Bill – which, ironically, triggered an outpouring of hate on social media, much of it targeting the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, a man who already suffers regular racist abuse and threats. Politicians, journalists and campaigners now see hate as an occupational hazard.

Statistically, here’s what we know: in Scotland, hate crime is increasing. In terms of people being charged, latest figures show racist offences rising by 4 per cent a year to 3,038; hate crime based on sexual orientation is up 24% to 1,486, with an additional 41 cases related to transgender identity; religious offences rose by a similar hike to 660; and the number of people charged with hate crime related to disability rose by 29% to 387.

In England and Wales, hate crime reported to the police has more than doubled since 2013. Latest figures come in at 103,379 offences a year. It is a damning indictment by any measure. How have we got here? Why are we living in an age of hate?

The criminologist

Criminologist Professor Matt Williams is the UK’s leading expert on hate crime. He runs the HateLab at Cardiff University – which charts hate around Britain. His latest book, The Science Of Hate, is an indispensable guide to what’s gone wrong both here and in much of the Western world.

First of all, we need to be clear that hate is nothing new – it’s always existed. In evolutionary terms, Williams’s book makes clear that humans are hard-wired to hate. From the time of our early ancestors, we’ve been biologically and psychologically programmed to “hate” the other. In a world of scant resources, Tribe X needed to hate Tribe Y if it was to eat, survive and prosper.

“We all have a deep-rooted preference for people that we think are like us,” Williams says. “Far back in human history our ancestors developed this trait to ensure their groups flourished.” MRI scans show how parts of our brains which control hate light up when we see “the other” – whether that other be black, white, European or Middle Eastern. This sense of “in-group” identity exists in toddlers, and can easily spill over into outright prejudice by early teens if enough negative external factors come into play like bad parenting, negative role models, poor education, low job prospects, and painful or abusive life experiences.

That doesn’t mean everyone with terrible parents, no qualifications, experience of poverty or exposure to violence becomes a “hater” – those factors just potentially tip the balance a little. What really drives hate is what Williams calls “accelerants”. And this is where we start to unravel what’s gone wrong in Britain.

It’s important to remember that in recent years the West has collectively suffered major negative experiences as a “group”. The financial crash of 2008 and ensuing austerity wrecked millions of lives; the war and terrorism that flowed from the September 11 attacks had a cumulative traumatic effect – clearly reflected in the trauma experienced simultaneously in Middle Eastern countries through Western military action. Williams points to the experience of Weimar Germany after the First World War – a period of intense hate, which culminated in the rise of Hitler, generated by a sense of lost pride, victimhood, financial collapse, and resulting political extremism.

“Hate is increasing,” Williams told The Herald on Sunday. “Perpetration is also increasing, certainly around trigger events like Brexit.”

Scottish independence

BRITAIN’S current febrile political landscape is a key “accelerant”. All of us have a biological, evolutionary predisposition to hate, and many of us have enough negative experiences in our lives to make us inclined to lash out or blame “the other”. But that’s just the kindling for the fire. A match is needed, and that match is political division: Brexit, Scottish independence, or so-called “culture war” issues like race, gender and identity.

But clearly politics has always been divisive – so why the sudden burst of hate over recent years? The answer is really rather simple: social media. Until 10 years ago, my opinion and your opinion may well have clashed but we would never interact. Now everyone interacts 24/7.

Any sense of personal vulnerability – or fear – leads to hate and scapegoating. Look at Covid, says Williams: “What did some people do? They took to social media to say horrific things about Chinese people.”

Not only is hate profitable – note the media careers of “trolls” like Katie Hopkins – but it’s “sticky”, says Williams. Online, it’s hate that people read. In crude terms, people don’t spend time reading in-depth articles giving both sides of an argument the way they once did when newspapers were the main source of information. Today, they gravitate to extreme points of view, both for entertainment and to reinforce their own prejudices. So nuance dies, and with it empathy for people of differing opinions.

We’ve already had a glimpse of where this can all end, Williams points out: the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar was in large part driven by online hate; the attacks on the US Capitol were a manifestation of online hate in the real world.

Williams is an acquaintance of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet. “He has sleepless nights about what’s happened to his invention,” Williams says.

Contact machine

SOCIAL media, Williams explains, should be thought of as a “contact machine” – it accelerates our ability to interact with others. “Not all contact is good, though,” he says. Let’s say a person goes online with strong views about Scottish independence and is attacked by either nationalists or unionists depending on their position. They will quickly develop a nascent “hatred” for that group. Throw in state manipulation by the likes of Russia – ramping up both sides of political divisions in countries like Britain and America – and you have a recipe for disaster.

Williams says he’s hopeful we can come out the other side of this, but it will take a complete overhaul of how we regulate big tech – and that’s unlikely to happen until some awful event tips the public in the direction of change. The Second World War, Williams says chillingly, showed humanity just how “bad” we can be and we acted accordingly to change the world with new laws on human rights and war crimes. “Unfortunately,” says Williams, “there’s a ceiling which sometimes has to be breached before action is taken. Even the genocide in Myanmar didn’t really tip things over the edge, which is just beyond me.”

Pending some dreadful event which forces the world to reorder how social media operates, Williams wants to see punitive action against tech companies for peddling hate and strong Government legislation.

Hate Crime Bill

HE fully backs the Scottish Hate Crime Bill, and says he’s bewildered by the opposition to it. “I expected it to go through without much attention whatsoever as it’s relatively non-controversial,” he says, adding that the proposed laws differ little to legislation in England and Wales.

“Legislation sends a signal to the community about what’s tolerated,” he adds. Williams suspects that hate crime offences could well have increased during the period when Scotland was angrily debating the proposed laws. The row itself could have been an “accelerant” for hate crime.

