Kohn wants to know if our current state of regression is the true nature of what we call the human condition.
Sally Kohn knows hate. She’s made a name for herself as liberal pundit on CNN and, prior to that, Fox News. That first gig immersed her in the bile reserved for queer women willing to lay down strong opinions in a public forum, but the emails from her viewers pale when compared to the vitriol awaiting her on Twitter. Her feed is routinely filled with the words that drove conservative commentators into a tizzy when uttered by Samantha Bee and Robert De Niro. For the most part, Kohn took it all in stride, viewing hate as the price levied on public personalities. Her opinions were being heard and she could believe in some small way that she was making a difference.
Then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, shaking Kohn’s belief in the fundamental goodness of her fellow citizens. Hate clouded her optimistic veneer and raised her tribal, liberal defenses. She began thinking of the millions of Trump supporters as citizens of Dumbfuckistan, a mythic country she and some friends dubbed all the red counties presented on an election map during the Bush years. The stereotyping and lack of empathy she defaulted to stunned her. This was a person who gave a TED talk on emotional correctness – “holding ourselves accountable for talking to each other with respect and finding empathy for one another, no matter how strongly we disagree” – yet the election of Trump made her hate his voters. This attitude ran anathema to who she believed she was as a parent and a person and spurred on a period of self-examination. The Opposite of Hate is the product of those ruminations.
Kohn begs a question with her thesis: Is hatred a fundamental aspect of the human condition? Such a query seems brazenly naïve, especially after Kohn details examples of the sorts of hatred she’s carried her whole life. If someone as self-aware as she, who grew angry at the organizer of her local block party for having the neighborhood children attack a Donald Trump piñata, has been spiteful and a bully the point is proven. She is actively working to create safe spaces for people to communicate openly, but is that an ardent reaction to a fundamental hatred so many of us want to deny? If hate is so basic to who we are as a species to deny it would be an evolutionary act and it feels like evolution ended in November 2016. Kohn wants to know if our current state of regression is the true nature of what we call the human condition.
To find her answers, Kohn turns to research in behavioral studies then tests what she learns on a variety of the most extreme subjects of fringe hatred. It begins where any study of hatred must, with Twitter trolls, continues with the stories of a former terrorist turned peace activist, an ex-white supremacist, state sponsored hatred in the form of genocide and concludes with institutional systems of hatred like the over-policing of minority communities and voter suppression. It is a progression from small, individual hatred to vaster societal architectures, but Kohn continually reinforces the similarities between philosophies of hatred no matter what the scale.
Hate has common symptoms. It requires grievance and the creation of subhuman underclasses. To hate one must create an “other” who does not feel as you feel, is less intelligent, or simply inferior as a condition to their existence. Otherizing begets stereotyping which results in dehumanization. These are social constructions that have nothing to do with inherent human normality. Hate is a system of power, a tool that is used to maintain an unequal status quo. Kohn seeks with her investigation to prove that humans can come back from the brink. With every chapter she looks to seed some hope in our current moment.
Her effort and intention are noble, but the book is exasperating in its construction. Equal parts memoir and doctoral thesis, Kohn manages to be pedantic and wholly engrossing depending on her subject. She is a communicator, who uses slogans and jargon masterfully. It is the art of the television personality, and where no terminology exists, she creates her own. It is a very neat effort to humanize the dehumanizers, find our behavioral commonalities whether conscious or subconscious and extrapolate the circumstance that drive us all to hate. After all, the terrorist see himself as a hero, a freedom fighter, not hateful or evil. This seems like settled knowledge for anyone who has seen films of the Milgrom Experiment, but these are dangerous times to believe that anything is known or settled.
“The hate brewing now is harmful, frightening, and increasingly acute. It doesn’t have to be the worst moment in history to for it to be bad enough to warrant a concentrated effort at reckoning – and change.”
At this very moment, the US government is separating children from their parents at border points. So much of Kohn’s premise is on display in this action, yet this feels new somehow. Maybe the issue in part is that the progress made toward semblances of equality during the Obama years was illusory. This hate has been boiling since before the Tea Party and learning to empathize with those who want to take everything away from you seems an act of folly. With The Opposite of Hate, Sally Kohn says it’s the most pertinent work and offers a remedy for our future. It will not be spoiled here, but given any familiarity with her work, you will be able to guess what it is. But she does offer an important sentiment.
“We’re at best in a constant state of awakening.” Those feel like words to live by emphasizing empathy. Either that or they are the very thing Germans were saying when the Nazis came to power.