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Obama’s Tweet About Children Learning to Hate is, Unfortunately, Only Kind of True

Nelson Mandela was right about a lot of other stuff. So there's that.

Mere moments after President Trump failed to unequivocally condemn a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, former president Barack Obama filled the void with a three-part Tweet heard ’round the world—such a popular tweet, in fact, that it unseated Ariana Grande’s Manchester terrorism tweet, and bumped Ellen Degeneres’ Oscar selfie tweet down to third place. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Obama typed, quoting former South African leader Nelson Mandela. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

It’s a strong, inspirational quote. And it’s core message rings true: Love overpowers hate, and we need to teach the world to love. But, like most of the inspirational quotes hanging on classroom walls, it’s only sort of true. As the tweet concerns how young people come to hate, it’s important for parents to understand the ways in which it is, well, not quite right.

Claim #1: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin…”

Strictly speaking, it’s true. We’re not born hating anyone, per se. But we certainly can learn hate very early on. One of the most striking proofs of this is a study from 1928 that surveyed Polish school children living under occupation. “Wishes for the enemy varied from death, through falling off a four-story building, to the wish that ‘all should come to Hell alive’,” the authors write. Indeed, entire books have been written on the subject of how and why children develop hatred.

Most disturbing, however, is that very young children—even infants—appear to be afraid of adults because of the color of their skin. One 2008 study found that, although newborns do not show a preference for faces based on ethnicity, infants as young as three months old begin to show a strong preference for tracking own-race faces over other races. “These results suggest that preferential selectivity based on ethnic differences is not present in the first days of life, but is learned within the first 3 months of life,” the authors write. So no, we’re not born racist, but we figure it out pretty quickly. Which may be why white babies between the ages of four and 24 months, are basically terrified of black adults.

Claim #2: “If They Can Learn To Hate, They Can Be Taught To Love”

There are a handful of psychological disorders that break Mandela’s golden rule. Take narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, for instance. People who suffer from these conditions are perfectly capable of hating others (not that they all do; I’m sure many of them are lovely people) but frequently incapable of loving others.

That may sound like nitpicking, until you consider the very real possibility that the hateful people Mandela (and later, Obama) were calling out may well suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. In fact, psychologists have spent decades trying to tease out whether racism itself should be classified as a psychiatric disorder and psychiatrist Carl Bell once famously published a study entitled “Racism: A Symptom of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder“. Let’s make one thing super clear: narcissistic personality disorder is no excuse for racism. But it should remind us to keep our hopeful thinking in check. Because not everyone who can learn to hate can also be taught to love.

Claim #3: “Love Comes More Naturally To The Human Heart Than Its Opposite”

First of all, love and hate are not in the human heart at all, but in the brain. So let’s take a trip to our friendly neighborhood neural circuits. By all accounts, our brains became capable of love long after they first learned to hate. Which sort of makes sense—hate evolved almost immediately, as a defense mechanism. Love, on the other hand, didn’t really dig in its heels until our brains began expanding and our childhoods began growing longer. That meant spending more time learning the ropes from our elders, and that requires serious bonding skills. A lot of this sort of evolutionary psychology research is speculative, but one thing is clear—there’s no particular reason to believe love came first.

And recent neuroscience research suggests our capacities for love and hate are actually far more intertwined than Mandela’s quote suggests. One 2008 study used fMRI to pinpoint a “hate circuit” in the human mind—a brain pathway involving the medial frontal gyrus, the right putamen, the premotor cortex and the medial insula. This circuitry activated when participants meditated on people they hated. But wouldn’t you know it? Many of those same brain regions are known to kick-in when we think about the people we love. The authors of the 2008 study were clear about the implications: “This linkage may account for why love and hate are so closely linked to each other in life,” they wrote.

A Revised Nelson Mandela Quote That Will NOT Become Popular On Twitter

None of the above should detract from the power of Mandela’s original quote. But if we were strictly adhering to the research, the quote would probably look a bit more like this:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion (but we figure it out fairly quickly, and white three-month-olds are sort of racist). People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love (unless they have narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, which is really unfortunate for us because it turns out racist people tend to have that very disorder) for love comes more naturally (or about as naturally, or less naturally) to the human heart (brain) than its opposite.”

On second thought, it’s probably a good thing Obama went with the original.