Why We Hate: the new documentary asking some tough questions

‘Why We Hate’ is upsetting, but makes viewers confront humanity’s dark side, says James Mottram

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 07: (L-R) Samuel D. Pollard and  Geeta Gandbhir attend Discovery Channel's "Why We Hate" Premiere Screening at Museum Of Tolerance on October 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Discovery, Inc.)
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A new six-part documentary series, the Discovery Channel's Why We Hate, is a globetrotting, time-skipping examination into humanity, hatred and how we might overcome it. Ambitious? You could say so. But then this show, directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard, takes a very analytical, academic approach to a fascinating, if often upsetting, subject.

The first episode follows evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare's search for the origins of hatred; the second features cognitive scientist Laurie Santos as she examines how tribalism shapes perceptions of other groups. By the time we reach the fifth part, Patricia Viseur Sellers – an international criminal lawyer – leads the way. A specialist in crimes against humanity, she has spent years dealing with genocide.

Undoubtedly, genocide chimes with the show's executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 masterpiece Schindler's List explored the Holocaust – the most notorious genocide humanity has known. Also behind the series is Alex Gibney, whose Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side examined the 2002 killing of an Afghan cab driver, savagely beaten by American soldiers.

As Spielberg has stated already, his interest in the subject matter stemmed from getting to the root of hatred. "If we understand why we act the way we do, we can change the way we act. That is what we are uniquely capable of as human beings." Perhaps it's naive to think that way, but there's something very intriguing about putting human behaviour under the microscope to study our capacity for such ugliness.

As psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes: "As human beings we've got plenty of potential for harmony. We've also got potential for hatred. We're wired for potential for either kind of expression." It's the key theme in the series. As Sellers puts it: "What brings out the monster within us?" Is it fear? Is it ideological difference? Or is it a pack mentality that can spread through groups?"

Lawyer Christoph Rueckel visits the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp for a part of the documentary that tackles whether those who participated in the atrocities did so simply to follow orders. Discovery

What is clear from those interviewed is that you don't have to be a born killer to turn on your neighbour. The documentary uses the infamous Milgram experiments to illustrate this point. American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who taught at Yale, first began his research in 1961, only three months after the beginning of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. Milgram's experiment, in which a "teacher" punishes a "learner" with an electrical charge every time he gets a question wrong, demonstrates how willing people can be to inflict pain on others, especially when encouraged by the person in charge of the experiment. In the documentary, hidden behind a screen, the student's increasing cries of pain are all faked, but it showed that those administering the shocks were sometimes overcome with a feeling of power.

So are people who participate in atrocities simply following orders? It's a question that's addressed, with particular reference to Stutthof – one of the first Nazi concentration camps built outside Germany. About 60,000 people were killed at the camp in northern Poland. Indicted in 2018, two former low-ranked SS guards were set to stand trial (although, due to ill health, they were deemed unfit to do so). Were they complicit in this mass murder? This is something we're asked to consider.

Why We Hate is undoubtedly an important social document for our times. But it's also a very upsetting one. It opens with a "viewer discretion advised" disclaimer, explaining that "racist imagery, hate speech and violence" is contained within. It requires a strong will to stomach some of what follows. However desensitised we have become, pictures of emaciated Holocaust victims or piles of bodies will traumatise some.

Rithy Panh viewing photos of the prisoners of S-21 at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with Sdan Somrithpisey.

Worse still, the show isn't afraid to confront evil head on. One segment in episode five brings us into contact with filmmaker Rithy Panh, another person who believes that such vile perpetrators "have made a choice". He spent time filming Kang Kek Iew, aka Comrade Duch, a Cambodian war criminal and former leader in the Khmer Rouge movement, who, in 2012, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In the 1970s, Duch ran the notorious S-21 prison, where men, women and even children were detained, interrogated and tortured. Descriptions of the torture are stomach-churning. "I joined the revolution to serve my country and my people," Duch shrugs, matter-of-factly, fully immersed in the ideology of Cambodian communist leader Pol Pot.

If Why We Hate is full of horror, it's also not without hope. One story of a Rwandan goalkeeper whose teammate helped him survive, only to lose his life in the process, proves that for all the hatred that exists in our world, love is just as strong and powerful an emotion. Whether this is enough to achieve Spielberg's ideal of changing "the way we act" is hard to say, but it's a bold and thought-provoking start.

Why We Hate is a six-part series that will be screened from ­today on the Discovery Channel