correction: A previous version of this story criticized Kohn’s book for naming the victim of her childhood bullying. The author has since clarified that she had used a pseudonym, Vicky Rarsch, but did not indicate that in the text. This version of the review includes Kohn’s assertion that she had permission to quote Aminatou Sow.
The bad news from Sally Kohn: We all hate, and if we think we don’t, we’re lying to ourselves. Kohn’s good news: With fearless scrutiny of our personal histories, motives and prejudices, and by connecting with those who are different, we can hate less. To launch this growth, she insists, we must be willing to admit to the biases that fuel our hatred.
That hand waving in the air belongs to Sally Kohn, who is volunteering to go first, with her new book, “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.” She will now, however, be scaling that mountain with more baggage than she intended to pack. A source’s grievance has become public, resulting in an awkward email exchange between Kohn and the source. It marks a hard stumble on the way to a sometimes-sloppy but well-intentioned examination of a national political pathology.
Kohn is a liberal writer and political commentator — first for Fox News, where she lasted about a year, and then for CNN, where she has worked since early 2013. Before her TV career took off, she spent 15 years as a community organizer.
These are a few facts of her career, but her description in the book of who she is gets to the heart of things: “I regularly assume that men are more qualified and knowledgeable on subjects than women are. I often wonder how my female colleagues got their jobs but don’t even think to question the credentials of male colleagues. I try to notice it and catch myself and counteract it, but those biases are there. Not to mention the fact that I’m a butch lesbian who dresses in men’s clothing and ostensibly benefits from masculine power and privilege because of how I present in the world.”
She adds: “I catch myself doing it and try not to do it, but if I see a white person in a Mercedes, I don’t even think about it. I just assume they’re a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. I just assume they’re rich. But if I see a black person driving a Mercedes, I notice it and I wonder why they have that car. That’s bias. My bias.”
Kohn is many things, but such passages establish that she is no hypocrite. No finger-waving, no lectures from the mountaintop delivered in the voice of God. She is willing to lay herself bare to help us pry open our own scarred hearts.
Kohn decided to write this book because of who she became in the immediate months after the 2016 presidential election: “I truly couldn’t fathom that anywhere near a majority of my fellow Americans had voted for Donald Trump, and as much as I tried to pretend to be magnanimous and uniting, I hated them for it. Suddenly, all the partisan nastiness I’d tried to suppress or even solve as a talking head came rushing back to me with even more vengeance. Instead of being a prominent critic of incivility, I felt like I was auditioning to be the poster child for partisan hate.”
Off she went, navigating the stormy waters of politics and public discourse in search of a better version of herself.
Sometimes, the book relies too much on a single person to represent an entire group of people. She writes at length about one conservative friend, one Palestinian activist, one former skinhead. In one instance, Kohn quotes Aminatou Sow, the “Call Your Girlfriend” podcast co-host, as angrily demanding to know why it’s always up to black women to rise above others’ abuse. Sow has objected to how she was portrayed in the book and claimed that Kohn failed to ask permission to quote her — a charge that Kohn disputes. Their disagreement flared into the public eye when Sow took her grievance to Twitter, where she has about 185,000 followers.
Kohn has since apologized to Sow both publicly and in a private email for any pain she has caused her. Algonquin Books, Kohn’s publisher, has removed Sow’s name from digital editions, at Sow’s request, but it remains in the first print edition. Kohn, nonetheless, stands by her assertion that Sow granted approval to use her quote and said in a statement she regrets not double-checking with Sow before publication.
Kohn is at her best with what seems to be deep reporting. In one of the most riveting sections of the book, she describes in harrowing detail the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the Hutu majority massacred about 800,000 Tutsis in only 100 days. She interviews murderers and survivors, and their stories of love and redemption may be hard for some to comprehend, but they are impossible to dismiss.
