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The people we hated in 2010

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 7:00 PM

Until May 30, Tony Hayward was mostly a figurehead, a knobbly Keebler elf of a man with a posh drawl and a big, big oil spill. On May 30, the millionaire chief executive, whose company had just ruined the livelihoods of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, told a reporter, "I'd like my life back."

With that, he became a total troll.

Year-end lists are usually devoted to celebrating the people we loved. But so much more could be gleaned from studying the people we hated - those who sparked the moments of righteous indignation that made the entire country squeeze onto one creaky soapbox and bellow, "What is wrong with you?"

Jesse James cheated on Sandra Bullock. After she said such nice things about him in her SAG Awards acceptance speech. With that scary woman who has a facial tattoo.

Jay Leno returned from his unfunny 10 p.m. show to reanimate his unfunny "Tonight" show, booting Coco in the process.

Mary Bale threw a cat in a trash can - it was caught on camera - and for this there are no words, just a business-class ticket on the train to hell.

As if following a calendar of loathing, these figures arrived at regular intervals, giving their audience time in between to catch its breath and stockpile new rotten tomatoes. Somewhere, in the green room of skulduggery, the suits from Goldman Sachs rehydrated with water bottles and fist-bumped Hayward for good luck, before he entered stage right as the villain of the month.

All were despised for different reasons, welcomed as scapegoats to relieve larger roiling tensions in an unsettled America.

Leno represented the establishment, an insider blocking the rise of the new entertainment class. James and Bale? At a time when people felt abandoned by suits who didn't understand their needs, when Americans were struggling to figure out their place in a new world order, James and Bale were abandoning . . . America's Sweetheart and a defenseless kitty.

Loathing specific individuals works like a pressure valve, a collective whoosh for the populace to release some inchoate anger. When issues are too morally ambiguous to grapple with, hate is an organizing principle, a way to start sorting out what we think about things. When national emotions begin to spiral out of control, hating is an act that ultimately contains them, creating definitive boundaries between when we'll be tolerant and when we've had about enough of this nonsense.

Should an Islamic cultural center be built near Ground Zero? Dunno. The issue was huge and unwieldy. But while everyone else was picking through the elaborate minefield of politics and principles, Florida minister Terry Jones thought he'd just burn a pile of Korans. Everyone else still didn't know what to think, except this: That man had gone too far.

Let us hate him. But briefly. Brief hate was one of many varieties we experienced in 2010. There was divisive hate, applied by half of the population to either Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin; the unifying hate of Hayward (the whole country came together on that one); and the conflicting hate of John Edwards, who cheated on Elizabeth but then looked so bereft at her funeral, holding those little kids' hands. There were nice people who made colossal mistakes, and there were Bernie Madoff types whose moral makeup did not include remorse.

Some people's actions appeared identical, yet provoked opposite reactions. LeBron James took a pay cut so he could leave Cleveland to play basketball with his buddies in Miami, where he thought he'd have the best chance of winning a championship. Cliff Lee took a pay cut so he could go play baseball in Philadelphia, where, he said, he'd have the best chance of winning a championship. Cleveland fans burned No. 23 jerseys in protest, while Lee was Hosanna'd for his ability to look beyond the money.

Was the problem James's statement that "I'm gonna take my talents to South Beach" - not merely to Miami, but to Botoxed, bottle-serviced South Beach? Was it the hour-long "Decision" special, as if viewers had nothing better to do than watch LeBron swan around a Boys & Girls Club? (Maybe if the special was just 30 minutes?) While Lee, meanwhile, was returning to the embrace of a hard city where they once booed Santa Claus?

Surely no one expects hometown boys to stay forever, but against the backdrop of Cleveland's economy, where so many people were taking their talents to the unemployment office, the move seemed especially jerky. If Cleveland had been flush, or Miami had been Detroit, or everyone had jobs, then maybe . . .

