Picture credit: sdominick/Getty
Artillery Row

Do hurt people hurt people?

This popular cliché attempts to be generous but ends up implying that victims are tainted

There’s much that’s annoying about Police Scotland’s Hate Monster campaign. At first glance a strange cross between one of the Pac-Man ghosts and the Inner Self from the noughties’ Actimel adverts, the Hate Monster feeds off your anger and resentment until “before ye know it, ye’ve committed a hate crime”. Oh no!

What is a hate crime? The campaign does not make it especially clear. The overall tone makes it sound like having a tantrum. Indeed, much of the wording reminds me of those dreaded emails you get from your child’s primary school teacher, the ones that tell you they’ve been teaching him all about “that feeling some people get when they are frustrated and angry and take it out on others, because they feel like they need to show they are better than them” – perhaps you could keep sharing this message at home? 

To say it is patronising doesn’t even begin to capture it. At the same time, I can’t help finding the campaign quite upsetting — hateful, even. There’s one section of the website in particular which I find especially crass. 

It’s the part where we’re informed that “Hurt people, hurt people”. Clearly the first thing that’s offensive about this is the unnecessary comma. Is it supposed to emphasise that the first “hurt” is an adjective, the second a verb? If so, that’s not how punctuation works. Nonetheless, this is a minor issue compared to the explanation that follows.  

“Committing hate crime,” we are told, “is strongly linked to a range of risk factors including economic deprivation, adverse childhood experiences, substance abuse and under-employment. Those who grow up in abusive environments can become addicted to conflict.”

You can see what they’re trying to do here. It’s an attempt to be generous, a way to avoid suggesting people commit hate crimes (whatever they are) because they’re total bastards, plain and simple. Police Scotland feel for you, haters. They know you’ve had a hard life. It’s the abuse and neglect that have made you morally inferior to other people. 

While I’m aware that “hurt people hurt people” (no comma) is intended to avoid demonisation, there comes a point — and I think we’ve long passed it — where it has the opposite effect. Applied in this context, the phrase is not so much humanising those who do the worst, most harmful acts to others, or recognising the long-term impact of trauma, as endorsing the idea of the victim as tainted. The Hate Monster campaign isn’t focussed on alleviating the suffering of those enduring “economic deprivation, adverse childhood experiences, substance abuse and under-employment”. It’s telling them, quite directly, that this suffering makes them lesser people. 

It’s not the first time I’ve seen “hurt people hurt people” used in this way, and I’ve truly started to loathe it. As Judith Herman noted in Trauma and Recovery, people who have been through terrible experiences not only find it hard to trust others, but make bystanders deeply uncomfortable. When I see it claimed that “those who grow up in abusive environments can become addicted to conflict”, I think of the way in which courts have treated domestic abuse survivors as participants rather than victims. I think of rape complainants being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (and the diagnosis then being used to suggest they’re not credible people at all). I think of my own childhood experiences in an adolescent psychiatric unit, and the way in which anger which might be an accusation is the most feared anger of all. 

It is easier to cope with the spectacle of another person’s distress — and easier to tell yourself that you do not need to do anything about it — if this distress can be recast as malicious. The sadness was legitimate, once, but the moment’s long gone. It went as soon as it made other people — self-identified nice people — feel guilty or politically compromised. 

The “hurt people hurt people” analysis is, unsurprisingly, applied rather frequently to women — those in refuges, or prisons, or married to midlife transitioners — whose distress is inconvenient to the gender ideology movement. Their suffering, while real, has made them bitter, cruel, less inclusive than “normal” people. When these women make a claim for spaces or even just sympathy of their own, this is perceived, not as a legitimate request, but as an attempt to inflict pain on others. For instance, Judith Butler has accused JK Rowling of having “capitalised on a history of sexual trauma in order to afflict and persecute others”. It can’t possibly be that having a history of trauma makes you hyper-aware of the changes other people might need to make to support you. Unless your trauma fits into the right template — unless it’s, say, the trauma of being misgendered — it is simply too inconvenient. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy put it in The Perils of Privilege, “suffering that falls through the cracks of the privilege framework gets dismissed”.

Apparently the problem is not young men in general, but those who haven’t gone to university

As many have pointed out, the Hate Monster campaign is steeped in thinly-veiled classism, with socio-economic class being, like sex, one of those inconvenient distinctions which cannot be identified away. The campaign does not focus on all men in the 18-30 age group but “particularly those from socially excluded communities who are heavily influenced by their peers”. Apparently the problem is not young men in general, but those who haven’t gone to university and learned to hate women, LGB people and specific ethnic groups in a socially acceptable manner. When middle-class men gather to threaten and scream at women who just want to watch a film, or talk about feminism, this isn’t the Hate Monster in action. It’s the glittery, rainbow-coloured Inclusion Unicorn. 

In the end, there’s an unbearable smugness about the “hurt people hurt people” line

To be clear, I don’t doubt that people who are angry, resentful and fearful lash out at others. I don’t doubt that people who are sidelined can make scapegoats of others. However, when a campaign defines “hate” as vaguely as the Hate Monster campaign does, what I see is a way of allowing middle-class people like me to offload guilt. The haters aren’t people like us. They’re the people we exploit, and maybe — when we balance their “deep-rooted feelings of being socially and economically disadvantaged” against their “white-male[sic] entitlement” — we can decide we don’t owe them that much anyways. 

In the end, there’s an unbearable smugness about the “hurt people hurt people” line. In a world where victimhood has become a form of currency, those who might otherwise find themselves overly privileged have found a way of excluding the wrong sort of victim. If, as  Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue, “victimhood often results in some degree of moral status”, it is very annoying to find that working-class white men or female rape victims are laying claim to something your politics tells you ought to be yours alone. 

How satisfying to tell them that yes, their situation is bad, but alas, it’s so bad it has made them terrible people, too. All their expressions of anger are hate; all yours are complex expressions of radical empathy. It’s sad they’re too damaged to know the difference, but that’s why you need them to keep their monsters under control.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover