It’s no secret that Americans are wildly divided on issues. It’s no secret that people can get pretty rude when listening to beliefs different from theirs. And, I think we might all be guilty of it at some point or another.
My students are well-aware of this divide, and they aren’t always quite sure how to navigate it. That’s why Sally Kohn’s The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity is a popular choice for my 10th-grade students when a book for nonfiction book club.
Kohn is a political commentator on the Left side of the aisle, but she’s worked for Fox News and CNN. So she is experienced in actually listening to the “other side.” She writes about the negative emotions she felt when President Donald Trump won the 2016 election and then realizing that people — Right and Left — weren’t listening to one another. Instead, everyone seemed to spew hate at one another, which left Kohn feeling icky. Finally, she recognized that hate is a problem of pandemic proportions not just in the United States but across the globe.
“The hate that’s brewing now is harmful, frightening, and increasingly acute. It doesn’t have to be the worst moment in history for it to be bad enough to warrant a concerted effort at reckoning — and change. . . . We talk about politics and political engagement in aggressive, apocalyptic terms.”Kohn 8
“We’ve gotten to the point where hate is such an acceptable norm that we not only believe it’s inevitable but we try to overtly market its benefits — and exploit hate for profit.”Kohn 9
She decided to get to the bottom of why hate reigned in conversations about politics, social issues, and ideologies instead of civil discourse. She decided to start with herself: she talks about her own temptation to operate under hate rather than tolerance and understanding. As a young person, Kohn remembers bullying another young person. The memory haunted her into adulthood, prompting her to reach out and make things right.
According to Kohn, we all engage in hate. Admitting this and recognizing this is the first step towards understanding why other people hate and how we can stop hate in its tracks in favor of something more productive.
“The bad news is that we all hate. All of us. That includes me — and I’m afraid it also includes you. . . . In different ways and to different degrees, consciously or unconsciously, all of us, in one way or another, sometimes treat other individuals and entire groups of human beings as though they are fundamentally less deserving than we are.”Kohn 5
After analyzing her own experience with hate, Kohn chose to investigate those who hate her. Kohn has many of what she calls “trolls” on social media as someone with a strong media presence. She actually reached out to several people who “trolled” her on the Internet and interviewed them to understand why people hate.
“Trolling really is hateful, and it often hurts. Sometimes a lot. . . . Trolling also very clearly hurts our society.”Kohn 16
“the nature of technology can be inherently depersonalizing — and thus enable dehumanization.”Kohn 40
She discovered that biases and privilege are often at the root of why people hate. Psychologically speaking, humans imitate whatever societal biases are prominent at the time, leading them into hateful behavior.
“I thought they were being deliberately and even strategically hateful, when they’re mostly just bored. . . . Every coin has two sides. So, it turns out, does every human being”Kohn 37
One of humanity’s most common mistakes is the “attribution error,” or, as Kohn puts it, “our tendency to believe that when someone else does something hurtful, that person is hurtful — but when we do something hurtful ourselves, it’s because our action was justified by some situation or context.” As she conversed with her trolls, Kohn realized that attribution error was at the heart of their hateful Tweets towards her.
“Attribution errors and essentialism are like blinders, which stop us from truly seeing others accurately and fairly scrutinizing ourselves.”Kohn 31
“We often assume and act as though everyone on a given ‘side’ is an automatic proxy for the very worst behaving of their side’s most extreme examples. Such hyperpartisanship is just another form of attribution bias and essentialism.”Kohn 37
Expanding her view and research, Kohn interviewed a former terrorist, Bassam Aramin. Over coffee, he explained being born into a world at war in the West Bank in 1968. The attacks by Israeli soldiers on his family and community led him into a hateful mindset where he felt his only course of action was to hate back.
Aramin’s story and Kohn’s accompanying trip to Israel/Palestine helped her better understand how humans hate. “Competitive victimhood,” essentialism, bias, and conflict all feed into humans’ hateful behavior.
“We all think we’re suffering worse — and then feel justified in marginalizing those we believe are not suffering or even causing our suffering.”Kohn 58
Another phenomenon that fosters hateful behavior is a person’s need to belong, which Kohn discovered when she interviewed an ex-white supremacist, Arno Michaelis. In his story, Kohn noted the intense desire to belong, a connection which many neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups offer to people feeling isolated and lonely. The price? Subscribe to their heinous belief system that operates on hatred.
