Sick of Serial Killing: The Virulence of Hate in a Time of Contagion

The following reflections were originally written several years ago for a graduate seminar. I’ve decided to share these thoughts here because they seem highly resonant with the current moment. For one thing, the essay links metaphors of contagious disease with activist rhetoric deployed against public apathy and racialized violence. These connections take on a renewed relevance in the context of the massive ongoing demonstrations against police violence which are occurring amidst the COVD-19 global pandemic. Secondly, the brief essay develops the connection between virulence and hate by thinking through the polemical rhetoric of Larry Kramer’s AIDS activism. This provides another confluence with current events in light of Kramer’s death two weeks ago on May 27th.

Larry Kramer’s association with AIDS activism stems not only from the duration and determination of his involvement, but also from his impassioned rhetorical style. Erin Rand identifies Kramer’s style as polemical, and identifies four rhetorical features unique to the polemical form: alienating expressions of emotion, non-contingent assertions of truth, presumptions of shared morality, and the constitution of enemies, audiences, and publics (p. 301). Rand distinguishes Kramer’s polemical style from other uses of anger in rhetoric or public address in that Kramer does not “attempt to elicit anger from the audience, unite the audience through their shared sense of anger, or move them to action based on emotion; rather, Kramer performs his own anger at what he perceives to be the audience’s failure to behave in the way that he desires” (p. 302).

Rand cites as characteristic of Kramer’s polemics the building through a succession of factual statements that culminate in “a climactic display of fury and frustration” (p. 302).

“Hence, polemics refute dominant ideologies and modes of thinking by rejecting the primacy of reason and invoking explicitly moral claims. In polemics a moral position is not simply advanced through rhetoric, but morality actually does rhetorical work.” (p. 305)

Similarly, West considered the function of emotion in productions of the Kramer-penned play The Normal Heart:

“To realize a future different from the past, the producers had to take steps to motivate their audiences to translate their emotions into action once they had left the show. If the play was merely cathartic and enjoyed as a terrible chapter of history, then surely they had failed.” (p.100)

“Through the explicit targeting of younger audiences and distributing Kramer’s plea for help, the producers enabled rage, anger, and outrage.” (p. 101)

Feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde also saw anger as potentially productive. According to Olson: “Lorde distinguished between anger and hatred, and she salvaged the former as potentially useful and generative” (p. 287). Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred is developed in a quote from her remarks: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 298).

In a quote from her “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde uses the metaphor of the virus to describe hatred:

“We are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.” (emphasis added)

Other authors have connected hatred with disease. This thematic link is made, for example, in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. While the film’s characters never state the distinction between anger and hatred as explicitly as Lorde does, the film makes many associations that establish a difference between the two. The action of the film takes place in a roughly 24 hour period, during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, New York. The temperature is referenced throughout the film, and the link between the heat and character’s emotions is made early on. Anger is associated with heat: characters talk about “getting hot” as a euphemism for getting angry. By extension then, the hottest day of the summer could also be understood as the angriest.

Hatred, on the other hand, is continually linked with sickness and disease. Early in the film, when pizzeria owner Sal arrives with his two sons to start business for the day, his son Pino says of the pizza shop:

“I detest this place like a sickness.”

Sal admonishes his son, saying: “That sounds like hatred.”

This connection returns at the end of film, again in front of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which at this point has been reduced to a smoldering shell. Mookie seeks Sal out to ask for the wages he is due from the previous week’s labor. Angrily, Sal throws $500 in $100 bills at Mookie, twice as much as he is owed. Mookie leaves $200 on the ground, telling Sal that he only wants what he has earned. There is a stalemate as the two men stare off, the $200 between them, and each of them waiting for the other to pick it up. Apparently not understanding why Mookie would leave the money lying on the ground Sal asks him:

“Are you sick?”

Mookie: “I’m hot as a motherfucker; I’m alright, though.”

