On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, CNN political commentator Sally Kohn talks about her new book, “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.” Kohn and Swisher argue vehemently for over an hour — about politics, journalism, how to deal with people who don’t agree with you — and still come out at the end with their humanity intact, proving it can be done.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone who hates the haters and enjoys doing it, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is Sally Kohn, a political commentator for CNN. She’s the author of a new book called “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.” Sally, welcome to Recode Decode.
Sally Kohn: It just took me a second to realize I’m in a red chair.
Yes, you are.
It’s a very red chair
It’s not a red chair, it’s the red chair.
Oh, excuse me.
Just so you know.
Thank you for having me in your red chair.
You’re in Silicon Valley now, Sally. No problem.
So, it’s gonna be a hot seat, we’re gonna talk about some controversy on your book around someone I know well and mean to tell so and others. But, we’re first gonna talk a little bit about the book, and then I do wanna get into that because it goes to the heart of what your book is about in a lot of ways, how we misunderstand and misrepresent people online, and how that happens. Today is a very good example with Kanye West and Donald Trump and all kinds of stuff.
There’s an example every day.
Every single ... well, it’s getting worse, I think in a lot of ways. Let’s talk a little bit about you. Let’s go into how you got up to this book. Now, you started off as an activist, or what’s your background?
I started out as an organizer. I spent the first 15 years of my career traveling around the country, helping people in communities who wanted to make changes, do what they wanted to do, connect with others, and win changes at the local and state and national level. I worked on immigration reform, health care policy, criminal justice reform.
How did you get into that? You had gone to where to school?
I went to George Washington University because I don’t know, I thought it would be fun to be politics adjacent.
Right. You’re interested in politics?
Yeah, I’m interested in like small-p politics. I was sort of raised by parents who instilled in me a value of making a difference and giving back. Then, when I came out in high school, I’d say that sort of amped that into more focus on justice and structural change and structural ... It made me wanna actually not just be a good volunteer on the side, but actually work to change the injustices that that exposed me to.
You went to college and then you went organizing. Give me some examples of the activism.
I mean, I went to graduate school too in the middle there. But it took lots of forms. I worked for national organizations throughout my organizing career. What I would literally do is go into rural Iowa where folks wanted to work on pig factory pollution issues. Whether it was helping them think about their media strategy, training them to do spokesperson training, so that when they were going and doing public events they were better spokespeople. Thinking about their goals and strategy and how they were getting from point A to point B and what their tactics were.
Organizing, you did do pig organizing or farm organizing? Is that one of them?
I did. I worked on health care reform, getting rural communities to engage in ... There were a lot of, when we were trying to pass Obamacare in this country, a lot of the opposition came from so-called Blue Dog Democrat counties, counties that were rural, white, conservative, but representative by Democrats. And those constituents wanted health care policy, had messed-up, defective, inefficient, expensive health care and wanted improvements, but weren’t being ...
Activated, weren’t speaking up. One of the things I did was work with a number — I didn’t run things myself — what I did was I worked with grassroots organizations in communities and cities and states around the country and supported their agendas, their goals, and helped them.
Right, that was 10 years, you worked on that for 10 years.
15, and so that was through Obama before that, it had to have been before that.
So lots of topics, lots of different topics. But you specialized in health care or?
No, I started in LGBT rights. Did criminal justice reform, health care, immigrant rights, economic justice issues.
But, you never went into politics yourself?
Oh, because I believe in the voice and leadership of others.
As an organizer, that’s what organizing is all about. You are there to amplify, support and lift up people who are most directly affected by these issues and that’s what I always held dear to my heart.
And you never worked on a political campaign? Did you work on a political campaign?
Very adjacent. I was usually on the other side. So for instance, in 2008 ... My gosh, you’re testing my history here.
I like to know people’s background.
No, no, no, this is lovely. In 2008, for instance, I helped to organize what was then the first-ever grassroots political forum where regular people were on the stage telling their stories and asking questions of the presidential candidates. Hadn’t been done before. That was my adjacency.
Did you bring us Ken Bone?
No, way before that. That was how I was campaign adjacent or organizations that are involved in voter registration voter turnout but in a more general good for democracy and issues and engagement way and not specifically candidate driven.
You did that, then how did you get to cable? How did you become the pet liberal of Fox?
Come on, that’s what they do.
That’s so cute. Well, let’s get into that. No, no, no, it’s all right. In 2009, I was speaking ...
They do it on CNN too. Like it’s the same difference.
Listen, we’re all pets in a cog and a wheel ...
No, we’re not.
Except for you, I’m sorry.
No, not everybody is, but let me talk about that. I’m trying to figure out how you got there from that.
In 2009, I was speaking at a conference, and a woman comes up to me afterwards and says, “We have to get you on television.” I looked at her and I kind of laughed and I said, “No we don’t because that’s not what I do.” My ethos and the whole world view I’d been raised on, the antithesis of being public, as an organizer, as a good organizer you’re supposed to be behind the scenes and you are helping the people who are actually affected by the issues and living these issues them be in the spotlight.
I said no, and I turned to walk away, and she grabbed my arm. She actually grabbed my arm kinda hard, and she said, “No, you’re gonna do this and you’re gonna be good at it.” That woman was Geraldine Laybourne.
For those who don’t know, first woman to ever run a network.
She ran Nickelodeon. Maybe not the network for me, although I do hold out hope so many someday I could still be a cartoon character.
Yeah, she was a real legend in programming.
Then she and Oprah started Oxygen. She was not a kind of person who takes no for an answer. She physically dragged me across the room and introduced me to Carol Jenkins, legend in New York broadcasting, and said, “She’s gonna train you, I’m gonna support you, I’m gonna mentor you.” And she was, as they say, as good as her word.
That’s a very Geri Laybourne thing to do.
It was a very Geri, I’ve come to find out. To be honest, initially I was like, all right, I get it, she doesn’t take no. I’ll go, this’ll be interesting, I could tell from my organizing work that the media was becoming more important in political engagement. There was also space opening up for not just reporters and experts and academics, whatever. But not just pundits but actual regular people to be in ... I thought, okay, cool. I’ll learn something and I’ll go back and be an organizer and I’ll just be a more media savvy organizer and I can spread those skills. Then, I realized I liked it.
It has a siren call to it.
I realized I liked it, I realized I was good at it. I realized my community, the activist organizing community I came from, was supportive of me in that role, and that it was a lot like organizing. It was just instead of 50 people in a church basement, I had millions of people on television, but it’s the same idea of translating ideas and activating people and engaging people and helping connect them to their hopes and dreams and ideas. So, it stuck, at least so far.
Okay. When you were actively doing it, you started on what channels?
I did what baby pundits do.
I went on Fox and MSNBC and CNN.
Right, so they put you ... how did you get on them? How did they? That’s what I wanna know.
You really wanna know the story? Because it’s funny.
Yes I do, I wanna understand because I wanna talk about your time there.
Okay, thank you, but like nobody ... This is a deep track here.
All right, that’s okay.
