Sally Kohn

How to Unlearn Hate

Air Date: January 18, 2019

Sally Kohn, social activist and CNN commentator, talks about bigotry and her new book “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. Author of “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity” activist Sally Kohn is our guest today and we’re delighted to host her. One of the last surviving deep political thinking talking heads, if we can be brutally honest, and the host of the podcast State of Resistance, Kohn has penned an illuminating account of our nation’s crisis of hatred, which appears more and more to be an epidemic, infecting our politics, our psyches, and our very American creed. Kohn says, “the opposite of hate isn’t love, it’s connection.” She writes, “You don’t have to love people to not hate them. You have to see that you have something at your core: a fundamental humanity. A fundamental goodness.” She adds, “We have to do something about the way in which our lives and our communities are segregated, increasingly ideological, also racial; economic. It’s a very interesting thing about the gay thing. You can have these stealth gay people. I was one of them, where I was dormant in my family the whole time. Then suddenly surprise: I’m gay and they already liked me, so it worked out well, and that’s why we had such quick progress on gay rights as a country. That doesn’t usually happen, say with black people or Muslims. Your cousin doesn’t just suddenly one day come out to be Mexican.” Welcome Sally, your words: all really brilliant words.

KOHN: Nice to be with you. Thank you. That’s so kind of you. Nice to be on with you.

HEFFNER: Is it getting any better?

KOHN: (Laughs) Do you, do you want me to hold you and tell you that it is. I mean would that make you feel better?

HEFFNER: Not at all.

KOHN: Look, if you want some comfort, it’s not as bad as it’s… there’s a lot of people think, well, this is as bad as it’s ever been. We’re as divided as we’ve ever been. People seem to forget that we have a history of brutality and injustice in this country and in many ways we’re a country that was founded on, that was created through brutality after brutality, division after division, you know, and that we fought a civil war; that we have been divided before in as many ways as there are to be divided. So I’m not sure if it’s getting worse or not. It feels certainly in the last two years like it is, and I think part of the nature of social media is that we’re so surrounded by it and also all participating in it that it can feel in a lot of ways louder and more severe, but to my mind it doesn’t have to be the worst it’s ever been to be bad enough that we have to do something about it.

HEFFNER: I think you said it, we’ve had disunion, if you think about slavery, if you think about something as recent as Matthew Shepard, if you think about the brutality, it has been pretty bad, here. Before I ask you how we repair it, reading your book and seeing something on Twitter just the other day made me depressed.

KOHN: Well, that’s your first mistake you couldn’t see anything on Twitter

HEFFNER: Well. Here it is because you say key to empathy and key to rescuing our soul is parenthood. So the Parkland students, we know the ones who have been active in pursuit of gun control, gun safety, and then there’s a contingent that’s not, they’re actually students of the Parkland school who oppose gun control measures and they were arguing with each other about who’s being exploited monetarily, who is upon a, who was on the Ellen DeGeneres show who is supported by the NRA and I just thought, isn’t this the hate and what is the opposite of that? But is it the millennials, the post-millennials? Are they going to learn to extricate from the Twitter-sphere where it is just this kind of unleashing of ad hominem and attack, attack, attack?

KOHN: I don’t like to ascribe the problem to any one generation or for that matter, you know what it just doesn’t… We can talk for days about who does it worse and who did it first, and I look, I have opinions, I have opinions about which side, if we’re thinking ideologically tends to be worse and all that, it, it on some level it matters on some level it really doesn’t because the fact is we have a problem that we have to fix. Now I do think one thing that we need to do more of is unpack notions of civility, kindness, respect, all these things, and to understand that when we’re talking about that we’re generally talking about two things, we’re talking about interpersonal niceness, kindness, civility, respect in the way we with and talk about and treat one another and that would include online and off.

And then there’s justice, radical kindness, respect, civility with respect to policies and politics. Actually how we institutionalize and systematize ideas and norms of equality and justice and dignity for all into our actual laws and policies and practices. And neither one of those is sufficient. Again, we could all talk, which is more important. They’re both important. They’re both important. It is part of the reason I’m a progressive, part of the reason I believe in fighting for justice and equality for all is because I actually believe all people are equal and deserve equal opportunity, respect and justice and so that should inform if I’m being morally consistent, that should inform both the policies and politics I support, but it should also inform the way I treat people as individuals. We’ve had moments in our history where we failed on both those fronts or one or the other. And I don’t think it’s as simple as saying; look, you know, “tisk tisk” for how you treat people online.