“A sense of belonging is a good thing, but when we allow our own uniqueness and the uniqueness of others to be subsumed into a forced amalgam, we lose our ability to think for ourselves.”Kohn 31
“a lot of people who join extremist groups don’t even really hate the maligned out-group so much as they crave approval from the in-group they’ve embraced. They’re just looking for belonging. The hate comes later.”Kohn 87
“The problem starts when our desire to belong leads us to identify so strongly with a particular social group that we become fierce in our belonging — to the point of engaging in, or at least condoning harmful otherizing.”Kohn 83
Eventually, Michaelis learned that he could find belonging without participating in white supremacist behavior and recovered from the lifestyle falling in with that ideology lured him into. But, it begs the question, are we doing enough to make sure people belong, so they don’t feel like they have to turn to neo-Nazis for human connection?
“If the people who fall into hate groups are just normal human beings searching for connection, what the hell is wrong with humanity that we find connection by deliberately disconnecting from and even disdaining others?”Kohn 98
Kohn is a dedicated Liberal. She’s fairly honest about that. She’s also very honest about her friendship with Trump supporter and Tea Party activist Scottie Nell Hughes. Hughes also worked for CNN and now works for RT America.
“People with the most diametrically opposed views can practice what I call ‘emotional correctness’ — holding ourselves accountable for talking to each other with respect and finding empathy for one another, no matter how strongly we disagree.”Kohn 1
Kohn and Hughes are a great example of what we should all be doing — talking civilly and listening to one another, even when we disagree. Why sacrifice human connection over politicians? Besides, through their conversation about how hate operates, Kohn discovered how we can hate unconsciously.
It was, in fact, Kohn’s rich conversations with Hughes that led her to study unconscious hate, or the implicit biases we all have. An implicit bias is when we have an opinion about someone or something that we don’t realize we have.
“Undetected hate hiding deep in our brains is still hate. Just like a little cancer is still cancer. You don’t want even a smidgen inside of you.”Kohn 146
“Systemic racism . . . can be hard for white folks to see, because it’s not targeted at them and we don’t talk about it as a society.”Kohn 118
For example, we might think we are “neutral” or the opposite. Still, suppose we really interrogate our thinking: we might discover a bias so buried that we never realized how it might affect our behavior and those around us.
A great way to determine if you have an implicit bias is to take the Implicit Association Test, which you can take for free here. Psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji created the test in 1998.
I took the test, too. Some of the results didn’t surprise me at all (I’m more likely to vote Democrat than Republican), but many did surprise me!
One of the tests let me know that I have an implicit bias about Black people with weapons. This startled me because I have no memory of actually seeing a Black person who I know hold a weapon, but I have seen real White people that I know hold and own guns. Why doesn’t my bias align with reality?
I guess that media and television conditioned this bias within me. I hope I’ve never discriminated against someone because of this bias and if I have I am sorry for it.
“When it’s all around us, we soak it in and regurgitate it.”Kohn 125
The important part is that I’m now aware of this bias; I’m interrogating it and paying more attention to how it affects me and those around me. I think this is an essential step in combating hate! We have to first recognize it in ourselves and root it out before we can help other people detox from hate.
“All of us need to come to terms with the fact that we all hold unconscious ideas about the superiority of some groups and the inferiority of others — ideas that may not be expressed like they were in 1950s Virginia but that come from the same history and hateful legacy. And when I say all of us, I really do mean every one. Myself included. And you, too.”Kohn 126
“The whole point is to just be more self-aware — and that doing so can actually help counter any bias.”Kohn 134
It was pure coincidence that I read this book during the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in the Spring of 2020. Ironically, one of the chapters focuses on how not only coronaviruses spread pandemically — hate does, too. When hatred becomes a pandemic, one of the nefarious consequences is genocide.