I started with Geri’s sort of encouragement and with support of Carol Jenkins, who at the time was running the Women’s Media Center. She then left and Jhemu Green ran the Women’s Media Center and they ran a training — which they still do, by the way — which is incredibly valuable and important, called Progressive Women’s Voices, where they train women.
How do you talk.
And you learn like how to get your thoughts into sound bites and also where do you look and how do you sit, and stuff that’s very, very important. In addition to that, some other trainings I did. But that training, because Jhemu had a relationship with Fox News, one of the things we did was we did a practice day at Fox News. We all went in, we got makeup, and we sat on the actual set and did practice interviews that then were taped and we watched back.
My practice interview was actually with Alisyn Camerota, who since has become a close friend. That was how we first met. I met in the greenroom someone who was helping organize this weekend training who was a booker for Sean Hannity. A few weeks later, you know, they trained us how to go pitch ourselves and whatever and all the stuff that I was super ...
I had no idea, but go ahead.
I was super uncomfortable with and I had to learn. Then I’d get my nerve and I’d call her up to pitch her, I forget the topic. It was very clear that she did not remember me, had no idea who I was, had no idea how I’d gotten her number, was incredibly rude and dismissive to me and hung up on me. About five minutes later she remembered who I was and that we’d met and had this nice conversation and talked about hobbies and whatever, and called back and profusely apologized that she’d forgotten my name and when we met and whatever, and felt so badly, she booked me on air.
Oh, wow. Okay.
Her name is Lauren Fritts, I’ve shared this story. She now works at WeWork, she worked for Governor Christie, she’s wonderful. My first national television appearance was about a year after that episode with Geri and it was on Sean Hannity’s show, Primetime with S.E. Cupp. We were debating public funding for public media, for NPR and PBS. That was it.
That’s one of their favorite topics.
Talk a little bit about that. You were on Sean’s show a lot, you know, Hannity’s show a lot. I shouldn’t call him Sean, I don’t know him. You were on his show a lot and other shows. Were you on other shows too?
Like I said, I did MSNBC and CNN and Fox. I sort of did them all in circulation.
Were you exclusive to Fox then?
No, what happened then was about a year later I saw this guy on the street, I thought he looked like Roger Ailes. I waved at him. He was a pretty distinct-looking the person.
Yeah, Jabba the Hutt.
I’m not gonna say that.
I am. He looked like Jabba the Hutt, everybody.
Because I’m nice.
Jabba was nicer, but anyway, go ahead. I’m sorry.
I saw him, I waved at him, he waved back. The next day he calls me up, he invites me to his office, he tells me I have pretty eyes. Five times in five minutes. I think I got off easy.
I think you did.
Thank you. Remind me to tell you what he said after I left Fox. We’re gonna save that.
You don’t have pretty eyes.
Is that what they call a teaser? We’re gonna save that. Anyway, he asked if I wanted to be a contributor. What I did was, I actually did at that moment what I’d done a year prior when I even went on Fox, which is I called my friends from organizing who were running the campaigns to try to shut down Fox. I called them all up and I said, “Hey, guys.”
Yeah, “What do you think?”
I wanted them to keep me accountable and tell me what they think and is this a good idea or a bad idea, and so I worked through it with that community of folks who were supported, who in fact said, “Look, there’s gonna be someone, we’d rather it be you. You’ll stand up for our values.” I decided to do it and I was at Fox news for two-and-a-half years.
Yeah, that experience?
Because you were the one that was saying the opposite, you were their version of a ...
I was like, yeah, here’s the thing. Roger I don’t think ever understood this and a lot of folks at Fox didn’t understand the difference between the spectrum of the Democratic left. For them, I was interchangeable with Tristan Powers or Juan Williams or whatever. I was a liberal. That I was actually to the left of them and what that meant and what that meant in the particular stew of Fox News and from perspective and opinion was they weren’t aware of the distinction. I was keenly aware of it. The only thing is — and this is what really leads to the book in a lot of ways — first of all, it was the first time I started getting hate mail and hate tweets, so that was a whole reckoning with a side of humanity.
That’s what you were there.
Well, we can talk about why I did it. We should talk about why I did it. Listen, I believe in change. Why do people rob banks? It’s because that’s where the money is.
I get it.
Why would I go on Fox News? It’s because that’s where the minds are to be changed.
I suppose. But I think you’re there to be the bearded lady for them. I’m not talking about, your motivations can be very different.
Right. Look, it took me a few times to realize that I wasn’t there to talk to Hannity. I was never gonna change Hannity’s mind. Mind you, I just want to say, in 2012 Hannity, after the reelection of Barack Obama, came out in support of a path to citizenship for immigrants and said that immigrants are hard-working folks that deserve to be ... I would literally give my left arm to stick with that and keep fighting for that. That would make more of a difference in immigration reform than anything I could ever say or do. I recognize that is possible. But primarily the reason I was there was not to talk to Sean but he was the excuse to talk to the viewers, and at the time, 2010/2011, there were more Democrats watching Fox than MSNBC or CNN combined.
You wanted to get to them.
Because I believe people can change.
Did you have reservations? I’m gonna give you hard time with this because I really do think that they used you in a lot of ways.
The same thing with Alan, what’s his name, Holmes or whatever.
Colmes. It was just their circus. They have a circus and it’s formulaic in a way. All of them are, listen, every one of them is. They are not there to illuminate. They’re there to part us, divide us, and create all kinds of narratives that are not illuminating in any way.
Look, I am increasingly skeptical about our capacity for constructive, nuanced, deep, democratic dialogue, what I would consider to be democratically nutritional engagement in the media today, in social media today. We can, who started it and what started it and listen, I can’t. You are speaking to the fear I woke up with every day. Am I a puppet being used in the show? Am I the ...
The straw man.
The straw man or am I the voice of sanity? If I’m here, at least if I can say one thing that ... Every time I had those doubts, every time I got all the hate mail, for every time I got an email saying, “I don’t agree with you, blah, blah, blah but you made a good point, I appreciated the humanity you brought to the issue.” If I could have that impact, to me, I’m not saying every single time I thought it was worth it. I’m not saying every single time I thought it was strategic.
But on net, I felt like look, yes, there is ...
Net, you still felt positive.
That there is a ...
Again, this is the paradox of existence right now in so many ways, I think. Especially at a time ... I mean, one of the things that’s great about podcasts and the rise in new media is you can have media that is outside of those efforts. On the other hand, what you end up with is conversations where you are predominately talking to people like yourself. Which, by the way, I don’t actually have a problem with. People call it preaching to the choir, I call it choir rehearsal. It’s very important for people to get on the same page and talk strategy and share core values.
I think one of the things is it does normalize someone like that who just literally is a ball of rage as far as I can tell and it’s the Thunderdome. That’s the issue, you’re in the Thunderdome. And when people are in this rage-filled anger zone, is that the place to engage with them? I know you were saying that’s where the banks are but it’s a bad bank.
No, no, no, but that doesn’t mean that the people who are banking there are bad people.
If I believe, so one of political ...