Yes, it hurts my heart when I see people engaging in ad hominem attacks online. And at the same time we had a period in our country where according to scholars, the most civil period in American history, in the late forties to the late fifties, was when both sides of our government, the Democrats and Republicans were very civilly perpetuating some very, very messed up laws and some extreme injustice. And so it is actually about a recognizing the problem across the board. Seeing it in its different forms, taking some responsibility for how we ourselves are all part of the problem and what we do about it and then figuring out how we walk and chew gum. Yes, it matters how you treat people one on one, online and off, and it also matters what you stand up for in terms of politics, candidates, policies, institutions, hiring practices, neighborhood segregation, school policies. All of that matters too.

HEFFNER: The example of the Parkland students, to me, the fact that these folks were debating victimology here and who suffered more, and you know, the heinousness of the opposite political prescription to the problem, just, to me it was, it was like how do we not have a leader who can help us transcend those difficulties right now or a new generation of leaders and maybe it’s these newly elected congressional office holders who will inspire that.

KOHN: You know, I think we are for a set of complicated reasons; we are a country that both politically and culturally seems to place a value on victimhood. And again, that is for some very important historical reasons. And part of the, part of what is beneficial about talking about patterns of marginalization and suffering and especially the communities and identities that have been on the receiving end of that historically in the past and still in the present, is to have ways to name injustice, to have markers with which to point out and call out injustice. And at the same time, even those who say they are opposed to that conversation; engage in a politics of victimization themselves. Donald Trump is, of course, a perfect example of someone who supposedly rose to prominence, you know, by being willing to say anything, anti political correctness complains that the Democrats want to turn everyone into victims and, and, you know, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And what does he do? He’s always being, playing himself the victim against the media. He talks about the, you know, he doesn’t use this language, but basically the disaffected white working class and how they’re being victimized. So it’s a, there’s actually a phenomenon and it comes from international relations in intractable conflicts in deep historic, divided regions called competitive victimhood. And what happens in competitive victimhood is that we’re so busy fighting over sort of who’s suffering worse and you know, look, if we look just the right way or if we go back enough, you can make a case that anyone is, but the point is. The point is everyone’s suffering. And in these dynamics we do know that, you know, look, with the exception of a small handful of people, the economy isn’t benefiting anyone. We know that racial segregation, racism, misogyny isn’t benefiting people. It’s hurting men and women. It’s hurting white people and black people. We know these things to be true. We have data to show it. And yet we focus on, well the other dynamic is that we ended up focusing on, well, how am I, how am I suffering? And maybe how am I suffering more than you? And we tend to not talk about how we then are part of the problem, right? Because look, suffering, victimhood requires perpetrators. And the fact is, the vast majority of us in some ways are victims and some ways are perpetrators. But we tend to only talk about and get sort of social political currency for talking about the ways in which we are victims. We need to start talking about, not with blame and shame and anything like that but what with responsibility with clear-eyed, solution oriented responsibility about how we’re also all in some ways perpetrators, including perpetrators of injustice, hate, discrimination and bias.

HEFFNER: Right. And that goes to your point of how do we unlearn to hate in these kinds of situations. And what’s the answer?

KOHN: (LAUGHTER) Well, look, I mean it, like anything, right? Parkland. You can’t learn something until you’ve seen it, right? You, you can’t really, you can’t solve a problem until you know you have a problem. And that actually is a big piece of this puzzle. You know, in the book I talk about, as you said, the opposite of hate isn’t love. You do not have to love someone to not hate them. You’re welcome. You don’t have to like them. You have to see this connection. You have to experience and understand this connection and this idea, look, as I said, it goes back to for me, moral, a moral grounding. There’s a moral and a political or a practical reason for this. Morally. Look. If I say I believe in the equal dignity and humanity of all people, then the question is, do I really mean all people?

Not just my people. Do I actually mean all people, including those who would deny my equality, my humanity? If I believe that equality, dignity, justice, humanity are not conditioned. They’re not something you earn, right? Because of where you were born or because of how hard you worked and because of how much is in your bank account or because of, right? They’re not something you earn they are something you have by virtue of existing. Then in theory that means I believe other people have it, not just they earned it by treating me nicely or respectfully or treating others nicely, respectfully, right? And so there’s, there’s that moral component to it. There’s also a practical piece here too, which is, look, I want the world to change. I want the world to be better. I want us to be a more just equitable, fair, and respectful in all senses of the word, place, and I have never seen anyone change, nor read about or heard about or seen research that shows people change because they’ve been hated into it, because someone screamed at them enough that they saw a new way of thinking, right? We tend to change, right, through our experiences, through our exposure, right, through reflection, and when we understand how that happens, we understand that the opposite of hate is actually connection, making those human connections and being brought along to see the world differently than we have, but the possibility, recognizing that that’s even a possibility requires an investment not even investment’s the wrong word; requires a faith, requires a faith that all people have the potential to be good.

HEFFNER: There are folks who harbor the hatred or resentment as a function of bad experience, not good experience, and when you actually see the real life flesh of a problem, it’s not what they’ve considered.

KOHN: Correct.

