Humans clearly have an automatic tendency to think in terms of good guys and bad guys. Old news, really. What I want to talk about is how insidious it is.
Let’s look at an absurdly black and white example first. Some games — such as the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and a computer game I almost played at one point called RetroMUD — have a system where characters are officially classified as good, evil, or neither. (This is often called character alignment.) This kind of thing doesn’t need to be all black and white, but it often is. In the extreme versions, it goes like this: while it’s heinous for an evil creature to attack a good one, a good creature attacking an evil creature is doing a good deed even if the evil creature was just sitting there. After all, if the evil creature ever did something, it would be evil things. Because it’s evil. Often this applies to entire species or “races” of creatures. I mentioned RetroMUD because if I recall correctly the documentation said that to maintain a good alignment for your player character over time it was necessary to keep killing evil creatures — combining total naïveté with the bean-counting mechanics of a computer game to absurd results.
Okay, so how is any of this subtle? The subtlety is in how much our brain manages to fool us assuming something just like that even after we have reached the point where we would recognise it as absurd spelled out loud.I’m talking from a mixture of observations of other people and of my internal states, and what psychology experts say. This does not just apply to others being downright evil either, but also about being wrong or stupid. We may look at a side we disagree with being hateful or rude and think that that, the hatefulness itself, is horrible and wrong — but really we seem to carry the assumption that you just need to find the right side to hate and then it suddenly becomes virtuous. It doesn’t seem like the same thing at all because you are in the right. Then we’ll spit on those hateful, intolerant people (or whoever).
At a guess, it seems like there’s a mixture of two things in this: out sense of moral anger, which makes punishing others seem like a good thing, and our bias to favour our own group and discriminate against others. It also seems like the second inclination invokes the first by making us see things as if the outgroup is in the wrong. Anything bad they do to us, like just being rude, is a horrible affront, but whatever we do to them, well, that’s either so small it doesn’t count or justified because they’re being so horrible in the first place that they deserve it.
However good your reasons, they don’t truly justify this. In fact, there’s a tragic irony to the assumption. People usually think they are in the right. More importantly, if they’re doing something really bad to others, they probably think those others are “bad”, be it during the Second World War because of Nazi propaganda or whatever. This means that if you assume you are in the right hating your opponents because they have done something objectively bad, you’ll just end up a lot like them: treating others horribly because you assume that they are bad.
Of course, in a lot of cases you’ll have something more like equal, petty parties who are both about the same but assume the other side to be the devil — with two political parties during peace, say.
Even the people who are truly morally good and rational tend to draw some line — so that they might still hate those who sexually abuse children. Granted, only a saint could love everyone. The saint would still be right. Caring about the victim doesn’t logically or morally imply hating the perpetrator; it’s only in our psychology that it does.
There is a clear analogy to this in terms of opinions (and people) we assume to be correct and how we unknowingly act as if what we already believe and want to believe hardly needs any support but anything going against it would be suspect even if angel wrote it in fiery letters across the sky.
What we should try to do instead: Always check yourself and try to be fair and polite. Try to see things from the other person’s point of view even if you’re not feeling like it, and yes, even if they are totally wrong. Take what steps are necessary to stop stupidity, wrongness and evil, but don’t be hateful. Hate the sin, not the sinner.