I’m trying to get your point of your book because again, you know I disagree with you.
I do know you disagree, and I love that you disagree, and that’s okay. I, by the way, I happen to think our disagreements, yours, mine, and our disagreements in general in the world and our differences are important and part of what make us great as people and as a country. I also think we can disagree in ways that are respectful, kind, compassionate.
Did you get in trouble after a while on Fox? I want to move to your book.
I know, I know. But can I go and back say, one of my political mentors, because you made me think about this, is a woman named Jean Hardesty. I don’t know if you know her. Jean was a political scientist who pioneered the study of the right wing before the internet would actually go and infiltrate right-wing meetings and conventions and conferences.
She said that we have to separate the leaders from the followers. That the leaders have a culpability and intentionality, a malice, but that I don’t think ... Yes, sure, of course, there are some people who watch Fox News who are intending to be whipped up and hateful and furied and all of that. And there are people who just, for whatever host of reasons, that’s where they go. And I don’t want them to only get a diet of hate and lies and outrage and attacks and misinformation.
Which they point to saying that it’s not misinformation, by the way.
I’m not saying it’s easy.
It’s one of the things, I get it, you were friendly with Sean Hannity, he has a quote in your book and things like that. How did your constituency react to that? How did you explain that?
I’ll tell you, I never had to because I think ... Look, I come from, this is also about sort of again, just like the center left isn’t a monolith, the left isn’t a monolith, and I come from a part of the left that has always been interested in engagement, constructive engagement, building constituencies for change. The idea that we have been divided, manipulated and turned against each other in ways that are deliberate and unconstructive and we don’t have to write whole communities off and we can do something about that.
Right, which is the point of your book.
I would have people like Juan Williams say, “How do you deal with?” when I was on Fox, “How do you deal with the hate mail you get from the left?” I said, “I don’t get it.” It’s because no matter what, I stood true to my values. I wasn’t a spokesperson for anyone or any cause. A spokesperson for me, but I stood for my values and I always made a point of standing firm in my beliefs and my truth. Same thing with Sean. I’ll still have people, of course, who are like, “What the hell?” “How can you?” whatever. Can I say hell on this?
Yes, you can say fuck.
Fuck. Who will also come up and say, “What the fuck?” I don’t write people off. One of the reasons I’m a progressive is because I believe in progress. That means I believe in change. I think most of the changes that need to happen in our world are at the level of policy and institutions and systems, and those changes happen also when people change. I know people can change. If I didn’t think people could change, I wouldn’t be doing this work. Sean is a vessel and I’d rather him be kind to me than unkind to me because frankly, I don’t like unkindness, right?
But that’s not the point. The point isn’t Sean. The point is for people to understand that no one is just one thing.
I don’t know about that in this case. That’s someone I would have a real problem engaging with. This is someone who just interviewed Anthony Scaramucci, right?
The level of bile.
How do we draw, do you know what I mean?
There is a line, but you can draw a line, you can absolutely draw a line.
But where do you draw it?
There are lines, you can draw them.
Again, let’s go back to, so in the book I talk to an ex white supremacist. I’ve had a lot of people who have said, even just talking to an ex white supremacist is a line too far for them.
Okay, I suppose. Yeah.
Because of the things he did and the things he believed and I can’t forgive and I can’t, whatever. First of all, I believe in forgiveness. I believe in redemption.
Again, it’s why I’m a progressive.
It’s the ex part.
Also, what’s the choice? We would rather — at the time, in his heyday, he was the top white power movement recruiter in North America. Would we rather him still be that?
Of course not, but he’s the ex. Let’s get that. We’re gonna take a break really quickly, we’re gonna talk about this, because I want to talk about your book, because that’s the heart of your book, is this idea that everybody is redeemable. I do not believe that. I believe we stay angry at certain people and we can discuss that later. When we get back, after a word from our sponsors, we’re gonna be back in a minute. We’re here with Sally Kohn, the author of “The Opposite of Hate” and other things, she does other things. Anyway, stop laughing, Sally. I’ve got to read this promo.
We’re back with Sally Kohn. She’s the author of “The Opposite of Hate.” We’re having a lively debate on whether Sean Hannity is redeemable. I think most people agree with me, except if you watch Fox News, that he’s not. No, they don’t. You can have any opinion you want. You got in this book, this idea, the opposite of hate. Give the headlines of the book. I’ve read it, I do not agree with most of it.
That’s okay, thank you. Can we get back, though, you said something on the outro that I want to make sure I pick up on, which is I do think there’s a difference between anger and hate.
There’s an important difference between anger and hate. As an organizer, going back to my training and my roots, anger can be a very good thing.
I want people to look at the inequity and injustice, yawning economic inequality and crumbling public schools and injustices in who and how we incarcerate people. I want them to be angry. They should be righteously angry at those injustices and even angry at the people who perpetuate them. That’s different from hate. That’s different from demeaning and dehumanizing certain groups of people because of their ideas or their identity.
All right, okay. The issue is, though, is that many of those sides use that effectively. That’s the absolute tool.
Right, it doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to do. There’s two pieces to this, ultimately, Kara. One is moral. One of the reasons I am a progressive, one of the reasons I have the world view and values, one of my core values is the idea that all people have equal dignity and humanity. Now, I say that. The question is, can I live it? Can I apply that even to people who deny my humanity? That doesn’t mean complicity, that mean doesn’t capitulation.
You get that, you get why people think it means complicity.
To me it doesn’t. It doesn’t. Maya Wiley, the other day, at a book even with me, who is a phenomenal race and justice scholar, said that compassion isn’t the same thing as affirmation. I can understand where someone is coming from, I can just validate their existence, I can even just have sympathy/empathy for another human being without endorsing, supporting, affirming what they stand for or what they’re doing. Literally, I want compassion, humanity, equality and justice for myself. It can’t just be a one-way street.
I see. One of the things that you talked about in this book is that you were trolled heavily online. I can’t believe some of the stuff I read. I get ...
You get it bad.
It’s okay, it’s fine.
I get it pretty bad.
Yeah. Thank you.
You were saying after the ... You get it worse.
I mean, I don’t want to brag.
You were talking about after the election, you felt hateful. This is the impetus, that you felt anger and hate at the people who voted.
I felt that hate before, by the way. That was part of the reckoning I had at Fox News, of realizing people weren’t in total the hateful monsters I imagined them to be.
Not that they still don’t do hateful and support hateful things. I felt that coming back. I sort of thought I’d wrestled with that and really done some soul searching on that, but 2016 and the aftermath, I felt it again.
What did you want to do about it? Just get it out of your life, the idea?
First of all, again, as I said, there are two pieces. We talked about the moral piece. The other piece is fundamentally, it feels in contradiction with my values and who I want to be and how I want the world to be, to be hateful. I know that hate is not the answer to hate, cruelty is not the answer to cruelty, injustice is not the answer to injustice, so there’s that dimension.
