A story of bullying frames Sally Kohn’s book “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Humanity.” Vicky was a young girl in Kohn’s fifth grade class who was bullied in school by her peers, her teachers and even Kohn herself.

Now because of Kohn’s ability to have levelheaded discussions as a liberal political commentator — first for Fox News, and currently for CNN — the self-professed “lefty lesbian” has developed a reputation for being “nice.” Yet in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Kohn was surprised by her quickness to anger, and the memory of her treatment of Vicky began to haunt her.

“Everyone tends to agree [hate] is a problem and no one actually thinks it’s their problem. No one thinks they are the one who is doing it,” Kohn says. “Rather everyone, pretty much, is casting blame at some other group, some other side, you name it. And that, to me, was a dynamic that needed both surfacing and addressing.”

In her book—released April 10 by Algonquin Books—Kohn compiles scholarly studies and interviews with colleagues, a neo-Nazi-turned-Buddhist and people on different sides of the Rwandan genocide. In addition, she also offers ways to navigate these discussions and the emotions that go along with it. Ian McKellen—via Instagram, pictured reading the book with chum Patrick Stewart, naturally—deemed the result, “An important book for the times.”

Watermark spoke with Kohn about her debut book by phone from her home in New York City.

Watermark: I’d call this topic a hyperobject, something that’s so large it’s hard to wrap your mind around, yet you tackled it in a big way. How did you even come up with a plan for how to approach this?

Sally Kohn: I sort of let my own curiosity and my own desire to understand the phenomenon in myself within the phenomenon of hate drive where I went. So obviously looking at all the different aspects of science, social science, etc. and, when it came to where to travel and who to talk with, there were certain colloquial assumptions I had and I figured others did as well. Alright, the most hateful of the hateful are the neo-Nazis and the terrorists and people who participated in genocide, and those would be the right places to start. Through process of researching, I talked to people who led me to realize there are people in those worlds who’ve left hate behind. That just stunned me and I figured I wouldn’t be the only one.

Orlando’s June 12, 2016 shooting is cited in the book. Orlandoans generally consider it a hate crime, though there is evidence that perhaps it wasn’t homophobically motivated. Do you think it matters?

How about yes and no? Murder is murder; killing is killing. In that sense, no. Look, I took a lot of flack for saying this right after Orlando but connecting the ideology of homophobia or the worldview of homophobia to that act more broadly, I’m not saying that homophobes pulled the trigger in Orlando, but if we’re saying homophobia was a motivating variable, then it’s fair to scrutinize homophobia in all of its forms. Not to say that they’re all equally bad or gruesome or what have you, but to scrutinize them in all their forms. Acts of violence, and honestly acts of terrorism, can have multiple motivations. If hate is a motivation, we should face it head on and that should be a call to action for all of us to root out hate, in all of its forms. To say that’s the most extreme form we give a pass to any lesser form—no, it does not, it should not, work that way.

Do you think what you experienced in Rwanda gives us some hope when it comes to this epidemic of mass shootings we’re experiencing?

I think any window into hate of any kind helps understand hate in all kinds. What I took away from Rwanda is it’s a different kind of influence. It’s very important to understand the difference between a single-shooter event versus what is systematically linked to acts of group hatred—whether it’s a genocide or terrorism. Whether it’s some group motivation, some ideology, some collective behind it. Whether that’s violent Muslim extremists or violent right wing extremists in the United States. More broadly, what I learned in Rwanda is best encapsulated by something a philosopher said to me that really took my breath away. We don’t have mass incidents, mass atrocities, because a handful of psychopaths do them; there weren’t enough psychopaths in Germany or Rwanda or Serbia. We have these mass atrocities because masses of people do them. That’s hard to wrap your head around. It’s easier to think that acts of terrorism, acts of hate, acts of genocide are acts of craziness, and of course they are crazy. What is harder to recognize is the beliefs, the history, the habit, the culture, the ideas, the ideology that is coursing through all of us that can manifest in this extreme way. It is hard to reckon with the fact that what happened in Rwanda can happen anywhere. It’s hard to reckon with the fact that anyone could potentially be a member of a hate group, that it’s not just outlying crazy people necessarily, or only. When we really grapple with that both individually and as a society, I think that’s pretty profound.

I love the ABC—Affirm, Bridge, Convince—device for discussions you walk readers through [from the book “Compelling People” by Matt Kohut and John Neffinger].

It’s important to understand that compassion isn’t the same thing as agreement. You’re not necessarily saying I agree with how you feel about issue X, Y or Z. You’re not premising your conversation on wholly invalidating what the other person believes so they feel in that moment, in order to even listen to you, they have to be completely wrong and wiped out in terms of their beliefs and identity. That just shuts down people’s ability to listen and to be persuaded.

And this is related to “emotional correctness” which you’ve spoken about. Is there a technique to emotional correctness other than just keeping a cool head?

It does help to not actually believe the other side are assholes. The trick is to try to believe in the goodness of all people. To believe that nobody is the worst thing they’ve done or said or even thought. Nobody is just who they voted for in 2016. Nobody is just the viewpoint you’re arguing with them about. And to try and create the space for people to be their best selves, which generally means you have to be your best self. If all you want to do is have a fight where everybody leaves feeling attacked and angry and worked up and just more dug in—including you and them—then great, you know how to do that. But if you want to actually engage in the kinds of conversations and interactions that create possibilities for change, then you’re going to need some new techniques.

Your book touches on the 1990s gay gene research and gay “choice versus biology.” I make myself unpopular with friends because I’m of the opinion there is a choice to it.

What I tend to think is it should be able to be a choice. In other words, we should get to a point as a society where you can choose to be gay because it is socially, morally and politically equal. I also don’t think on a practical level it matters. Let’s say it’s 5 percent biological, 10 percent biological, 20 percent biological—who cares? What seems to be more driving is the container of society and family and upbringing that we’re all put into and how that allows us to express ourselves, in whatever form that takes. To me, it’s more helpful to think about society being a positive environment for all people, regardless of whatever biological piece we want to harp. The other thing is every time we’ve thought something was biologically significant, science has eventually evolved to prove us otherwise. So, you know, give it a break.

I want readers to find out on their own what happened with you and Vicky in your pursuit of her forgiveness, but I was wondering if you forgive yourself for what you did to her?

Wow. That’s interesting. You’re the first person to ask that, which suddenly surprises me. Do I forgive myself? Well, I guess if I have to struggle to think about it, probably not, right? I think that I feel a peace about it that I didn’t before, that’s for sure, but that’s more about trying to make up for it in the world and do good things, make amends. I’m not even sure it is up to me to forgive myself. I’m at peace but I still have a lot of regret, a significant amount of regret, so I suppose in that sense no. That’s a great question.

Thank you for your honesty.

Jeez Louise, now you have me thinking for the rest of the day. What the heck.

Well, that’s alright, you have me thinking, so fair is fair.

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