HEFFNER: It’s not, you know, and sometimes like Kathy Cramer, the scholar who’s studied rural Wisconsin, when you take the microcosms, then you light them up and you and you extrapolate what someone in rural Wisconsin feels, who Scott Walker and maybe saw their condition didn’t improve after three terms or three elections of Walker. Now they have a progressive Tony Evers taking office…

KOHN: Right.

HEFFNER: That those folks in rural Wisconsin weren’t actually denied opportunities because of what was going on in the State House or what Scott Walker was making the bogeyman out of, right. So that’s what I was interested in your thoughts on.

KOHN: Well, look. Well one of the things I did in my book was in addition to the research around hate and hate groups in all forms, I spent time with ex-neo-Nazis…


KOHN: And former terrorists. And one of the things I did was I looked at genocide, the phenomenon of genocide and spent then time in Rwanda with people, including people who had participated in genocide and now renounced their hate and don’t. And looking at the very complex, I mean, that’s an understatement, interpersonal, and political implications of that. One of the things that struck me the most was in preparing for that trip, I talked to a philosopher named Elizabeth Minnich and she pointed out that, you know, look, we don’t have mass atrocities because psychopaths, they’re just, there are fortunately aren’t enough psychopaths and there weren’t enough in Germany or in Serbia or in Rwanda. Numerically is not possible.

The reason we have mass atrocities, in fact, the reason we call them mass atrocities is because masses of people participate in them, participated in them, including people who, by the way, believe themselves to be good before, during, and after. That. That’s when we, when we actually, because what we tend to do, in fact, even in the way we talk about evil, is we tend to sort of think these are extraordinarily bad things that extraordinarily bad people do, and sometimes that’s the case, but when we look at things like genocide and when we dial that back to just look at sort of quotidian, more quotidian hate the kind we have in our country, the kind, not just, we’re not just talking about the overt bigots, the explicit hate, but the unconscious bias, right? The fact that we have, we have people who are policed differently, statistically policed differently in this country because of their skin color, not just because of a handful of overtly bigoted police officers. Thank God there’s not enough of them. The reason we have disproportionate treatment in policing, in schools, in jobs is because of pervasive bias. Now to me, I call it hate still. It may not be conscious hate, but it’s unconscious hate and it comes from the same spring, comes from the same history of bias and hate in the past, and the same institutionalization and systemization of those ideas of difference in discrimination in the present. And we actually are all part of the problem.

HEFFNER: Well, and we can be frank and objective here in that. That is what Donald Trump revived. I mean, he revived the tolerance of, the shifting from the implicit hatred back to a more explicit, and there’s a roadmap …

KOHN: Sure.

HEFFNER: The concerns you describe in Rwanda are not the ones we have today here, thankfully. But, as your facial expression demonstrates, and mine too, we’re concerned that a hatred of immigrants can lead to that path. Basically there are conditions of implicit bias in this country.

KOHN: And has before in this country.

HEFFNER: Donald Trump was the vehicle for achieving that resurgence. I mean, we’ve seen hate crimes explode.

KOHN: We would not have, again, we wouldn’t have the systemic, statistical unarguable reality of classism, racism, misogyny, etc. you know xenophobia, anti Semitism, Islamophobia were it just for a handful of overt bigots. You can’t, you can’t, there’s… There’s, there’s a mismatch, right? We have a bigger problem than we and we have fortunately over bigots. Now. It’s true, right? There’s a whole conversation we could have about, well actually was a lot of that bigotry, just sort of overt, explicit bigotry, you know, sort of pushed to the margins because people were ashamed and now Trump has made it feel safe and comfortable and even positive to be overtly hateful again. Fair point. But at the same time, thankfully the vast majority of people actually don’t ascribe to be sexist or racist or they don’t, they don’t want to be. And yet we have systems, institutions, policies, a reality that is continually shaped, that can only continue to exist propped up by that dynamic. So it has to implicate all of us in some way.

HEFFNER: Are you hoping, Sally, that you’re going to spit this out of our system? What happened in 2016? This will be an aberration. This is….

KOHN: No, but that’s my whole point. That’s my whole point. This is not an aberration. Donald Trump is not a cause. He’s a symptom. Right?

HEFFNER: But you…

KOHN: And I mean, just pick. Sorry, pick one more example. For 60 plus years, the Republican party, to an extent the Democrats, specifically Bill Clinton, but by and large, the Republican party has been an explicit strategy of theirs to mobilize resentment in this country, particularly around fear, particularly around racialized fear. This is an explicit, is not like this isn’t conspiracy theory stuff. This is like, Nixon said it. He said this was a strategy, right? And of course, as you point out, Roger Ailes, architect of Nixon strategy then designed Trump’s strategy. And so, people like myself say, well look, there’s a, there’s this ongoing systemic dynamic where we have a mainstream political party – one of the two – that is deliberately ginning up fear, hatred and resentment in the voting base.

