I am not sure why the New York Times chose last week to discover/revisit the idea of hate-reading (“Love to Loathe You, Baby”), but since it did, I tried half-heartedly to hate-read the piece as an experiment. I had to give up. Hate-reading an article on hate-reading would have been a nifty meta performance, but a true hate-read cannot be forced.
If you are here, on an Internet website, in 2013, you know what hate-reading is. It is what happens when you log on to Facebook and are pulled particle by particle into a mesmeric gyre of saccharine baby pictures and smug banana bread recipes and posts about having the time of my life with my BFFs, #Vegas #Loveyoubetches. It is scrolling through the Twitter feed of that one guy from college who obsessively live-tweets his bicep curls. It is tripping over a stranger’s blog praising the glowing coals of truth that drop from Rush Limbaugh’s fervent lips and getting lost for hours, surfacing only for a handful of Cheez-Its, sometimes a pee, until the ghost of your superego trails its melancholy, forgotten fingertips across your brain and moans: Katy goooo to bed. Which you do, reluctantly, only to dream of composing your hate-response to what you just hate-read.
According to the New York Times, a Stanford study suggests that we turn to “self-enhancement processes” like hate-reading when our “typically rosy self-view is threatened.” Insecure and sad, it says, we self-medicate by finding other people we think are inferior to us and judging them.
Is it that simple? No doubt some hate-reading comes from a place of bored or dissatisfied loneliness. (Where are my betches? Why aren’t I in Vegas? I despise you, Instagrammed artisanal blueberry-clove cupcake-on-a-doily!) But maybe one’s deep scholarship of detestable crap on the Web is more than just the expression of an inferiority complex. Maybe it is an outlet, a way to access or exorcise extreme passion, sort of like watching a horror movie. The Greek tragedians knew that getting worked up is more than entertaining—it’s cathartic. And the experience of hate-reading is one part pure transport, one part fascination with the intensity of one’s own feelings, and one part something else. This third rail of hate-reading, I think, is what redeems it. At its best, hate-reading highlights something lighthearted and even anti-hateful in us: a playful capacity to be amused by (and thus step back from) our own contempt.
Do you ever loathe something so much you start to feel a kind of affection for it? You pity the object of your own burning hatred. You feel close to it because it has inspired in you such a depth of emotion. I’ve grown to love some of my hate-reading go-tos like I do my siblings: with the understanding that, no matter how much we disagree, we’re all in this Internet thing together. That said, not all hate-reads are created equal. Below, a smorgasbord of types.
The ideological hate-read: The ideological HR is absolutely pure. You have no personal investment in hating the target, just an avid intellectual distaste for his or her beliefs. A pro-choicer reading a pro-life blog. A Tea Party member reading Paul Krugman. This is the Platonic encounter of opposed worldviews. It can make you feel alive.
The envious hate-read: What the Stanford study speaks of, in which a miserable person peruses the social media accounts of ostensibly nonmiserable people, looking for reasons that they should be miserable, too. Empty calories. Avoid.
The delayed reaction hate-read: You realize hours after reading something how much you hated it, probably because the Internet told you to. Sometimes this can be fun—jump on the anger bandwagon!—but if you become too susceptible to other hate-readers' hates, the tiny part of you that can almost enjoy things might just disappear. Be careful.
The curdled love hate-read: The most illustrative example I can think of here is actually an instance of curdled love hate-watching: viewing the season 8 finale of Dexter. I adore Dexter but spent most of the last episode wanting to lobotomize myself with a melon baller. I continued to watch not because I was luxuriating in fury but because I was hoping against hope that the show would give me a reason to love it again. (Nope.) See also: Homeland, Season 2.
The reluctant hate-read. It's in the Style section. It's about young women. It's in the Atlantic. It's about working mothers. It's a blog about sandwiches. You see the headline and know you're going to hate it. You can call up the hate even without reading it, really. You don't want to read it. You're not going to read it. (You read it.)
The surprise hate-read: You start reading with no inkling of what you’re in for. The rage sneaks up on you like a creature in the night. You are shocked and filled with rage-joy. Or is it joy-rage? Whatever: This is genuine, grassroots hate. Lucky.