Mookie’s response here should not be understood merely as a comment about the weather. Yes, he is hot because of the summer heat, but the associations presented by the film make clear the deeper meaning of this exchange. Mookie is angry, angry as a motherfucker; having endured the ordeal of the hottest day of the summer, culminating in his throwing a trashcan through a shop window, and now he finds himself the following day with his various responsibilities still in place, but now without a source of income. But he does not hate Sal. He is not infected by hatred. He is not sick.

If the film associates hatred with sickness and disease, how does it relate or portray love? The radio DJ character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, seems like an obvious connection. Another important component is the name of Senor Love Daddy’s radio station: We Love Radio 108 (“Last on your dial, first in your heart.”). The name of the radio station not only presages Clear Channel Communications’ eventual rebranding to I Heart Radio, it also establishes a connection between love and another of the film’s characters: Radio Raheem.

Radio Raheem is arguably the character most closely associated with the concepts of love and hate. Raheem has custom brass knuckles on each hand: the word “LOVE” on his right hand, and the word “HATE” on his left. Through the presence of these words on his knuckles, and his performance of the accompanying story about the struggle between love and hate, “the story of life,” Radio Raheem recalls Reverend Harry Powell from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Reverend Powell has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles: love on the right hand, and hate on the left. He also tells “the story of life,” which, although using different language than Raheem, tells essentially the same account of a struggle between hate and love, where hate has the upper hand for a while but is eventually beat out by love.

In Night of the Hunter, Reverend Powell’s performance of pious geniality conceals a dark secret: he is a serial killer, traveling the country seducing widows whom he soon murders before absconding with what wealth he can steal. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is not revealed to be a serial killer, but he is done in by a sort of serial killing: the recurring killing of men of color perpetrated by police officers. The characters of the film react to Raheem’s death in a personal way (“They killed Radio Raheem!”), but it is clearly also a reaction to this serial killing of black men that contributes to the crowd’s reaction (someone is heard exclaiming, “They did it again!”). The rage at serial killing is evident also in Larry Kramer’s AIDS activism, as seen in his essay “1,112 and Counting,” and his exhortations to audience members at his plays that their inaction was responsible for the real life deaths of the characters portrayed.

A final question: Is Do the Right Thing a polemic? I find it interesting to consider the question in light of the definitions offered by this week’s featured authors. Rand traces the meaning of “polemic” to the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike,” and when Lee’s film was released many reviewers and commentators were concerned that it amounted to a call for violence. I am not sure the film satisfies Rand’s four elements of rhetorical form, but I do believe it satisfies the rhetorical move that Olson calls shifting subjectivities:

“An advocate articulates a shift in the second persona of an address, wherein the auditors or readers occupy one kind of role initially and then, drawing on what is remembered or learned from that position, are repositioned subsequently into a different role that is harder for them to recognize or occupy, but that might possess some transforming power.” (p. 284)

As film critic Roger Ebert recounted in an essay about the film:

“Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal’s begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as ‘like a son to me.’ Mookie is a character we’re meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: ‘Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.’ But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.”

Some critics and audience members objected to what they interpreted as Lee’s call for violence, and at least an implicit approval of property destruction. We heard similar rhetoric in the last year, when protests in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became characterized by media emphasis on incidents of property damage and looting. The state response to protests is always characterized by a tolerance so long as demonstrations are peaceful and “civil,” and when this line is broached it functions to demonize and dismiss the “protestors” at large. Is this not evocative of the white woman who purportedly said to Audre Lorde, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”?


West, Isaac. “Reviving Rage.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 98, no. 1 (2012): 97-102.

Olson, Lester C. “Anger Among Allies: Audre Lorde’s 1981 Keynote Admonishing the National Women’s Studies Association.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97, no. 3 (2011): 283-308.

Rand, Erin J. “An inflammatory fag and a queer form: Larry Kramer, polemics, and rhetorical agency.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94, no. 3 (2008): 297-319.

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