Here, in the midst of the frustration and anger of the rioters and looters, there was joy and some sense of justified pleasure in striking back. One woman with a video camera reported, “When I was on the streets, people were having a ball. They were stealing and laughing and having a bunch of fun.” At least 54 people were killed, and thousands more were injured.
With absolutely no pretext save losing the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in a fair hockey series, hockey fans in June 2011 went on a rampage in downtown Vancouver, burning cars, looting shops, and causing mayhem. Yes, this was Canada, where these things are not supposed to happen. In this instance, too, the joy of the fans, mostly young men, was unmistakable. They danced on overturned cars, smashed store windows, set fire to vehicles, and taunted the police, who struggled to maintain some semblance of order.
Cage fighting, I am told by my friend Jonathan Gottschall, is his passion. This seems peculiar to me, as he is a professor in a literature department. He tells me that the appeal of cage fighting is completely different from that enjoyed in riots and brawls. As Jonathan says, this is basically a friendly form of mutual assault. One-on-one, where the fight is fair, in the sense that officials match the pugilists in age, weight, and standing, is very different from mob brawls. Fear is the overriding emotion before the fight; intense attention is the main mental state during the fight. According to the cage fighters, the only pleasure comes at the end of the fight, and only if you win. The pleasure of defeating your opponent is so incredibly intense, it makes the risk worthwhile. Some cage fighters say it is a kind of ecstasy, comparable only to sex. This connection is less surprising than it first seems. Sexual behavior and violence are linked in the brain, in a region of the hypothalamus (ventral medial). In male mice, activation of some neurons in this tiny area provokes aggressive behavior to other males put in the cage, but provokes mating behavior when females enter the cage.
Hate gets classified as a negative emotion, and we might assume that negative emotions are the opposite of pleasurable. But in reflecting on the hate of sports fans or rival gangs, you cannot but notice that it tends to be energizing. Arousal is pleasurable. Sometimes it is called being “adrenalized.” So it is.
The comedian Louis C.K. describes standing in a long queue at the post office. He looks at other people in the line. He immediately sees things about them to hate. What idiotic shoes that guy wears; what a dumb question the customer is asking; what a loser. Contempt keeps him amused until his turn comes up. Despising others, however trivial the pretext, feels wonderful.
What else is going on in the hate state? You are familiar with guilty pleasures—doing on the sly something that is only modestly bad but still forbidden, like showing each other your bare childhood bums behind the barn, for example. What fun when you are 5. What a delicious secret to keep from your parents. In watching the videos of the Vancouver riots, the joy of breaking the rules, and doing so with others, was palpable.
Women are usually bystanders in hostility rituals and murderous raids. By and large, the perpetrators are men, and mostly, apart from a leader, they are young or middle-aged adults. A long-standing hypothesis is that the males of a gang are, in part, performing for each other. Their hostility displays reassure one another of their mutual attachment, their reliability in case of attack, and their common purpose. Their bonding gives them feelings of power, the power of numbers. That is linked to pleasure. Clothed alike in white sheets, rhythmically dancing around a huge bonfire, the men of the Ku Klux Klan appear to be having a ball. If duty alone were the incentive, no one would show up.
Females are not without aggression, however. Generally, but not always, it just takes a different form. Mean gossip, unkind cuts, shunning—all are potent forms of aggression used by females. Hair pulling seems to be making a comeback these days. Here as well, some form of pleasure seems to derive from collective hating. As with the football fans, there seems to be both intense ingroup bonding and intense hostility to those in a rival group or perhaps someone excluded from all groups.