And it’s going to have this cause. And then what happens is, now watch the intellectual jujitsu we pull off here. Then what happens is you have people vote this way, and a lot of people like me say, well, they’re just hateful. Well, they’re just inherently racist, or inherently and without, those of us who believe in systems, believe in and understand the way that culture and, and the thumbprint of culture and politics and policies and systems that thumbprint, that it leaves on all of our conscious and unconscious minds, we see that when it comes to us, but when it comes to them, we say no, no, no, they’re just hateful, they’re just hateful people who voted that way, who acted that way, who did those things? We believe those things. There also a product of systems and structures and culture, and right, and listen. It’s one thing to blame the leaders. I’m not saying give people a pass. You still have free will. You still have, you get to choose. But they are also the product of systems of hate as well, right? Their thinking, their understanding has been shaped deliberately by a desire to manipulate them with hate.

HEFFNER: I wasn’t asking though you if,

KOHN: Sorry!

HEFFNER: No, it’s fine. I wasn’t asking you if the Republican Party would spit out that the Ailes tactics, are you heartened by the shift in some more traditionally conservative Republican districts and states: Arizona, that there will be less of a tolerance for Trump’s rhetoric in 2020, by which point a consensus will have formed in this nation that the electoral map, if we believe in our better angels, in Arizona and New York and the rust belt, that will overcome and it will not just overcome with defeating Trump, but a resounding defeat, or are you not hopeful of that?

KOHN: I mean it depends on the day you ask me, right?


KOHN: Like if we’re being honest, I think we are going through a pretty profound existential crisis as a country that is masquerading as a short-term political contest, but really is a pretty profound conflict. And it has to do with, look in some ways I think it’s actually, this is a longer conversation, but in some ways I think it’s a constructive movement away from elitism, right? Like we are finally as a result of economic forces as a result of some political forces, certainly as a result of social media, we are starting to, and at the failures of globalization, we’re starting to, as a people, as a country rebel against elitism in a way that I think is profoundly healthy, personally. And at the same time as we start to I think reshape and re-shift the kind of center of political gravity and what we’re fighting about, what we’re, what we’re increasingly fighting about is all right if the sort of governing orthodoxy of American politics for the next, you know, era will be about populism, right? Then the question is what kind of populism. And we’re really engaged in a pretty profound struggle about whether we have an inclusive democratic, just, populism for all or an exclusionary fear-mongering sort of hate fueled otherising kind of populism. And we see that contest taking shape all around the world in different forms and in different ways. So, you know, I’m not, (LAUGHTER) I mean I’m hopeful in the sense that we’re having these conversations. Right? I’m hopeful in the fact that like, we as a people in our country are talking about, you know, misogyny and white supremacy and you know, economic exclusion in ways that we haven’t for a long time, if ever. And I think that is constructive and helpful and positive. I think we’re kind of fighting about the right things. Does it mean that it gets resolved anytime soon? I think we’re in for a big, long fight here.

HEFFNER: Yeah. You have to just go back to the fact that Trump was a marginal figure even within the Republican Party. I mean, to the point that he won pluralities he didn’t win majorities, he won as a function of a lot of other folks in that Republican primary circus. And folks have described this as the perfect storm, but he is such a marginal actor in the sense that he represents, maybe a certain kind of Republican voter in recent years. But, I still don’t want to believe it’s the core, the fundamental humanity that you, that you talk about in the book because I don’t think he represents our fundamental humanity. I think we’re talking about the opposite,

KOHN: God help us. If he does, I don’t, I think it’s dangerous to suggest that Trump is too marginal a figure and in a way, you know, look, I call, I always hesitate to say this, but you know, you get the, you get the president you deserve. And in a way Trump is a perfect avatar for this moment in American history. This moment where we are really, on the one hand, we are so in love with the myths of our country, both the myths that were kind of rewritten and reconstituted of the past as well as the present about economic opportunity and the American Dream and so forth. And at the same time we are deeply as a country, we are deeply fractured over whom and how those ideas and ideals should apply. And I mean that’s by the way, that’s part and parcel of the American story forever, right? We we’re a country that was literally founded with lofty ideals and a failed to live up to them at almost every single step of the way, right? So…

HEFFNER: Well I think Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch will a document whether or not he is a marginal figure, whether he’s been absorbed in our jurisprudence and our law, and it’s not, it’s not about America or the Constitution anymore. It’s about, it’s about Trump. We’re out of time. Do you have final thoughts?

KOHN: We’re good. Yeah. We’re good?

KOHN: Yeah. Yeah. Good conversation.

HEFFNER: Sally, I really appreciate you being “The Opposite of Hate.” I encourage all of our viewers to go out and get it. It’s great. Great read. Thank you and thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.