There’s also a practical piece to this. I look in the book at the neuroscience of it, we look at the practical organizing strategy pieces as well. The simple fact is, if I want people to change — and as I said, I believe people can — I believe the world can change. It doesn’t mean it has, it doesn’t mean it always has, it doesn’t mean it only always will, it doesn’t mean if we don’t do it stupidly, imperfectly, haltingly, hesitantly, but if I want it to change, if I want those people to not vote like that again, if I want those folks to not support Islamophobic policies and racist policing, then I will tell you, in addition to the moral dimension, pragmatically speaking, hating them is counterproductive.
There is no one in the history of the world who said, “Hey, that side over there, the way they treat me like I’m a piece of shit and they think I’m stupid and they hate me, I’m gonna go give their ideas a listen. I’m gonna go over there and that sounds cool. I want to be part of them.” What it actually does is, it makes us dig in. Again, you’re right. You’ve captured the core. I do not believe anyone is irredeemable.
Except for the fact that, again, where you want to get between hate and anger. When I look back on, say, the gay and lesbian movement, the people who were most effective were the angriest and one would call them hateful, they were not. It’s very hard to discern between them. Silence Equals Death, Act Up, I think had more effect than the others that compromised almost continually.
Okay, I don’t think compromise, you’re looking for, I am proud still to be a radical. I am not talking about a politics of concession or compromise or conciliation or mushy centrism, God help me, no. But I am talking about ... Listen, I think the gay, lesbian, bi and trans rights movement is a perfect example because even within those dynamics, even within those spectrums, we could name by name by name and example by example.
But there were people who were angry and outraged about the harm and the death and the pain and the marginalization that was being inflicted on the queer community. Then you still have a choice. Are you going to attack everyone on the other side and label them all as intentionally hateful, malicious, homophobic bigots? By the way, we’re not even just talking about the George Bushs of the world and the FDA heads, we’re talking about people. People who are like, “Huh, I’m trying to decide what I’m gonna believe.” Are we bringing them in? Are we bringing them into conversation? Are we bringing them in to open their minds? Or are we pushing them away and closing them off?
I have to say pushing ... It only worked ... It seems to me it worked because the movement got more radical and got more, “No.” I don’t know. It’s just using a different sense, but Oprah’s line, “No is a complete sentence.” “No,” worked a lot better than, “Well, let me let you understand me.”
I get there were parts of it, having Ellen come out, all these educational parts, and by the way you know people, and there’s lots of reaching and stuff. I find especially in the more progressive areas, there’s a lot more of that than on the other side. But beating them back seemed to be the thing that worked if I look back on it. There was great beauty in doing all the stuff around the quilt and there’s great beauty and artfulness.
There was massive humanity, there was love, there was celebration, there was sex positivity.
Absolutely. What’s coming back now is interesting, is “Angels in America.” If you look at those last speeches, it’s not about conciliation, it’s about continue to stay angry.
Right. I’m not disagreeing with you.
Okay, I think we are because I think that conciliation with some of these people will only, they don’t switch ...
Listen, I can sit ... Let me give an example. Let’s go back to Hannity for second. I was on Hannity’s radio show once and he said something to the effect of, we were talking about marriage equality at the time, it was not yet the law of the land. We were having whatever the debate was and he said something about how a family with a mother and a father is a better family, a better environment for children. I said something to the effect of, “Sean, are you sincerely suggesting that your family is superior to my family?”
Now, in that moment, let’s think about that. In that moment, I could have said, “Sean, you’re a hateful bigot.” I could have said, “Sean, you’re being a homophobic asshole.” I called him in instead of calling him out.
I said, “Are you really saying that?” It’s not saying, “All right, if you disagree with me, all right, fine. Let’s meet in the middle somewhere.” No, I’m not letting go of my deeply held convictions and beliefs. It’s engaging in a way that I don’t say, “Hey, you’re canceling out my humanity, and so you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna cancel out yours.” This goes back to kindergarten, two wrongs don’t make a right.
What happened then?
He got caught of guard on the show and sort of went, “You know I’m not saying that, it’s not personal.” I said, “But Sean, it is personal. You’re talking about my family.” He stumbled through it and then the segment ended and then he found me the next day I think, in makeup before a show and he came right up to me and said, “I had no idea and I’m sorry.” I said, “First of all, how the hell could you not know I’m gay? Like, look at me.” I asked the whole makeup room, I was like, “Everyone, quick show of hands. Did everyone know I’m gay?” They all raised their hands. Would I rather leave him there? Do I want to leave him there?
Here’s what I would have said. I’ve had this happen it me and it wasn’t Sean Hannity. I think my answer was, “You cannot die soon enough.” That’s what I said.
Okay, so guess what? We feel differently about that.
I didn’t want to change the person’s opinion. I thought their children will be redeemed in that way.
Except they’re gonna raise their kids too.
Here’s the thing, I’ve seen people change.
Absolutely. Let’s talk about that concept. You reached out to a lot of people online because I think a lot of people feel that online has become a cesspool.
Can we please talk about Twitter?
Twitter, yes. Talk to me about Twitter and what you think their responsibility is.
Honestly, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too.
I think it’s a cesspool.
It has become worse and worse and worse. I remember Twitter. I got on in, I think right around when I started all this, so 2009-ish. I remember it was a space to engage and it felt democratic and constructive.
I was meeting people and I was having these conversations. For me, who didn’t know anyone in the media, it was a space to access and engage people who were important and important voices and it felt like a marketplace. Now, it feels like a public spectacle of attacks and smears and it’s just gone ...
There’s some good ways to get news on it and some of it’s funny but it’s become a cesspool.
But I will say, first of all, it feels like so much a minefield. Even the news, sometimes it’s actual important breaking substantive news and I’m grateful for it.
This happened, this person left.
A lot of the “news,” the trending topics, is like gossip. It’s like the National Enquirer and it’s pile-ons without fact and it’s attacks and it’s smears and it’s this and that. It’s a complete lack of nuance.
What are we gonna do about that? Because you’re talking about this idea because this is how people are communicating.
I have to say, I think Twitter should be taking some responsibility. They seem to have, because it helps their valuation, they seem to have no interest in dealing with bots and trolls in a serious way, because I think if they did, their numbers would go down and their valuation would go down. You know what? I’m sorry. I get this is a sticky conversation when you have companies like Facebook and Twitter, which are private companies so we can’t hold them to the same standards as we hold public entities and yet they are ...
They are public companies.
Government entities, I mean, but they’re playing an increasingly important role in our democratic process and our discourse and our civil society. I realize it’s complicated. I would like to see them address it. I think issues of anonymity should be addressed. It’s what makes Twitter worse than some of the other platforms.
But I also think it is ultimately, it’s true, it’s up to us, we as people. There are examples in the book, of people in the book who were incredibly kind and generous and used Twitter in ways to break down barriers and to spread compassion. Certainly, when we talk about getting outside of our bubble and meeting people who are different than us, that’s also what we can do on social media, that’s incredible. But it has become an incredibly reductivist, outrage-driven, unhealthy, not constructive anger. Just demonstrative performance anger, and I don’t think that’s healthy.