But hate is contextual - a graphical point on a chart where the X axis represents the gall of the offense and Y represents the outside circumstances: the national mood, the economy, the weather. Our choice of where to plot the hate always says less about the people we are despising than it does about us.

Take Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, a duo of detested individuals who spent years courting the trust of "Lost" fans. Be patient, they said. We have a plan. The island's not purgatory. But it was purgatory, and it was stupid purgatory, and viewers invested six seasons of their time only to be rewarded with diminishing returns. That's why it hurt. It was our 401(K)s all over again.

Psychologists have studied the social science behind hatred and declared that there's increasing evidence that people are evolutionary hard-wired to judge each other. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire recently decided to examine the earliest possible era with a recorded history and concluded that the ancients were making personality judgments as far back as 1,000 B.C. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus identified 30 personality types, some of which were determined to be totally undesirable, i.e. "Unsociable Man."

Morality "is used in large part to bind people together to compete with other groups," says Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychologist who studies moral outrage. People "sacralize," or make sacred, the figures who share their moral codes, and they villainize others. This is how power works: Hating Sarah Palin (or Bristol, her "Dancing With the Stars" proxy this year) is a way to mark yourself as part of a certain group. Drawing other people into your hatred is one way to make sure they will side with you when the revolution comes.

Class is often tied up in this, sure - the elitist snobs vs. the fear-mongering philistines - but at a very basic level, hating someone is a way of saying that they do not understand your values, your experiences, your way of life.

Some of us hated the people who Wiki-leaked government documents all over the Internet. Others loved that and launched supporting "hacktivist" efforts, which everyone else hated. Some of us hated Mark Zuckerberg for making us leak our own private information all over Facebook so that personalized ads could chide us about our muffin tops - and make him rich. Others named him "Person of the Year."

These kinds of feelings are universal and eternal, but they are shaped by our times - the endless verbal stonings on talk radio or Keith Olbermann's handy nightly guide to the "Worst Person in the World." And as fractured and disassociated as the country might be, one can always log on to Twitter for hashtagged hate and discover a community of people ready to loathe along with you.

It is immensely complex to understand the profit margins of a major network but immensely easy to pillorize Jay Leno. We have no idea how to clean up an oil spill, but a pretty good start might involve setting up a satirical fake Twitter account for Tony Hayward. The balance between government transparency and protecting state secrets is something that four-star generals and PhD politicians are trying to suss out, but meanwhile, Julian Assange's hair is really dumb.

Hate can feel so good. It's pure and clarifying, reducing massive-firestorm issues to intensely burning torches that individuals can carry around. Hatred as a form of public service!

It's also a fast-burning emotion, and the residue it leaves is dark. Deep down, we know it's corrosive, and so the top hate parable of 2010 is this:

In June, at a home game in downtrodden Detroit, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was just one out shy of becoming the 21st pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball to throw a perfect game. Then Jim Joyce, a 54-year-old umpire with two decades of experience, incorrectly declared that a batter from the Cleveland Indians was safe at first base, completely banjaxing the game.

The crowd at Comerica Park erupted in low, dangerous boos. For one shining moment, Joyce was the most hated man in America. But only for a moment. Because after the game, it became clear that no one hated Joyce more than Joyce hated himself. And no one was more capable of forgiveness than Galarraga.

"I did not get the call correct," said the teary ump. "I kicked the [snot] out of it. . . . I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his [butt] off all night."

Joyce had made a bad mistake, but he wasn't a bad guy. His immediate recognition of his wrongdoing preempted Keith Olbermann, preempted Twitter, preempted any coalitions that could be built around hating him.

Galarraga accepted Joyce's apology. The two men hugged.

The hot air evaporated, the hate turned to love, and throughout the land the people - reminded that redemption is also a cleansing emotion, and one that is in their power to bestow - were peaceful.

Until the next troll showed up.

Washington Post staff reporter Monica Hesse will be online Monday, Dec. 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss this article. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.

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