David Zaslav On How Steven Spielberg Ended Up Being Prescient In Making ‘Why We Hate’

Ted Johnson

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The Discovery Channel on Sunday evening debuts a six-part series, Why We Hate, that looks at the scientific and evolutionary links to hate by looking at some of the most recent examples of racial and religious violence and discrimination.

Discovery CEO David Zaslav, on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. to screen the first part at Atlantic Live, said that the project was originally conceived with executive producer Steven Spielberg five years ago. But he said that at the time, they did not envision the resurgence of hate, whether it be in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, or in European countries as they grapple with immigration.

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“We were going to be looking retrospectively, and try to understand better,” Zaslav said. “But we never imagined that as you look around the world now, the rise of hate — hate for immigrants, for Jews, for Mexicans, for African-Americans, for Hispanics, hate for ‘the other.’ It is not just here in the U.S. It is rising everywhere in the world. It is a prescient moment, and when we are at our best, we create content that can inform, and maybe inspire.”

The first episode of Why We Hate looks at some of the scientific and anthropological origins of hate, putting them in context with some of the most recent examples of mass shootings. It features disturbing video of some of the assailants messages before their rampages, like a video that Elliot Rodger posted on the day that he went on a rampage in Isla Vista, Calif. Another clip is of a moment when Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, is confronted by his brother while Cruz is in custody.

But the episode also shows how others break free of the cycle of hate, like Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps. He founded the Westboro Baptist Church, which routinely staged anti-gay protests at military funerals and turned out to demonstrate at other public events against a host of other religions. She talks about having grown up in a bubble-like environment and then having to re-learn what she was taught.

“I realized that those beliefs, and my reactions, had become instinctive,” Phelps-Roper told Deadline. “And so if I was ever going to change, it needed to be a very deliberate questioning of what do I believe, why do I believe, where do these things come from, and if I don’t believe those things anymore, I need new experiences to teach me.”

Zaslav, who is on the board of Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, said that the project got started when he asked the director if there was a project they could do together, noting Discovery’s worldwide distribution reach.

“So I asked what story do you want to tell, not for the money, but as you think about your legacy, what story would you like to tell that I could take around the world and we could collaborate together,” Zaslav said. “I thought that he would think about it for a while,, and he turned to me immediately and he said, ‘I want to understand where hate comes from.'”

Zaslav added, “As someone whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe — my grandparents were lucky enough to get out alive — that generation had this philosophy of ‘Never again,’ and never again really stood for this ideal that we need to stand up for anybody anywhere in the world that is being discriminated against or is being challenged because of the color of their skin and their religion.”

Spielberg collaborated with Alex Gibney on the project, along with directors Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard.

Zaslav said that the recent rise in hate is surprising because, “for me, for most of my life, both here in the US and around the world, it felt like things were getting better. People were getting more and more tolerant.”

But he said that, even as media attention has focused on President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the project is “completely non-partisan, because this is a global issue.”

“It really, in my view, has to do with the fact that we have had 15 years around the world of zero GDP, low economic growth or no economic growth. In all of Europe there was wage deflation and low youth employment. And we had the technological revolution. These are the type of factors that existed — wage deflation, low growth — between 1925 and 1940.”

He added, “And I think one of the takeaways about human beings is that human beings are extraordinarily helpful and generous people innately. … When things are difficult for a very long period of time, hopelessness turns to hate.”

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