‘The Hatred of the Gibson’: Lessons from Mel Gibson’s Rage
Hatred is corrosive, it almost always hurts the hater. While you don’t always see it, sometimes the foundation of someone’s character can get so worn away that the person’s facade cracks and falls: like Mel Gibson. The story of his well-documented flame-out into a hate-filled, abusive former movie-star would benefit from understanding more about how hatred can destroy a hater.
His abusive behavior didn’t start with current money troubles and stresses. Nor is it simply a narcissist running amok. It comes from hate. Hate that was amply foreshadowed by the virulent anti-Semitism about which we all worked so hard not to know we knew. Four years ago at the time of Gibson’s anti-Semetic rant during a DUI arrest, Christopher Hitchens didn’t work not to know the obvious, he shoved it in our face:
And it has been obvious for some time to the most meager intelligence that he is sick to his empty core with Jew-hatred.
This is not just proved by his twistedly homoerotic spank-movie The Passion of the Christ, even though that ghastly production did focus obsessively on the one passage in the one of the four Gospels that tries to convict the Jewish people en masse of the hysterical charge of Christ-killing or “deicide.” It is validated by his fealty to his earthly father, a crackpot who belongs to a Catholic splinter group of which our Mel is a member. This group more or less lives off the stench of medieval anti-Semitism.
Empty core? That is hopefully just Hitchens’ rhetorical excess; if Gibson’s core was empty we’d have little useful to learn from him. He’s a person not a monster, even though he acts monstrously. Gibson has inside of him the same all-too human unconscious processes through which we all live our lives.
In trying to learn something from Gibson’s behavior I am not some sort of pollyanna closing his eyes or trying to make lemonade from an oil slick. I slow down to rubberneck at car-crashes as much as anyone, and if I see something I end up feeling the same fascinated horror I felt reading about Gibson’s catastrophic crash. And the truth is that there is no bigger celebrity crash out there than Gibson (sorry LeBron and Lindsay, but Mel journeyed alone into the realm of the unredeemable: all you need LeBron is a championship—or two—to be a hero again and Lindsay, well, you’ll be America’s sweetheart as soon as you get sober and make a good movie—or two).
So, what can we learn about ourselves from Gibson’s hatred more interesting than the soporific tautology, “people are people.” Can we learn anything useful?
Ken Eisold, a friend and colleague, has written a terrific new book What You Don’t Know Your Know. He pulls together a story about a “new unconscious” from research done in a variety of different fields. What he says about prejudice is helpful. He writes that “prejudice is a universal process rooted in normal development” that come from “how our brains create categories as part of our adaption to reality.” Furthermore, these prejudices and stereotypes can become malignant when we start to protect our identity by putting all the crap into other groups. They—whoever “they” may be—are the ones who are lazy, cheap, avaricious, or devious; we’re not, we’re fine!
But prejudice gets worse, much worse; ordinary bigotry is still pretty far from Gibson’s behavior. Our unconscious process of creating categories and attaching identity-protective values to those categories can degrade further to the level of rape and abuse, genocide, and ethnic cleansing when we dehumanize other people. That’s how a neighbor becomes vermin to be extinguished, a President becomes an anti-American Muslim/socialist/noncitizen, or a woman gets attacked for being nothing more than a “bitch” or a “cunt” (to use two of the more unsavory terms from Gibson’s latest taped rage).
Unconscious dehumanization drives much that we call evil and understanding how it operates in each of our lives is the lesson from ”The Hatred of the Gibson.”
Staring with his hatred of Jews and ending with recordings of verbal abuse and allegations of much worse, we can see that when you nurture processes of dehumanization instead of fighting them you end up dehumanizing yourself. Out of control dehumanization is like a cancer that needs to be caught early and aggressively fought. Luckily, traffic with the new unconscious moves in both directions. So, when what you don’t know you know sends up a flare—be it in a dream, a confusing feeling, an out of character behavior, or a train of thought arriving at a perplexing station—pay attention. You’re trying to tell yourself something important you don’t know you know.
And if you think you’re immune to dehumanization, that it is something you would never ever do, that it is something “they”—the evil others—do but not you, think again. It is something that happens inside our unconscious all the time. We couldn’t get through a day without it, full human awareness would just be too painful. We adaptively dehumanize others when we blind ourselves to the homeless guy sleeping by the train station, to events in Darfur, or even to the suffering of future generations because of our addiction to burning fossil fuels. In fact, we even entertain ourselves with it by putting the LeBrons and Lindsays of the world up on celebrity pedestals.
Like rubberneckers at the highway crash relieved that what could have happened to them happened to someone else, our fascination with Gibson’s hatred includes some relief that he was the one that crashed, not us. What we don’t know we know is that any of us could have been Mel, it’s all a matter of degree. He’s not “other,” he’s us.