Individuals need to act too. If we see hate online, call it out, Williams advises. Unless good people stand up, nothing changes. “Everyone has to become a hate crime first responder,” he says.

Wikipedia is proof, according to Williams, that the net is salvageable. It’s a hate-free site much loved around the world. Why? Because good people make sure that lies and disinformation are quickly removed. Global citizens take personal responsibility for standards. Significantly, Wikipedia is not-for-profit – there’s no financial advantage to peddling hate.

An evolution?

BUT there’s something else much darker going on when it comes to the rise of hate. Yes, competition between ancient groups of our ancestors taught us to be antagonistic to the “other” – but it’s the uniquely human concept of morality itself which lies at the heart of our capacity to hate.

Evolutionary biologist-turned-moral philosopher Dr Chris Paley’s new book, Beyond Bad, is a groundbreaking study of how human morality itself is at the root of much of our modern woes. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. Put simply, Paley’s argument is this: morality divides us. I take a moral position which differs from yours – it could be on abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage, immigration, national identity, any of the today’s divisive issues – and that instantly sets up an “us and them” scenario.

“Us and them” scenarios create hate. So, what Paley is essentially saying is that it’s morality – something we see as a force for good – which ironically drives hate. Paley explains that ancient humans developed morality as a bonding mechanism to bring groups together, creating tribes and ensuring survival.

The shared morality of one tribe, though, meant the creation of “out groups” with differing moral codes – fomenting division.

Scale this up from ancient times to 2021 and you’ve got a big problem. “Morality worked very well when we lived in tribes,” Paley told The Herald on Sunday. “But now we live in cities, and things are very different. Social media is what happens when our prehistoric brains meet modern technology.”

What is social media, after all, if not a way for every human with access to the internet to express their own group’s particular morality. Inevitably, these views clash and the by-product is mass hate. For Paley, social media is a “morality machine” gone wrong.

Broken morality

SO, morality essentially makes people “groupish”. It creates bubbles of people and that makes us hate those not in our bubble. With social media built around bubbles of people sharing moral beliefs, it is morality itself which has become the engine which drives online hate. Morality is also essentially about identity – my view of morality defines who I am. The online world primarily functions as a means of expressing identity – that creates division and so hate rises exponentially.

To Paley, morality is suspect and fake. It is a construct which creates self-deceiving groups fuelled by irrationality. “There are no moral truths,” he says. There’s no way to measure whether my morality is better than yours – the two merely differ. If you take two people on opposing sides of an argument, neither thinks they’re wrong, but both can’t be right. The socialist believes they’re morally superior, as does the capitalist. A Nazi believed they were acting morally, as did the Red Army soldier. One person’s hate is another’s love. Priests of the Spanish Inquisition thought they were doing God’s work – and killed for it. Morality is what’s handed down to us, uncritically, over generations, from our families and society. “Some people think female genital mutilation is honourable, others think it’s an abomination,” Paley says.

“The capacity to hold morals,” he adds, “is in our genes’ interests, not necessarily our interests.” So, morality helped primitive humans build groups which ensured we ate, survived and our genes replicated, but morality also guaranteed that when we came into contact with “out groups” there was war, hate and murder. Morality means we live to survive another day, but do so in a world of “us and them”.


OUR moral brains evolved when the tribes we lived in maybe numbered no more than a few dozen. Ancient humans probably met less than 1,000 people in their lifetime. If morality causes conflict with groups we don’t know, then planetary-wide social media is a recipe for mass, endless conflict.

“The nature of holding morality is that you cease to empathise with people who disagree with you,” Paley adds. Although we tend to think of morality as leading to altruism, Paley says, that in fact “morality is very divisive.”

To Paley, social media captures all the failings inherent in the way our ancient brains cooked up the concept of morality and then supercharges it. He also points to how states like Russia spotted how social media exploits these psychological flaws in humanity and used them to sow chaos in nations like Britain and America. By ramping up online moral outrage among groups in the UK and USA, Russia creates enemy countries where “people can’t even talk to each other over Christmas dinner anymore”.

“We evolved to have morals and now they’re misfiring,” Paley says. It would be great, he believes, if we could keep the side of morality which empathises with people who are like us, and get rid of the part which hates those who differ from us. But evolution doesn’t work like that.

Time to grow up

WE need to become “less certain of our beliefs”, he says. After all, morality is constantly changing – a century from now today’s progressive opinions might be anathema to the people of 2121. Historically, those who owned slaves believed they were morally upstanding, yet we now see them as monstrous. But would we, personally, have behaved any better in pre-Civil War America or Imperial Rome? In the Victorian era, our ancestors had no problem with eugenics – today it’s seen as a consummate evil. Sexual attitudes can change profoundly in just a few decades.

“You shouldn’t be so confident in your own morals,” Paley says. Maybe the best we can do is try to hold opposing ideas in our minds at the same time, he suggests. We’ll always have our own beliefs driven by the group we came from and the families and society we’re raised in, but if we can try to empathise with the views, the moralities, of those not like us, from different groups and other societies, then that’s probably the only way to limit hate.

That doesn’t just mean a hefty dose of humility for all, but a quantum shift in our education system – putting huge emphasis on subjects like logic in schools, and teaching rational thinking and even the art of empathy.

Morality, Paley believes, got humanity through its “infancy” from small neolithic tribes all the way to the 21st century. We needed the “groupishness” morality provides to get this far. But the online world has changed everything – humanity is a global tribe today, all of us interconnected. “We’re grown-ups now,” Paley says. And grown-ups operate by a different set of standards to children.