What happens ... because that’s where a lot of it, because the media, the president uses it almost continually when he’s not screaming at people on Fox News. Just today with Kanye and the stuff around it, it was exhausting. It was not illuminating in any way and but it’s also highly addictive.
Trying to get to people to engage with each other. You either engage through hope or you engage through fear, right? Those are two ways and they both work equally well.
Actually, no. Fear works better and hate, there are studies that we bond more through hate. We more readily bond with someone who we find we have things we dislike in common than things we like in common.
What happens when this is the way we do national discourse? I’ve just been listening to the Andrew Jackson biography, which is fascinating, and a similar fight. They did it in newspapers. They did it in a very highly invective way, high levels of anger. Their version of it, but it was a similar kind of thing. It’s sort of an American way to do that.
That’s right. When anyone says it’s so much worse now than it ever was, it feels worse because it’s more pervasive and we’re all implicated in it and it’s quicker and it’s surround sound of this. We have a deep history of hate in this country and incivility. We are a country that was built on hate, so I don’t necessarily think it’s worse than it ever has been. I still think it’s bad enough we have to do something about it.
The flip side to the challenge that it is now more invasive and the surround sound nature of it, because we’re implicated in it also means we all have a part of the solution. Back in the days of the newspaper wars, regular folks just had to sit there and watch. Maybe you bought this one or you didn’t buy that one, but that was the extent of our power. Now, we actually make the media with our clicks and our re-clicks and our tweets and our posts. Yes, I think there are structural things that companies need to do. I think the media needs to get its act together and stop giving us ...
Give me a few prescriptions and then we’ll get to our next section. Give me some prescriptions from your book and others besides reaching out and being nicer online. What is the prescriptions of what the companies should do, what people should do?
I mentioned the ones about Twitter. I also think ...
When you say they have to do something, what do mean they have to do something?
Be more aggressive in policing trolls and bots. Apply your standards, apply them more evenly and aggressively.
Across Facebook and others.
Across all platforms. I happen to think Twitter does it the worst, it’s jut the biggest problem on Twitter. I think seriously address issues of anonymity. There are studies, there’s research that anonymity festers negative, cruel and hateful behavior.
Yeah, content for the some of the people, they were nicer.
There’s also studies that when people are given an assignment to type a message on a computer to someone else, when we can see a video of the other person’s eyes, we write kinder messages. By the way, there’s also studies that when we’re asked to leave a comment, research where you have to leave a comment on a website, the first three comments that are visible are hateful or nasty or trolling comments, you are then more likely to say something hateful and nasty.
We took comments off Recode because I was sick of it.
Amen. I get into this in the book, that I think, for instance, media outlets need to get together. There needs to be some kind ... I don’t know if it’s a bipartisan, I’m a little bit worried in the short-term that we can actually do anything about this. But for instance, to acknowledge that not all information, not all news, not all reporting, not all writing, not all columns are the same.
We need to have media literacy so that people understand the difference between reporting and opinion and also, that when a piece from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal for that matter pops up on my Facebook feed, it should be treated differently. Maybe there’s a green check or there’s something that I know that’s different.
Tech people don’t want to do that.
I know they don’t.
They want to group source this stuff from crowd sources.
What I will go back to — and this is my part of what I hope to do with the book — is, again, go back to that point about if you see nasty comments, you’re more likely to leave mean comments. That means that we are role models for others and the way we behave online.
If the systems are designed that way, then you behave that way.
Yes, that’s right.
It’s hard to buck it.
It is hard to buck it and you still can.
I’m not letting regular people out of it, they are designed to addict and anger and irritate.
We, the people, have to hold the systems accountable and demand that they change and also behave differently.
What can individuals do? And then we’ll take a break. That’s what companies have to do. What do individuals have to do? Just get off of this stuff or what?
I have to tell you, I’m pretty close myself. If you’re not gonna get off ... Look, here’s the thing. You can respond. When there’s hate, when you encounter hate online, we tend to have a “they started it” philosophy of hate in general. Workplace, private, whatever.
They usually do.
Fine, maybe they do.
Oh, they do.
But just so you know, I don’t think everyone is equal in this.
I’m pretty bad.
I don’t know if you start ...
Oh, I do.
The point is, do you continue it? When you encounter hate online ...
I know you do.
It’s mostly funny.
You go do you, you do you.
They’re funny, I’m never mean, it’s funny, it’s funny mean.
You have a choice. To me, you have three choices. One is to just not engage, to first do no harm. That’s fine. Protect your own sanity and security.
Second is to engage hate with hate, to feed hate with hate. More hate leads to more hate leads to more hate leads to more hate. That’s what I have a problem with.
And the third is to respond with compassion or kindness or humor or curiosity or generosity. I do think yes, at the end of the day, we the people need to push for the changes structurally in terms of our leaders. It’s the same thing with negative ads in politics. Over and over again in polls we say we don’t like negative ads in politics and then we vote for the people who run the negative ads. Yeah, they need to change, we need to change.
All right. Okay, we’re gonna get back. We’re here talking with Sally Kohn, having a very lively discussion. We’re gonna run a tiny bit late, Sally, so you’re gonna have to stay here because we’re gonna need this last section.
You got this.
With a word from our sponsors, we’ll be back — she’s the author of “The Opposite of Hate” — after this.
We’re here with Sally Kohn, who is the author of “The Opposite of Hate.” She is also a ... Do you call yourself a pundit?
It’s a weird word, right?
Yeah. You’re on CNN now.
It is technically the apropos term.
You’re on CNN now, right?
You appear on CNN.
Let’s talk about the controversy around Sally Kohn, about this book. I am good friends with the person, Aminatou Sow. I don’t know the other woman.
Yes, who has the issue on Facebook. You were juxtaposing them, two women of color. I want to hear from you what you think happened and then will give you my ... I’ll push back where I feel like I should. Tell me your ... I know you’ve talked about this a million times with people and I’ve watched a lot of it.
I will continue to talk about it.
Okay, all right. Let’s go.
I think that this is an important conversation. We could get into the details, I really don’t want to re-litigate what’s happened.
Essentially, Amina says she did say what you said. You did not check with her, etc. Then ...
Ijeoma said that you were mischaracterizing her, pitting them against each other. She went online and did some ...
Facts are facts, I just want to be clear. I had consent to quote Amina. She said the quote. I took notes visibly and contemporaneously while she was talking. I have since produced those notes. People are gonna believe what they want to believe. Those are the facts.
You put them up on Google Notes. You put them on your phone. I’m just curious, I’m just wondering. I’m a reporter.
I know. Here’s the thing, in my world view, my principles and who I am, I don’t like being in a position where to defend myself, I have to in any way shape or form come close to ...
Sorry, I thought that’s where you were going.
No, attacking someone else for their insistence. Listen, I respect Amina, I respect her voice, I respect her memory of the situation. That’s that. I took notes on my phone. I pasted them into my Scribner, the book-writing program, and I pasted them back into my statement.