Scholars and survivors wrote much about the holocaust of WWII. But, what many people do not realize is that genocide still happens. Visit any Holocaust museum, and they will be sure to leave you with information about more recent and current genocidal horror across the globe. To bring attention to this, Kohn interviews survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
“What makes atrocities like the Rwandan genocide so hard to fathom is that so many perfectly ‘normal’ people not only look the other way at the horror but often actively, even enthusiastically, participate. . . . not because a few evil monsters did unspeakably evil things but because, by and large, good, even loving, people did unspeakably evil things. . . . When we take that in, we realize that genocide is terrifying not only because it happened to them but because it could happen to us — and that we could just as easily be the victims or the perpetrators.”Kohn 158-7
Kohn met with and interviewed a group of Hutus and Tutsis in her travels to Rwanda. Despite sharing a painful past where even one of them murdered the father of the other, they came together to share what they learned about the dangers of hate.
They explain how they felt hateful propaganda created an environment in which hatred spread amongst the two tribes. Forgiveness followed in the wake of destruction, but all of these survivors spoke as though they wished the destruction never happened in the first place.
“Forgiveness is a complicated thing.”Kohn 181
Kohn uses these stories to help us understand that if we don’t end hate in the U.S., we might face similar consequences.
“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 . . . . Americans should be terrified that a survivor of the Rwandan genocide hears the same type of hatred that lit his own country on fire being spewed here.”Kohn 160
And I am terrified. It’s why I took so much of what Kohn says in this book to heart.
Kohn finally moves out to examine the whole picture of hate through the lens of systemic hate. The cure? Form systems of connection rather than systems of hate. There are many ways to do this, Kohn says, but it is inevitably up to us to put them into place.
“Systems that are shaped by hate produce hateful results. Unless we stop them.”Kohn 197
The way to end hatred and its horrific consequences isn’t winning the argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table or the back-and-forth bickering on Facebook. Instead, we all need to do a better job listening to people we disagree with, to people who hurt us.
“even if hate is something our enemies do and cherish, something that may literally define them — it doesn’t have to define us.”Kohn 73
This is not to say you put yourself in a situation where you will get hurt, nor to say that you shouldn’t express your beliefs and reasoning.
“It’s an individual’s responsibility to challenge social norms and, when need be, defy them.”Kohn 169
Rather, look for opportunities where you can safely listen — actually hear — what the other side says; try to understand why they feel the way they do. Kohn calls them “opportunities to practice [your] humanity.” Then, find out if there is a way to safely connect with them to discover mutual understanding and respect.
“I could have more influence if people would actually listen to me, which practically speaking, they weren’t going to do if they thought I hated them.”Kohn 2
“What we all have in common is more than — and more important than — any differences. And it’s also how relationships are built.”Kohn 207
“the problem is that now hardly anyone is listening.”Kohn 212
How do we even do that? Kohn offers several strategies throughout the book. One of my favorites is something she calls “ABC.”
“Affirm: find a feeling that you can genuinely affirm.
Bridge: a way of saying “and,” “that’s why,” “actually,” “the thing is,” “the good news is.” “But” basically invalidates whatever came before it.
Convince: put whatever I was included to spit out in the first place, about how comprehensive immigration reform actually . . .”Kohn 36
Indeed, that is not easy. That’s likely why people take the easy way out and shut down connection with hate. But the cost of hate is expensive. The toll it takes on our bodies, minds, communities, and planet is simply not worth it.
“Too often, we begrudgingly accept hate, or even cheer it on. Too often, we don’t see the hate around us. Too often, we don’t see it in ourselves. Too often, people in our communities and around the world are beaten down by hate that we consciously or unconsciously spread. But it’s hate we should be beating. The prize for doing so is a sweeter future for all of us.”Kohn 12
By the end of Kohn’s book, readers realize that,
“The opposite of hate is . . . not love. You don’t have to love people to stop hating them. You don’t even have to like them. You also don’t have to concede the validity of their views. . . . The opposite of hate also isn’t some mushy middle zone of dispassionate centrism. You can still have strongly held beliefs, beliefs that are in strong opposition to the beliefs of other people, and still treat those others with civility and respect. . . . Ultimately, the opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection.”Kohn 226
I think this is my favorite option for the nonfiction book club. Students report that it is readable, and they like how Kohn uses real-world examples to model how hate destroys us and how connection heals us. I like the thought of my students becoming global citizens who can have a rational conversation with anyone — even people who have radically different beliefs than them. I like the idea that my students can be safer in the world if we all start connecting rather than hating.
My high school students get this. I just hope the adults in their lives will, too.
Trigger Warnings: bullying (cyberbullying, online abuse); hate crimes; homophobia; racism; war (apartheid, genocide)