In her new book, liberal writer and political commentator Sally Kohn explores what drives us to hate and how we can exchange our biases for hope.
Why did you decide to write “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity”?
I always thought hate was someone else’s problem. When I went to work at Fox News as a liberal lefty, I thought they all hated me. But I realized [something] when I went there. First, they were all quite nice people. They were not the horrible stereotypes I expected them to be. That was a shock to my system. I thought I’d hate them. That led me on this lifelong journey to try to understand why we hate, how we hate and what we can do about it.
You introduce your book with an episode of childhood bullying in which you were the bully. What was it like to look back on that episode as an adult?
Every time I get asked that question, I feel a pang of remorse all over again. That might be your answer. It’s hard to confront anything we do that is imperfect. But it is also through confronting those incidents that we learn and grow and change. I can’t say that I want others to learn and grow and change if I’m unwilling to do so myself.
Why did you decide to confront some of your trolls personally? Why were these people worse on Twitter than in person?
One of the things I talk about in the book is the scholarship of why people act out online. It is harder to do that face to face. But social media also allows for sharing some incredible stories about people doing unbelievably kind things for others that are deeply transformative. One of the ways in which I confront hate and deal with it on a daily basis is on my Twitter feed. Some people lead me to ask, how can people do this? I wanted to understand who these people are. Why do they hate me? They don’t think they’re hateful. They think I’m the hateful one. None of us, by and large, think we’re the problem. It’s a philosophy of hate that is extremely common.
Bassam is one of the stories I tell in my book, which gives me hope that none of us have to be hateful because of the things we’ve done or said in our lives. We all have the capacity for change. When Bassam was a teenager, he was, by his own account and Israel’s account, a terrorist. He was convicted of terrorism for an attack for which he wasn’t physically present and no one was harmed—he went to prison. Bassam acknowledges that he wanted to hurt and kill Israelis and Jews. In his mind and life, the two were conflated. The only Jews he knew were Israeli soldiers. In prison he saw a film about the Holocaust, which completely changed him. After prison, he got a master’s degree in Holocaust studies and founded this organization in which Israelis and Palestinians work together for common humanity and common understanding to find peace.
Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi, turned away from white supremacy. What does that say about how we come to hate and how we give up hating?
I was quite desperate to find evidence about how Arno became Arno. He grew up in the United States, where white racial supremacy exists in our institutions, culture, habits and psyche. The most extreme versions of that kind of hate are dormant in all of us. There is research in area after area that shows that a lot of the people who join hate organizations, terrorist groups or extreme anti-abortion groups don’t actually start out with those extremist, explicit, hateful views. People in those situations do what researchers call “sliding in to hate.” On the one hand, it is tremendously unfathomable to hate that deeply. Yet on the other hand, it allows people to change.
What is “connection thinking”—that the conscious effort to neutralize stereotypes is embedded in our amygdala?
Culturally we are hardwired and predisposed to have a preference for our in-groups and a fear and even hostility toward out-groups. That’s like the hardware based on evolution. Who we hate, particular groups that we hate as human beings, that is software. That’s not baked into neuro-anatomy or biology; that is taught to us by the history and habits of the nation and the world we live in, which means we can change it.
What did you learn in writing about the Rwandan genocide?
The thing about Rwanda that took my breath away was knowing about the extreme brutality you hope human beings would never be capable of. There is also the immense and, equally, if not more beautiful possibility, we all have for goodness, redemption and kindness in the face of brutalities. It’s important to remember that we all have those capacities. At the same time, we all have the possibility and responsibility to see the light.
What were some of the more profound moments you had while researching and writing this book?
It was this constant duality—every time I learned about it, I was still surprised that as much as we like to think hate is a product of the extremes, it is something we all have the capacity for. Hate is something we all have done and it is something we can help to solve through our actions. There are things to do in terms of public policy, politics, culture and media. Each of us has to see our part. We’re part of the problem and part of the solution.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Harvard Book Store and Mass Humanities welcome Sally Kohn for a discussion of her new book at Brattle Theatre on Thursday, April 19. She will be joined in conversation by strategist and CNN commentator Symone Sanders. Find more information here.