Now, what is also true is that as a white woman, I did not look at that quote in the context in which I was using it or in general and see the ways in which it perpetuated stereotypes and could expose her vulnerability. That is also true. For that reason — not just because of the circumstances in which it was, but period — I wish I had gone back and reconfirmed that she was okay with me using that quote. I wish I had, I’ve apologized that I haven’t. In general, again, the point of my bias, my blind spots, my privilege, my not seeing the ways in which I was pitting their ideas and thus them against each other in my book, I also regret. I am sorry and all I can do ...
I can’t go back and do it over. No, that’s not regret. Actually, wait a second. Hang on, that’s not true. Look, there’s a difference. I know there’s a difference. That was not my intent, but intent and impact are very different things and that was the impact that was felt. All I can do going forward is try to learn and be better.
I got that. I got that. Let me unpack that just a tiny bit because what was interesting is, I love to get to why that happened too. Because I think you do have a responsibility to do that because in this book you’re talking about that, how we get to where we get in an ugly discussion. That’s what the book is about, how we get ourselves into these situations. You’re in an ugly discussion, presumably.
Well, can I ...
How do we get out of it? Let me just finish.
Oh, go ahead. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
I think it’s fascinating, this situation with Amina is really very similar to a lot of the things you’re talking about, how we miscommunicate or we don’t hear each other or we don’t look at each other clearly. I think that’s pretty clear.
When I read that quote, and I know her very well, I was like, “She would never say that.” I’ve had a million discussions on this topic. I was trying to figure out, she absolutely wouldn’t have said that. It seemed so wrong that she would say something like that. You have said she said this in the car, correct? I was like, she would never, ever say that as someone who has talked to her dozens of times on this issue.
Then I was like, “Well, what happened? Did Sally mishear it? Did she not take the correct notes?” As a reporter, I know that issue, like people don’t think they got quoted correctly. I’ve had that happen to me, not too many times in my career but many times. Even if you produce an audio thing, people say they didn’t say it. You know what I mean, you get into those things.
What I want to get to is, because the same thing is happening online that we just talked about, is we do not hear each other in some fashion or we misunderstand each other or — and I don’t think this is the case — it’s a willful not-hearing, a willful ignorance of what’s happening. I just want to get from your perspective, what do you think as you’re looking back on what happened here? Do you think you misquoted her or didn’t hear her correctly or you think you absolutely did, you’re sticking with that?
Kara, what I do not like having to do is to defend my integrity and intentions and goals and values, to have to in any way, shape, or form attack someone else. I won’t.
It’s not an attack, I’m asking about you.
I won’t do this. I’ve already told you.
I get it, but as a reporter, I have had this happen to me. Sometimes I go, “I did not get that quote right.” I’m just saying, you have to do that when you’re a journalist.
I know, but I’ve already answered you. That I did, and that I wish I’d re-confirmed the quote and I wish I’d re-confirmed that she was okay with me using it. I also want to make it clear that privately, the minute I found out she was upset about the quote, about the context, about the way she used, that I have done what I could to apologize to her and to fix it.
Again, all I can do ... Listen, it sucks. Nobody likes learning lessons and it sucks to learn them in public. And trust me, part of what I want to stand for is that we have to be able to have these conversations because this is the only way any of us get better and learn.
We have to be able to challenge each other and we have to be able to try to listen and engage even when it’s hard, even when we don’t want to, and not get ... Again, that for me is the piece going forward, I would like this to be a constructive and kind engagement and I for my part will continue to try to uphold that and will continue to try to apologize and do better.
Again, I’m gonna get back to ... I understand that. I know you’ve been talking about this a lot, I get that and you look frustrated with it. But the question is, it is at the heart of your book is these miscommunications online that I think are at the heart of all these places. Because a lot of this is playing out online, this is going on, and I think one of the issues is how we hear each other.
Not you necessarily has gotten super sloppy, how we hear each other, how we engage with each other, because these mediums create that situation and that people are not as careful, one, hearing each other correctly, or they hear what they want to hear, thinking about the impact, because these things have bigger impact than you and I. I do understand how big an impact they have and how when you put someone into, when you say something and it’s linked to them, social media becomes weaponized and it becomes amplified in a way that never happened before.
Kara, can I just say, I do understand, and that’s why privately for weeks when Amina came to me with her concerns, I showed her the quote because I thought it was an important quote that in the context it was being used was challenging me on the whole premise of my book and my privilege in asserting these points, which is why I thought it was such an important quote. When she raised her concerns, I apologized. Understanding the impact and that she did not want it out there, took it out of the digital edition, future print editions, took her name out. Made a public apology that she asked to make or else she said she would go public. Obviously, there were other reasons I didn’t want to go public but also she didn’t want the quote public.
But it was already, it was already in the book.
We took it out of the digital edition, it wasn’t searchable. It’s now very public and now everyone knows about it. We can rehash and re-litigate what happened in the car and the nature of the quote, whatever, but what I am sure of is that I printed words that hurt someone and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to keep hurting someone by rehashing, re-litigating. I’m sorry.
I got that. I understand that.
But if you’d like to tell me what else you think I should I do.
What I think you should do is have a public, as I wanted to have, a public discussion with her to understand what she really thinks. I do know what she really thinks about this but I want her to speak on her own on this issue of the book itself, not her particular quote online. There’s all kinds of things because as a person of color, she has a different experience online. That’s almost impossible to understand from where we sit.
We can try as hard as we can. And so that’s one thing I would love to hear, is what she thinks about this topic, because she has quite a lot to say about this and has very interesting and innovative ideas about it.
Secondly, I think getting these kind of learnings is helpful because what we do is, every different group bumbles through life not understanding the experiences of other people and I think that is probably the greatest thing here, is that you don’t understand your impact, you don’t understand what other people’s experiences are.
What I do think, at the heart of this is that we do not understand the experience of other people very well anymore or are we able to do it, so I don’t know how we get to that. And that’s really at the heart of your book, right? Is we don’t understand the experience of other people.
I think that’s right, but that goes back, if I can, that goes back to the conversation we were having previously about then how do we engage with people in those moments. I’d rather talk this broad principle, which is I don’t want to sit there and say, “I write you off.” I want to engage and invite. I don’t want to call people out, I want to call them in. I want to assume that people are not, as Brian Stevens says, people are not the worst thing they’ve ever done. I also don’t think they’re the worst thing they’ve ever said or the worst thing they’ve ever thought.
I want to give people the opportunity now that is a choice based on my own sense of sanity and security that I am able to make. By the way, it’s one of the reasons I try to take on this work because I don’t think it should be the burden of people of color to always be talking to white folks about racism.
Or being forgiving.
I can keep apologizing. I have no right to demand or expect ...
To be forgiven.
Forgiveness. That is correct. I am going to try to, for me, when these moments happen, to handle them with kindness, compassion and grace, to give people the opportunity to grow and change. I think that’s the only way we get better.
Tell me then what you have grown and changed. What have you realized through the experience?
It’s very clear that I was not thinking about the context of the quote and the two frames that I used and their words and how they were then pitted against each other.
Because they didn’t agree that they had a disagreement.
