From school bullying to African genocide, CNN commentator Sally Kohn finds the remedy is human connection
By Bliss Bowen
CNN political commentator and former Fox News contributor Sally Kohn has spoken with self-deprecating awareness about her “nice” persona. It’s not a put-on; in conversation she listens well and asks questions, preferring dialogues to monologues. But even those who reach across the aisle with open hands attract hostile tweets and threats, a fact she addresses with her timely new book, “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity,” published last month by Algonquin.
In her introduction before Chapter One (“Why We Hate”), she makes a confession: as a 10-year-old, she bullied a poor classmate named Vicky. Excavating that awkward memory begins her exploration into hate’s myriad forms and causes.
“We all have a psychological predilection against thinking negative things about ourselves in general, and thankfully we tend to think hate is a bad thing in society,” she says during an interview.
“So if we think of it, we usually don’t think it’s our problem.”
That attitude, of course, deepens ever-widening political divides, which she addresses with wit and extensive research. Kohn forthrightly checks her prejudices, both visible and unseen, making her contentions more palatable for readers. When she reaches out to some of her uglier Twitter trolls, one man apologizes almost instantly and acknowledges, “People have forgotten how to sit down and look people in the eye.” A casually cruel older woman shrugs off her online vitriol as “entertainment” and stubbornly claims her prejudices are reasonable. Many choose to remain in shadows. Few perceive their comments as hateful.
Asked about onetime colleague Glenn Beck — who, the book notes, built his following through “unapologetic hatemongering” — Kohn describes her response as an opportunity to put her progressive beliefs into action.
“For the world to change, people have to change, and I believe in redemption,” she says. “I believe in forgiveness. We’re all flawed, right? I find Glenn Beck to be a deeply imperfect figure in modern and political history. When he says, in effect, ‘I screwed up; I played a part in dividing this country and I don’t want to do that anymore,’ my two choices are: ‘No, no, no, keep doing what you’re been doing, Glenn, keep hatemongering and dividing people!’ OR: ‘Thank you, let’s try to be constructive, try to be part of solution, not part of problem.’ …
“If I’m not gonna give [someone] the opportunity and possibility of change and forgiveness, then I’m condemning people to continue to be as bad as I keep saying
I don’t want them to be.”
Forgiveness is not achieved without effort, a fact illustrated with piercing clarity by Kohn’s visit to Rwanda, where at least 200,000 members of the country’s Hutu majority slaughtered an estimated 800,000 minority Tutsi neighbors, co-workers, godchildren and even blood relatives in just 100 days in 1994. Comparisons to Nazi Germany are inevitable, and the “radio propaganda” that incited bloodshed wasn’t far removed in spirit from the toxic extremes of U.S. talk radio. The harrowing stories shared by survivors and perpetrators, and their remarkable compassion, inspire cautious hope.
Kohn says reading about the genocide beforehand did not prepare her for the “intensity of the intimacy and brutality” of the killing that was described to her: “To sit in the living room of a woman who invited a neighbor who had slaughtered basically her entire family — her husband, her children — to see her invite him into her home and serve him tea and treat him like a friend and laugh with him is — to be honest, I don’t know if I could be capable of that kind of forgiveness. But again, it shows what good human beings are capable of.”
The opposite of hate is not love, she writes in the book; nor is it some “mushy middle zone of dispassionate centrism.” Regardless of the passionate “otherizing” defining our political climate, it honestly is possible to be civil and respectful despite adhering to different beliefs. “The opposite of hate is connection.”
That core lesson is underscored by exchanges with reformed neo-Nazi Arno Michaelis, who once fronted racist metal band Centurion and co-founded Hammerskin Nation (“the largest organized white-power skinhead group in the world”) but now practices Buddhism. His trigger of change: an older black woman looking past his intimidating tattoos and telling him, “You’re a better person than that.” That’s a grossly simplified version of Michaelis’ twisty story, which Kohn presents in pause-giving detail, interspersed with scholar Pete Simi’s research into how extremists often “slide in” to hate from the side, more for “camaraderie than doctrine.” Michaelis says listening to Skrewdriver helped make him racist, and that dancing to house music helped guide him to acceptance of different people; his story raises numerous questions, not least being, why are people drawn to extreme behavior?
As a mother, Kohn says she found it “really unsettling” to learn that such swings are not uncommon among extremists; she wanted to find identifiable distinctions she could help her child avoid. Instead, she found “tons of evidence” that “most people don’t start out with these extremist views but are looking for belonging. They find belonging in extremist organizations.” Hate follows.
Further tying the political to the personal, the Allentown, Penn., native thoughtfully addresses how policies like NAFTA hurt Appalachian and Rust Belt communities currently ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Hate motivated voting choices there in 2016, and those same voters continue to be sandblasted with hateful labels — “hillbilly,” “white trash,” “podunk” — that stoke their resentment, which in turn makes them susceptible to political manipulation.
“They felt like they were being shafted,” she observes. “Politicians, especially on the right, can point and say, Oh, you’re being shafted by women, people of color, and immigrants, etc. That’s the part that’s fallacy. But the experience of feeling left out, condescended to and pushed to the margins — that is, in fact, people’s experience.”
So what about political forgiveness? How do we handle that, especially when real-world stakes are so dangerously high?
Last year, Kohn was one of numerous public figures to call for former Sen. Al Franken’s resignation after several women accused him of sexually inappropriate conduct, despite Franken publicly examining his actions and agreeing to an ethics review. How does that square with her call in the book that, in order to address the crisis of hate — which is expressed in ignorance as well as hurtful behavior — we must first see it in ourselves? Transferring that belief to the political realm is far from impossible, but it does get tricky, requiring diligent care with language and openness to continual evolutions of thought. Was Franken’s apology too little too late? Kohn’s answer raises a separate point while championing the gospel of consistency.
“I don’t think every single person who does something wrong needs to be fired, per se,” she says. “To me, what’s important is to be consistent, and to not apply standards differently because of partisanship or some other bias. If Al Franken had been a Republican, I would have said, ‘That’s it.’ Should he be publicly flogged? No, of course not. But do you get to remain in a position of power and authority?
“One of the most interesting things about the #MeToo moment that we have not talked about is, here we have a dynamic in our country where we have a historic over-representation of men, especially straight white men, in positions of power and authority, and they behave this badly. Right? So let’s reframe it. Let’s think of it as bad-acting, overtly misogynistic men, taking jobs and opportunity away from others. We should think about that. Again, whatever standard we’re applying to one side applies to the other. To me, that’s the point.”
Kohn applies that standard to herself, which is part of what makes “The Opposite of Hate” a worthy read. At its conclusion she tracks down the schoolmate she bullied to apologize. Vicky is “tense, even strained” when she finally responds — and disinclined to let Kohn off the hook. The only way to achieve absolution for past transgressions, she advises, “is to improve the world, prevent others from behaving in similar ways, and foster compassion.”
“Which isn’t forgiveness,” Kohn writes, “but is exactly the connection I needed.”
Sally Kohn discusses “The Opposite of Hate” with Reza Aslan in the Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre at New Roads School (3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica), at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 2. Tickets are $20 to $55 at livetalksla.org.