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

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.”

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.

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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.

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?

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.

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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.

Let me give you just one example of the former terrorist I spent time with in the West Bank. When Bassam Aramin was 16 years old, he tried to blow up an Israeli military convoy with a grenade. He failed, fortunately, but he was still sentenced to seven years in prison. When he was in prison, they showed a film about the Holocaust. Up until that point, Bassam had thought the Holocaust was mostly a myth. He went to go watch the film because he thought he would enjoy seeing Jews get killed. But when he saw what really happened, he broke down crying. And eventually, after prison, Bassam went on to get a master’s degree in Holocaust studies and he founded an organization where former Palestinian combatants and Israeli combatants come together, work together, try to find common ground. By his own account, Bassam used to hate Israelis, but through knowing Israelis and learning their stories and working together for peace, he overcame his hate. Bassam says he still doesn’t hate Israelis, even after the Israeli military — shot and killed his [10]-year-old daughter, Abir, while she was walking to school.

Bassam even forgave the soldier who killed his daughter. That soldier, he taught me, was just a product of the same hateful system as he was. If a former terrorist … if a terrorist can learn to stop hating and still not hate when their child is killed, surely the rest of us can stop our habits of demeaning and dehumanizing each other. And I will tell you there are stories like Bassam’s all over the world, plus study after study after study that says, no, we are neither designed nor destined as human beings to hate, but rather taught to hate by the world around us. I promise you, none of us pops out of the womb hating black people or Republicans. There is nothing in our DNA that makes us hate Muslims or Mexicans. For better or for worse, we are all a product of the culture around us. And the good news is, we’re also the ones who shape that culture, which means we can change it.

The first step is starting to recognize the hate inside ourselves. We need to catch ourselves and our hateful thoughts in all their forms in all of us … and work to challenge our ideas and assumptions. That doesn’t happen overnight, I am telling you right here, it is a lifelong journey, but it’s one we all need to take.

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And then second: if we want to challenge the hate in our societies, we need to promote policies and institutions and practices that connect us as communities. Literally, like integrated neighborhoods and schools. That by the way is the reason to support integration. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because integration systematically combats hate. There are studies that teenagers who participate in racially integrated classes and activities reduce their racial bias. And when little kids go to racially integrated kindergartens and elementary schools — they develop less bias to begin with. But the fact is in so many ways and in so many places around our world, we are separated from each other. In the United States, for instance, three-quarters of white people don’t have any non-white friends.

So in addition to promoting those proactive solutions, the other thing we need to do is upend the hate in our institutions and our policies that perpetuate dehumanization and difference and otherizing and hate, like systems of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace, or our deeply racially imbalanced and deeply racially biased criminal “justice” system. We need to change that. Again, it will not happen overnight. It needs to happen.

And then … when we connect together in these connection spaces, facilitated by connection systems, we need to change the way we talk to each other and connect with one another and relate with generosity and open-mindedness and kindness and compassion and not hate. And that’s it. That’s it.

I have solved it all, right? That’s it. That is pretty much — there’s a few details — but that’s pretty much all we have to do. It’s not that complicated, right? But it’s hard. The hate that we feel towards certain groups of people because of who they are or what they believe is so ingrained in our minds and in our society that it can feel inevitable and impossible to change. Change is possible. Just look at the terrorist who became a peace activist. Or look at the bully who learned to apologize to her victim.

The entire time I was traveling around the Middle East and Rwanda and across the United States, hearing these unbelievable stories of people in communities who had left entire histories of hate behind, I was still looking for Vicky. It was so hard find her that I hired a private investigator and he found her. I mean, he sort of found her. The truth is, it became clear that the person I’m calling Vicky had gone to extraordinary lengths to hide her identity. But anyway, a year after I began my journey, I wrote Vicky an apology. And a few months later, she wrote back.

I’m not going to lie, I wanted to be forgiven. I wasn’t. She offered me sort of conditional forgiveness. What she wrote was … “Messages such as yours cannot absolve you of your past actions. The only way to do that is to improve the world, prevent others from behaving in similar ways and foster compassion.” And Vicky’s right. Which is why I’m here.

Thank you.