That is, you know, listen. I’ll be honest. I’m losing track of what day it is. It’s been two weeks. There is no question that I still have learning and growing to do. By the way, I already had learning and growing to do. It’s not like I started out two weeks ago perfect. I have a lot of blind spots and imperfections and work to do on myself and I’m gonna have to keep accepting that’s who I am and trying to do better. And I will continue, even when they’re painful, but to welcome the opportunities to keep learning. That’s the only way that I’m gonna get better.
I think at the heart of this is the white privilege idea. And I do think that is a very good point in terms of using people’s words to make a point that is not the point they were making. You know what I mean? Not even understanding what their point was. I think that to me was the most resonant part of this. Away from all the details of the quotes and things like that. It’s that you have to create, all media has to create this juxtaposition that happens. I think social media reduces things to one black and white so clearly kind of thing. I think you did that in that instance, in that comparison, I think it happens all the time. There’s no middle ground to anything, there’s no nuance in conversation.
No, and sometimes I’ve been the one pointing it out and then sometimes I’m the one doing it.
What do you do as a person, just you, to change that idea of getting out of the idea of ... Listen, I’ve done it a million times. I would call it sloppy analysis because we’ve gotten so sloppy about how arguments are nuanced. How do you get out of that very important concept of not making everybody straw men, not making everybody to make a larger point? Is it possible in this medium? Your book is about this medium and its impact and how you get out of it. Is it actually possible to do that?
I’m not deeply convinced it can happen on social media. We tend to lose nuance, not gain nuance on social media. I think that’s increasingly true. But the fact is, it should be able to happen in books. The fact that I failed in that regard is on me. Again, one of the things I have tried to be fairly upfront about throughout my career — including when I was on Fox News and on CNN — is to talk about implicit bias, implicit bias in general and implicit racial bias in particular, in ways that are not about finger pointing and telling people you need to learn, but in ways that are about copping to my bias, that in fact when I’m talking about it, I’m not just talking in abstracts, I’m talking about me.
I recognize that on learning that, on doing it, countering it, checking it, catching it, fixing it, is going to be, it may be a lifelong process. I don’t know. I hope so. I have no doubt I will continue to make missteps and mistakes. Like I said, I know intention isn’t the only thing that matters, impact matters.
Sure. Unfortunately, people focus on intentions when impacted in matters.
Correct. I’ve written about this as well. Again, I wish I’d done it differently, deeply sorry, continue to be sorry, try to learn and do better.
All right. On that, I want to switch you to something else very quickly and we’re gonna finish up. Joy Reid, you just did a really interesting tweet about it, supporting her. She’s caught in her own thing. You were very supportive of her, you worked with her. I know her, I think she’s terrific. That’s another thing, it just seems to have taken over and there’s issues. She’s contending that it was not stuff she had written although she had written some stuff before gays and lesbians and marriage, I think specifically it was marriage related. Something like that.
When you see that happening, is that gonna be our future? It seems like it’s a never-ending thing. As you’re pushing against this idea, I’m not saying you’re doing “can’t we all get along,” but let’s try to get along. You have all these forces that are just ... There’s another example of something exploding, having a life of its own. Who knows what the real truth is?
To be clear, I’ve been on the other side of this too, for quite a while. In other words, I’m not ... You know Twitchy, right?
No, what’s Twitchy?
Oh my gosh, wait. Everyone, I get to teach Kara Swisher something about the internet.
All right, go ahead.
Twitchy is the website that Michelle Malkin started to mobilize right-wing Twitter, I don’t like the word Twitter mob.
She’s awfully good at Twitter.
Right-wing, I need a different word. Swarms, Twitter swarms, close one. I’ve had some days when I get Twitchyed three times a day. You know this because there’s an uptick. I can sneeze on the internet and they write a Twitchy post about it. I was not a stranger to that but it does feel like the phenomenon is heightening and the consequences are heightening where they seem to be more lasting and more durable.
Again, first of all, Joy is a friend. I’m gonna talk to Joy. I’m not gonna go after people online in general because again, it lacks so much nuance. I do worry it’s getting worse, too, and that in general we are in this perpetual cycle of outrage, that is not constructive.
I need you to summarize what you think because your book is how we can get out of it and you’re right in it.
I think you respond with kindness. Do you want to talk specifically about Joy?
I’m just saying, it’s just another example because I just noticed you tweeted about it, which then attracted a lot of hate, I noticed.
I’ll tell you this, I’ve also realized that the incentives, it seems, to attack online are greater than the incentives to defend. That people feel that there seems to be less social cost or social risk to joining the attack and more risk ...
That’s what I was ... I was fascinated that you did that. I was like, “Oh Sally, don’t get in this one.”
I see your point, Kara. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned somewhat recently is, I will take the risk to ... Listen, part of you living your values, part of me living my values and standing up for what I think is right, means you do it even when there are costs. I believe in Joy. She addressed it ...
What did you think just before you sent that tweet? I know what you thought just before ... You thought about that one, I’m guessing. You didn’t just sit there, “Aaaa, I’m mad at Joy.”
No, no, no. I think in general trying less reactive tweeting is better. Here’s what I thought. I thought this is someone I care about going through this. Apart from the fact that I believe all people to be inherently good people, I know she’s a good person. This came up before, she apologized. I also believe in forgiveness and change, and I thought, “I want to support her.” I want to support her. I want to be ...
And you had discussed her past things, which were actually true, the things she did say.
I want to be the kind of person that is supportive in those moments.
When people are making changes.
Yeah. Why I don’t give you more fodder: When Laura Ingraham apologized for going after the Parkland kid, David. When I saw what she’d done, I tweeted about it. This was weeks ago, obviously. I tweeted about it. When I saw she apologized, she said, “I’m not saying he has to forgive me,” I thought, “Good.”
Again, what’s the choice? Would we rather her dig in and not apologize? Or apologize? Was it a perfect apology? Was it whatever? Was it motivated by losing ads? I’d still rather her apologize than not apologize. I’m a little old-fashioned. When people apologize, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Because I want to give them the space to change, because otherwise ...
What was the reaction to that?
I just don’t want to be the person who digs in her heels and just then say screw them, I’m just gonna do more mean things and hateful things. No. I don’t want ...
Well, you could make an argument, the more price she pays, maybe she’ll change.
I’ve never seen that work. Not in terms of hate and retrenchment and digging it. I will say this, this was my big takeaway. You ask what can people do? Kara, I’m gonna tell you. People should do them, I’m doing me. This is a book about ...
I get it. But you wrote a book.
And giving prescriptions.
There’s no expectation or demand. This is about my journey and what I think is healthy and hopeful. I don’t know, which is ...
Last thing, I’m gonna ...
I was gonna say, which is ... oh, go ahead. Sorry.
No, it’s your show.
No, go ahead, go ahead with Laura Ingraham. You’ve saved Laura Ingraham. I feel like smacking her.
I was gonna say my big takeaway, you ask what I think about is I think about if we have this they-started-it philosophy of hate, then what I’m gonna do ...
