BRIDGING THE HATE DIVIDE: CNN’s Sally Kohn to headline JCC event

A very bad thing last year begat a very good one this year. The idea for Community Divided/Humanity United — coming May 3 to the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center (LFJCC) — was born of the bomb threats received last spring by the LFJCC and other Jewish community centers across the U.S. The ambitious event seeks to unite people and groups from a broad spectrum of political ideologies and ethnicities to dialog about hatred.

And the LFJCC couldn’t have landed a better guest speaker for a more difficult task. It just so happened that CNN commentator Sally Kohn was readying her first book, “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity,” just as the La Jolla event was coming together thanks to a $14,000 grant from San Diego County’s Community Enhancement Program and a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League of San Diego.

“We feel like this is a first step in a direction — learning from Sally’s leadership in what it takes to build and form friendships and relationships with people who have very different views and perspectives than you,” said LFJCC CEO Betzy Lynch.

The Light caught up with Kohn — the subject of a “Vanity Fair” story this month — by phone just before a speaking engagement in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So how do we unlearn hate?

There’s pieces, layers to it. In the book, I look at the systems of hate, and how it is enshrined in our politics, institutions and culture in everything from schools to policing to the economy. We have to address it at that broad, systemic level. And that happens only when people see the need for change. And that includes seeing your piece in the problem.

To my mind, the biggest frustration is that we have such mounting, undeniable evidence of systemic hate, conscious and unconscious, in every facet of society, and yet we’re still arguing as a country about whether unconscious racial bias and misogyny are real, when I’d much rather we be arguing about what to do about them.

Do you think that more recent generations learned to be more private about their hate, and that now they’re unlearning that?

I don’t think the nature or intensity of hate has changed. In fact, I think it was worse in the past. If you look at our country’s past, we’ve had deeply ugly, violent hate. What is true about this moment is that it’s not only the media and politicians who have access to public channels. We all do. Ten or 20 years ago, we could sit in a bar spewing hate but it stayed between us. So we are inundated with hate and incivility and we also participate in it.

How do you not blame Facebook for putting so many like-minded haters together and giving them the illusion that whole rest of the world thinks like they do?

That’s a fantastic question. First of all, on the point of blame, it can be very gratifying and we can bond over it. But I don’t think it’s useful as a feeling. Because blame is very backwards-looking and I think we need to be looking forward and solving the problem of hate. But about Facebook, and social media in general, what is true is that, yes, our divisions and intense acrimony around them are exacerbated and exploited, just as they have been by political parties for decades. But what’s also true is that the divisions were there to be exploited. So they turned the dial up on hate that was already there. We’ve got to take some ownership of that.

Do you think that positive societal change comes from individual people, or is it more that those who adhere to the old ways just die off?

In the book, I have a bunch of very extreme examples — terrorists, Nazis, people who have participated in genocide. People who are at the most extreme levels of hate imaginable have been able to turn their lives around. And if it’s possible at that level, then it’s possible for any of us to change. I think the LGBTQ movement is a potent example this. People’s attitudes have changed, which we can see in polling. And the more people encounter gay people in their workplaces, family and communities, that correlates with less and less hate. Three-quarters of white Americans say they don’t have a black friend, and more than 50 percent say they don’t know anyone who is Muslim. So the challenge is to change that.

How much good do you think an event like Community Divided/Humanity United can do when only progressives are likely to attend?

I hope conservatives will attend. One of the points I try to make in the book is that everyone feels like someone else in this political moment is hating them — and that’s true of conservatives and liberals. It’s true of folks in cities and rural folks. And one of the things I try to do is validate that experience, because people feel it and it’s hard to argue with how people feel. Also, there is a rising acrimony that we can’t deny. We’re all playing a part in how nasty and demeaning and dehumanizing our politics and the way we relate have become.

— Community Divided/Humanity United will take place Thursday, May 3 at 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive. The event is free but reservations are recommended by visiting www.lfjcc.org

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