What We Can Do About the Culture of Hate: Sally Kohn at TED (Full Transcript)

Sally Kohn


So people tell me I’m a nice person … to the point where it’s part of my personal and professional identity that I’m so nice and able to get along with anyone, even my most fierce opponents. It’s like my “thing,” it’s what I’m known for. But what no one knows … is that I was a bully. Honestly, I didn’t think about it much myself. I buried the memories for years, and even still, a lot of it’s really hazy. Denial, by the way, apparently is also one of my things.

But the more people started to praise me for being a liberal who could get along with conservatives, and the more I wrote articles about being nice and gave talks about being nice, the more I felt this hypocrisy creeping up inside me. What if I was actually really mean?

When I was 10 years old, there was a girl in my class at school named Vicky. And I tormented her … mercilessly. I mean, everyone did. Even the teachers picked on her. It doesn’t make it any better, does it? Vicky was clearly a troubled kid. She would hit herself and give herself bloody noses and she had hygiene problems — she had big hygiene problems. But instead of helping this girl, who was plainly suffering from hardships in her life … we called her “Sticky Vicky.” I called her “Sticky Vicky.”

My clearest memory is standing in the empty hallway outside the fifth grade classrooms waiting for Vicky to come out of the bathroom, and I have a clipboard and a pen and a survey I’ve made up, asking about shampoo preferences, like I’m doing a study for science class or something. And when Vicky comes out of the bathroom, I pounce on her and I ask her what shampoo she uses. Now, to put this in perspective, I can’t remember the names of my teachers, I can’t remember the names of any of the books I read that year, I pretty much can’t remember anything from fifth grade, but I remember that Vicky told me she used White Rain shampoo. Clear as yesterday, like it just happened. And as classes let out, I ran down the hall shouting at all the other kids, “Sticky Vicky uses White Rain shampoo. Don’t use White Rain shampoo or you’ll smell like Sticky Vicky.”

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I forgot about this memory for a long time. When I finally started remembering it, I immediately needed to know more. I reached out to friends and eventually social media, and I did everything I could to try to find Vicky. I needed to know that she was OK, and that I hadn’t ruined her life. But what I quickly realized was I wasn’t just trying to figure out what happened to Vicky. I was trying to figure out what happened to me.

When I was 10 years old, I treated another human being like some worthless other … like I was better than her, and she was garbage. What kind of a nice person does that? I mean, I know I was only a kid, but not all kids do that. Most kids don’t do that, right? So, what if I wasn’t nice after all? I was really just a hateful monster.

Then I started to notice myself having these mean impulses, thinking mean thoughts and wanting to say them. Admittedly, most of my mean thoughts were about conservatives. But not just conservatives. I also caught myself thinking mean things about mushy, centrist liberals and greedy Wall Street bankers and Islamophobes and slow drivers, because I really hate slow drivers.

And as I’d catch myself in these moments of hypocrisy, either I was just noticing them or they were getting worse, especially in the last few years. And as I felt more hateful — rageful, really — I noticed the world around me seemed to be getting more hateful, too. Like there was this steady undercurrent of hate bubbling up all around us and increasingly overflowing.

So the plus side, I guess, is that I realized that hate was not just my problem, which is like, the most selfish plus side ever — because now instead of just my own hate and cruelty to try to figure out, I had a whole world of hate I wanted to unravel and understand and fix. So I did what all overly intellectual people do when they have a problem that they want to understand, and I wrote a book.

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I wrote a book about hate. Spoiler alert: I’m against it. Now at this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “Why are y’all worried about hate? You didn’t hate Vicky. Bullying isn’t hate.” Isn’t it? Gordon Allport, the psychologist who pioneered the study of hate in the early 1900s, developed what he called a “scale of prejudice.” At one end are things like genocide and other bias-motivated violence. But at the other end are things like believing that your in-group is inherently superior to some out-group, or avoiding social interaction with those others. Isn’t that all hate? I mean, it wasn’t an accident that I was a rich kid picking on a poor kid, or that Vicky, it turns out, would eventually end up being gay. Poor kids and gay kids are more likely to be bullied, even by kids who also end up being gay. I know there was a lot going on in my little 10-year-old mind. I’m not saying hate was the only reason I picked on Vicky or even that I was consciously hateful or anything, but the fact is, the people we discriminate against in our public policies and in our culture are also the groups of people most likely to be bullied in school. That is not just a coincidence. That’s hate.

I am defining hate in a broad way because I think we have a big problem. And we need to solve all of it, not just the most extremes. So for instance, we probably all agree that marching down the street, chanting about you should take away rights from some group of people because of their skin color or their gender, we’d all agree that’s hate, right? OK. What if you believe that group of people is inferior, but you don’t say it? Is that hate? Or what if you believe that group of people is inferior but you aren’t aware that you believe it — what’s known as implicit bias. Is that hate? I mean they all have the same roots, don’t they? In the historic patterns of racism and sexism that have shaped our history and still infect our society today. Isn’t it all hate?

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I’m not saying they’re the same thing, just like I am not saying that being a bully is as bad as being a Nazi, just like I’m not saying that being a Nazi is the same thing as punching a Nazi …

But hating a Nazi is still hate, right? What about hating someone who isn’t as enlightened as you? See, what I learned is that we all are against hate and we all think hate is a problem. We think it’s their problem, not our problem. They’re hateful. I mean, if I think the people who didn’t vote like me are stupid racist monsters who don’t deserve to call themselves Americans, alright, fine, I’m not being nice, I get it.

I’m not hateful, I’m just right, right? Wrong. We all hate. And I do not mean that in some abstract, generic sense. I mean all of us … me and you. That sanctimonious pedestal of superiority on which we all place ourselves, that they are hateful and we are not, is a manifestation of the essential root of hate: that we are fundamentally good and they are not, which is what needs to change.

So in trying to understand and solve hate, I read every book and every research study I could find, but I also went and talked to some former Nazis and some former terrorists and some former genocidal killers, because I figured if they could figure out how to escape hate, surely the rest of us could.

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