'Why We Hate' examines roots of tribalism and violence

James Bessenger of the South Carolina Secessionist Party unfurls his Confederate Flag.

"Why We Hate" can't entirely make up its mind about what it wants to be: case studies of modern polarization and partisanship; a historic dive into the roots of bigotry and violence; or a science-driven, anthropological exploration of the topic. The result is an intriguing but somewhat muddled multi-part series, distinguished by a producer roster that includes directors Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney.

Despite qualms about the focus, it's still possible to applaud the effort and high-minded motives, and there's plenty of food for thought buried in the episodes previewed. Journalist/author Jelani Cobb, for example, points out that social media has created "tools that make it easier to get people to behave in ways that are inhumane, that are hateful."

An episode titled "Origins," meanwhile, includes evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare, who examines the divergent behavior of humans' closest cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos. The former, notably, developed in a region where resources were scarce, and became more territorial and warlike, while the latter had a much easier time finding food, leading to peaceful interactions.

Food for thought, indeed.

From there, though, "Why We Hate" is somewhat shackled by the broadness of its subject matter, which ranges from the prevalence of bullying across societies to the rise of hate groups, as well as efforts to wean neo-Nazis and other extremists away from those beliefs and actions.

Other chapters carry the titles "Tribalism," "Extremism," "Tools & Tactics," "Crimes Against Humanity," and finally, "Hope." The laudable goal is to seek a more contextual understanding of the disturbing imagery that populates nightly newscasts. That includes delving into the nature-versus-nurture question as it pertains to hatred, and whether aggression and violence are learned behaviors or in some respects hard-wired into us.

Viewed broadly, the undertaking represents a logical extension of Spielberg's objectives in establishing the Shoah Foundation. Still, the individual stories somewhat muddy the waters, feeling more anecdotal and less illuminating. While there's value in garnering a better grasp of the issue in order to seek solutions, the lens might have benefited from a narrower focus.

Directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard ("When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts"), "Why We Hate" is the sort of thought-provoking fare that ought to be encouraged, especially from a network like Discovery Channel, whose commitment to such programming tends to waver.

In that respect, this documentary project feels both like a good start, and at least partially, a missed opportunity.

"Why We Hate" premieres Oct. 13 at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel.

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