The spirits of the genocide dead cast a long shadow, Kohn warns. “I wanted to understand what genocide can tell us about how such intense hate systemically engulfs a whole society and how its spread can be systemically prevented. What I learned is that a combination of long-stewing resentments, explicit dehumanizing propaganda, and official sanctioning of violence fuel explosive hate. A genocide doesn’t just spontaneously erupt, even one as ferociously fast-burning as the Rwandan genocide was. The flames are strategically, societally fanned. And what I find deeply troubling about the lessons of Rwanda for the United States and the rest of the world is that the embers of hatred are being stoked in so many places today in so many similar ways. . . . Maybe Rwanda and Nazi Germany and Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia weren’t bizarre aberrations but merely examples of how any culture in any country might turn monstrous.”
Sometimes Kohn’s naivete cannot be muted. She was “surprised” to discover that Fox’s Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, is “pretty nice.” She was “shocked” by the vitriol of so many trolls on Twitter, so she interviewed some of the worst of them, including a 54-year-old woman who had encouraged her to commit suicide, and discovered that they “were not only civil to me but rather nice.” Readers should be forgiven for thinking, “So what?” Is hate’s harm any less if there’s a beating heart behind it? Or does that make it even worse?
Occasionally, in her eagerness to find connection, Kohn comes too close to excusing the worst among us. “Terrorists don’t see themselves as hateful,” “normal” people lynched black people, and most white supremacists start out just looking to belong: “The hate comes later.” She is right that circumstances and environment contribute to who we become, but this short book, with its often chirpy and rollicking tone, is not the vehicle for this necessarily deeper exploration.
One of Kohn’s driving themes is that the opposite of hate is connection. Talking face to face, for example, can make it more difficult to treat the other person as an anonymous enemy. Responding to attacks on social media with questions, she writes, rather than retorts can lower the heat. Sometimes this works; often it does not. Both parties must aspire to better versions of themselves. There is also the question of fairness. She briefly concedes that too often in the pursuit of healing, we expect the oppressed to enlighten the oppressor. This is a grievance that deserves far more discussion.
Kohn’s book has its lighthearted moments, such as when she offers an “ABCing” approach for holiday gatherings with relatives whose politics differ from ours.
A is for “affirm”: For example, start your response to an uninformed comment about immigrants with, “I’m also really worried about the economy.”
B is for “bridge”: Find a better word than “but” or “however,” which Kohn calls “the Harvard of ‘buts.’ ”
C is for “convince”: As Kohn explains, “This is where I put whatever I was inclined to spit out in the first place, about how comprehensive immigration reform actually raises wages and working standards for immigrant and citizen workers, or whatever point I wanted to make.”
Well, why not try?
After more than 200 pages of trying to help us overcome all that stunts us, Kohn offers another confession: She is quite the unfinished soul, still.
“Personally, I haven’t figured out how to stop hating, let alone how to consistently pursue meaningful, mutually respectful connections. I’m constantly catching myself hating someone or something. . . . From being pissed at a slow driver and thinking he’s Asian. To saying that maybe most Trump voters are deplorable racists. To wondering if the trans person I just met is a ‘real woman.’ My own hate constantly oozes out in small and big ways. In other words, I haven’t arrived at some place of enlightenment. I’ve simply realized I need to turn on the light — and start noticing things differently and trying to be different.”
Like most of us, Kohn still has plenty of mountain to scale, and to her credit, she does not want to go it alone. And so she shares her stories, including this one: Kohn hired a private investigator to track down what had become of a girl she had bullied back in the fifth grade. She identifies the woman as Vicky Rarsch, a pseudonym; but in a lapse belonging both to Kohn and her publisher, she does not indicate in the book that this name is a pseudonym. Kohn writes that the woman responded to a private Facebook message from Kohn asking for forgiveness with some advice of her own: “Messages such as this cannot absolve you of your past actions,” she wrote to Kohn. “The only way to do that is to improve the world, prevent others from behaving in similar ways, and foster compassion.”
In other words, some things we do or say we cannot take back. The only way forward is to try harder next time.
to Repairing Our Humanity
By Sally Kohn. Algonquin. 262 pp. $27.95