An eye for an eye, getting biblical on me here.
Is I’m not gonna be the excuse for anyone to be their worst self.
All right, that’s a fair point.
I’m gonna try not to not be the excuse for anyone to be their worst self. I’m gonna try to be the inspiration for others to be their best selves and I’m gonna do that online and off as best as I can.
All right, okay. All right. That’s your goal. Let me finish.
And you can counter me at every chance.
I’m gonna counter, I am a little less forgiving than you are and I feel like it works for me. But that’s okay, that’s good. I get your point, you don’t want to live in hate. But I do want to live in anger a little bit more, it is useful and there is a fine line. There’s definitely a fine line. That’s the whole premise of “Batman,” if you think about.
The last thing I want you to talk about — I know you’ve got to go — is this ABC thing that you have in the book, because you do have prescriptions.
I do tools. It’s called tools.
Explain that tool for me. This is going home for Thanksgiving, instead of putting on Adele ...
You want to know what’s funny, is like 80 percent of the questions I get from liberals are like, “What do I do about my conservative uncle?” It’s always an uncle. What we know from neuroscience is when we’re trying to persuade someone, you’re trying to have the kind of conversation that leads to change. If people perceive an argument, if they feel like their views are being attacked, then the frontal lobe, the persuasion/rational thought parts of the brain, shut down and the lizard brain, the fight-or-flight, turns on and you pick a side. I’m gonna pick my side, you’re gonna pick your side, that’s why we were arguing in the first place and then we’re done. There’s no conversation happening, there’s no change, there’s no thinking, no understanding is happening.
This pneumonic, this tool, ABC, which comes from Matt Kohut, John Neffinger and Seth Pendleton — Matt and John wrote a really important book called “Compelling People” about this philosophy and more. The A is not argue, it’s affirm, which doesn’t, by the way, mean agree. Most of us, our political views and our ideas ...
“I hear you,” just like the Trump thing.
It can be even more meaningful than that, which is most of our political views, we didn’t like sit and read all the briefing books to decide what we think about issue A and issue B. We have feelings. I feel this and I feel that. We can argue until the cows come home about whether people’s feelings are invalid, right?
Example, people fear terrorism. We can talk about how since 9/11 most mass violent attacks, three-quarters were committed by white right extremists, but the media covers violent acts from Muslims four times more. And we can say that’s an irrational fear and they shouldn’t be worried about it but there they are, they feel it.
Feelings are not like facts. Feelings are valid because they are felt. If I argue with your feelings, it’s like I’m invalidating you and what you believe. What you say when you affirm, you find something you can actually authentically affirm. “I worry about that too. I worry about my kids being able to get a job. I worry about that. I worry about safety.” Affirm.
Do you know what my A is? Attack.
(laughter) I know, and I love you.
“You’re an idiot, Mom.”
Listen, this isn’t for everyone.
Okay, your A is affirm, mine is attack.
B is not but. I’ve learned from couples counseling that everything before the “but” you didn’t mean. If I say, “I’m sorry but,” it means I’m not at all sorry. It’s not but. You can’t say however, which is like the Harvard of buts, no fancy buts. You say something like and or that’s why or the thing is, it’s a bridge. B is bridge.
B is but, but not but.
B is bridge. Affirm, bridge. C is then ...
Bridge means you find a common thread.
Find a way to go to ... No, just it’s literally interstitial language to get you from your A to your C that isn’t a but. What we tend to do is say, “I’m also worried about that but,” which means I’m not worried about that.
That’s an old thing from improv.
Correct. Then the C is the actual content or convince, what you came to say.
B is bridge. Mine would be belittle. “You obviously can’t read.” Something nice along those lines.
Then your C would be ...
I’ve got to think.
Cut them, yours would be cut out.
I have actually thrown my mother out of the house when she drives me crazy.
Do you want to send her over to me?
We’re Italians. No, she came around.
Oh, wait. Wait a second. After all this? She changed?
Because I attacked, belittled and cut. That’s why. I have a policy. I could have run.
You should write a book called “The Opposite of Sally,” just write that book.
Opposite of Sally. You know, it was a lot about coming out. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I don’t give anything. I do not negotiate with terrorists and that’s how I looked at it. I did it with an uncle who was very anti-gay. The same thing. I was like, “You know what? All we have to do is wait for you to die. You’re not gonna change.” I gave up on him.
He’s still alive.
He’s still alive but he didn’t change.
He has a little bit because I didn’t back down. It was interesting. I feel like it was because of that.
You didn’t back down but every time you saw him, did you attack and belittle him?
On that issue, absolutely.
Absolutely. And on everything else too?
No, just that particular issue.
Otherwise, you could be nice to him and talk about movies.
I have children. Oh yeah, I don’t care about his opinions about movies.
You found other ways, you didn’t just ...
No, but on that issue, I was absolutely adamant that I wasn’t gonna back down.
Again, let’s not mince. Again, it goes back to, this isn’t about concession, this isn’t about conciliation, this isn’t about capitulation or even compromise. It’s about, “Can I express my deeply held firm beliefs and views in ways that do not attack, undermine, or even evaporate your humanity?”
Not humanity, but your opinion, yes. We’re going to be arguing until the end of time.
That’s fine. That’s okay as long as you don’t personally attack me, we’re good.
See, there you go.
See, I’m not personally attacking you but you’re absolutely wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong.
But you didn’t say, “You’re absolutely wrong, you blankety-blank-blank.”
History is littered with people who agree. No, I’m kidding. You know I try to agree, but I don’t think you can get a lot of ... I think pushing back with people is a very good quality.
Thanks for the great conversation.
It’ll be interesting, but it does become weaponized in this thing and I think we’re in for some trouble going forward.
I think it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.
100 percent, because humanity never surprises me. But you’re an optimist.
I am constantly surprised.
I’m an optimistic pessimist and I think you’re an optimistic optimist.
Yeah, but maybe I need to rethink that.
Poor Sally. What’s your next book, Sally? Don’t quote me. Sorry. What’s your next book, seriously? Are you ever writing a book again?
I don’t know.
What are you doing now? Just CNN and activism.
You know, I’ve put a lot into this book. I’m gonna hope it finds its audience and it makes a difference, that it does some good for people. A lot of really warm responses and reactions from people who are struggling with these issues in their workplace and their towns and their families, who see the conversations we’re having in this country about bias and privilege and they want to figure out a way to do better and be invited to do better.
Here’s what I like, people’s eyes opening and thinking just like with Starbucks, with your thing, everybody just wait a second. Let’s think hard.
That means I also have to help others learn, keep learning myself.
Yes indeed, Sally. It’s all the way, it’s all the way to the end. That’s what you have to do.
Thank you for putting up with me, I really appreciate it. And we’ll debate into the future, I’m sure. The book is “The Opposite of Hate.” It’s by Sally Kohn. You can see her also on CNN and other places. And you’re on a book tour, right?
Cool. She’s appearing tonight, which you can see at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and I hope you enjoy that.
I’m very exciting.
It’s gonna be a great audience for you. It’s great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.