An interview with Sally Kohn, Activist, Commentator, and Author, by NGP National Officers Avalon Fenster and Katelyn Goodpaster

Sally Kohn is a former Fox Commentator, founder of the think tank Movement Vision Lab, and author of “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity”.

AF: Tell us a bit about your recent book, “The Opposite Of Hate” and its intriguing subtitle “A Field Guide To Repairing Our Humanity.” What does humanity mean to you, and what kind of meaning do you think the word “humanity” should take to guide young people as they work towards a better tomorrow for our country?

SK: I think we need to understand that people — people who do things that are atrocious or say things we find atrocious or vote in ways we find atrocious — they’re still people. We tend to talk about how we dehumanize immigrants and people of color and queer folks and that’s absolutely the case and a main thrust of my writing and life’s work.  And at the same time, those of us who are supposedly so against dehumanization when it comes to “us” and “our people” turn around and do a version of dehumanization against others. And look, I think we only get better together. I believe in change and I believe in redemption and I know people can change — and the first step, across the board, tends to be seeing the humanity in “the other.”

AF: What are your experiences with hatred? How have they informed the way in which you approach and assess the current climate of hatred in this country on a more personal level?

SK: I think we all experience hatred all around us — and sadly seem to be witnessing more and more of it, in racist or anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant violence.  But for me, the question is also where is that hatred in me? The society that produced those extreme examples also produced me. So I need to do more to be aware of my own part of the problem.  

KG: How can teenagers, like Avalon and me, seek to challenge subliminal hate culture that is present in our schools amongst students, and sometimes even adults? And as a nation, what do you think the first step we should take for becoming a more accepting society should be?

SK: Again, it begins with checking yourself, building that capacity of self-awareness and catching your own thoughts and prejudices.  And then I think there’s something to applying the concept of “upstander” more broadly. We all have heard racist jokes or misogynistic taunts and said nothing, or even joined in to seem “cool.”  But you know “cool” is a collectively agreed upon concept. Something becomes “uncool” the minute enough of us decide to redraw the lines. So we need to consciously — compassionately and kindly but very deliberately — redraw the lines to make hate in all forms completely and totally uncool.

We have to root out systemic discrimination, injustice and segregation in every way imaginable.  We know that diverse and inclusive schools, communities, and workplaces are at least part of the solution — to changing our ideas about one another and deconstructing hate.  And yet we can’t get there when we have segregated neighborhoods and police who treat people differently depending on the color of their skin. We need to fix systems of hate to unravel hate in our culture and society.

AF: Having been a Fox commentator as a progressive, what were your biggest positive takeaways? In contrast, were there any specific instances where you found yourself questioning if any good comes out of bipartisanship? Tell us about any doubts and why, even in the face of these doubts, you still believe it is important for us to have the hard conversations.

SK: I don’t believe in bipartisanship or compromise for its own sake.  And in fact, I think we gloss over some of the very horrid, hateful, unjust things done by our government in a very bipartisan fashion.  So let’s not fetishize that. But I do believe in communication. I do believe in listening, trying to understand, and persuasion. I think there’s a trend today of writing off people who don’t agree with us, and that’s dangerous — I think interpersonally but also to this giant political democratic experiment of a country of ours.  

KG: What advice would you give to young women who want to go into politics? To girls who are trying to start being activists in their communities and beyond?

SK: Find something you’re passionate about and stand up and speak out. Don’t just pick the trendy issue, pick the one you feel genuinely connected to.  And then do more than post on social media or even signing petitions. Find organizations, ideally local organizations, working on your issue and show up.  Volunteer. Meet other people who are also concerned. And learn how to work with others to make change.

AF: You yourself are a mother of a young daughter who will be old enough to vote in a decade. Do you think that by that time, the face of national politics will have more civility than it does now? Why or why not?

SK: Oh sheesh… wow.  I doubt it. And again, I don’t want to prize civility on its own.  Yes, I think it’s important to talk to or about people respectfully. And I also think it’s important to have policies and systems and institutions of respect and equity and justice.  Far more important, in fact. But I think we can have both, and that both are important. Do I think things are going to get better on any front?  Well, I’m a long-term optimist — as imperfect and unjust as things still are, look how far we’ve come as a country. But in the short-term, I think things are going to get a lot worse — more nasty and more brutal — before they get better.

AF: What are your takeaways on the midterm elections? Do you think they can serve as any indicator of the potential outcome of the 2020 elections as many progressives have implied?

SK: Ooooh, it’s dangerous to predict anything these days.  I think, unfortunately, there’s a strong chance Donald Trump will be re-elected but that it will be close.  We’re fighting for the soul of our country in 2020, for the kind of people we are and the kind of nation we want to be — and who is included in the American Dream and who is excluded.  This is a foundational fight. It’s not going to be quick and it’s not going to be pretty, but it’s unbelievably vital.

AF:What do you think makes [Gen Z] different about the way in which they approach politics generally, and the politics of hate? Do you think we are more or less confrontational than the generations before us?

SK: There’s a lot of evidence that the younger generation, certainly in the United States, is more inclusive and rights/justice-oriented than ever.  But that’s not universal, nor is it a given. And unfortunately a lot of the systems of injustice, the re-segregation of our schools for instance, or the rise in Islamophobic policies and attitudes, are affecting young people today and shaping their worldviews.  So fighting against hate is a fight each generation must undertake and never really gets easier, it just changes.

KG: And with that, we draw to the end of our interview. To leave on a lighter note, we like to end with the question of how do you take your coffee? It’s a bit silly, but there’s no fun in being serious all the time.

SK: Ha!  I’ve become a coffee drinker… it’s a long story but basically, I gave up honey and milk and found I don’t like tea without honey and milk.  Tea was basically just a honey and milk vehicle for me. So once I switched to almond milk, I realized I like lattes. The rest is history!

Next Generation Politics is thankful to have been able to chat with Ms. Kohn, and we encourage our readers to watch her fantastic TED Talk, “What We Can Do About The Culture of Hate”  and to pick up a copy of her book, “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.”