Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book Review: The Opposite of Hate by Sally Kohn

By:  Jess Hoffert

Hate: It’s a word that gets tossed around all-too-freely these days, from “I hate brussels
sprouts” to “I hate that person.” In her all-too-timely 2018 book The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity,” CNN political commentator Sally Kohn digs deep into the roots of hate, identifying what true hate is before using case studies, interviews and personal experience to identify how and why we hate others.
It all adds up to a powerful book that forced me to self-examine the alarming ways in which—without recognizing it in many cases—I own a harmful array of prejudice and implicit bias toward others.

Others: That’s another important word here. It’s the otherization of a person, culture or creed that’s at the core of our hate, according to Kohn, a lesbian woman who found herself on the receiving end of otherization as a Fox News contributor. And why do we otherize? Because we are born to belong. “The problem starts when our desire to belong leads us to identify so strongly with a particular social group that we become fierce in our belonging—to the point of engaging in, or at least condoning, harmful otherizing,” according to Kohn. In extreme cases, this yearning desire to belong and otherize has led to history’s greatest atrocities, such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, which Kohn uses as a case study in a chapter titled When Hate Becomes Pandemic. “Such mass atrocities can happen only because many fundamentally decent human beings participate and many other decent people fail to intervene,” she writes.  “When we take that in, we realize that genocide is terrifying not only because it happened to them but because it could also happen to us—and that we could just as easily be the victims or the perpetrators.

Throughout the book, Kohn does a masterful job of taking complex situations such as the
Rwandan genocide and condensing them into attainable lessons that can be learned without reducing the horror and trauma to humanity. I found the chapter Unconscious Hate to be especially hard-hitting and perspective-altering for me. This is where I learned about my own implicit bias, which Kohn defines as “the attitudes and misperceptions that are baked into our minds due to systemic racism and pervasive stereotyping across society.” As a white male, I realize that I have blind spots when it comes to racial and gender inequality. If I see blatant racism or sexism occur in person or in the media, I often find myself feeling pretty good about who I am, patting myself on the back for being better than that. But is implicit bias also a form of hate? According to Kohn, it is. Implicit bias can help explain the reason why white doctors spend less time—on average—with black patients, even though these same doctors thought they were giving equal amounts of time to everyone they saw. There are many other examples of implicit bias highlighted throughout the book, and if you want to discover your own blind spots, you can take a quiz at that measures how quickly you unconsciously associate certain words and images. It’s pretty genius—and incredibly eye-opening.

Once we become aware of our own implicit biases, then we can start to address the systems of hate that are ingrained in our society and work together to break these systems down. There’s an overwhelming amount of work to be done to make the world a less hateful and more peaceful place, but Kohn gives us glimmers of hope at the end of her book. Kohn challenges the reader to see connection as being the opposite of hate. We are called to build bridges with those who look and act different from us, to use “connection speech” when conversing with those who have different perspectives, and to create “connection spaces” that bring diverse people together. We also need to acknowledge that we have a “crisis of hate” in our country, and there is some difficult history that we need to dig up, because in many ways, it’s repeating itself today. But it starts with addressing the suppressed bias and hate within ourselves. “One of the many things I’ve always appreciated about Christianity is the notion that we are all sinners,”
Kohn writes. “It’s admonishing and encouraging at the same time, reminding us that we all contain darkness and light, and have to strive to be our own better angels.”

Jess Hoffert is a member of the Church of the Brethren and serves on the Iowa Peace Network Joint Oversight Committee as a Church of the Brethren representative.  He works for Meredith Publishing on Midwest Living and travel magazines, based in Des Moines, IA.

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