The Reader Interview with Sally Kohn on Election 2016 and Beyond

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“Equality is Not a Zero-Sum Game”

On a muggy day in in late Summer, I sat down with Sally Kohn, columnist and CNN commentator. I picked her brain about the presidential election, Dog Whistle politics—rhetoric that uses coded language to convey a message to specific segments of the population—and Kohn’s idea of emotional correctness, as presented in her 2013 Ted Talk. For Kohn, emotional correctness refers to “a daily spiritual practice” that consists of trying “to find compassion for the people I not only disagree with, but who are fundamentally lacking in compassion for me and my side.”  By Mirielle Clifford

Kohn is currently working on a book that’s informed by that notion of emotional correctness. Throughout our conversation, Kohn showed how the choice to examine the systems at play, instead of simply blaming individuals for actions we may not agree with, can lead to a much more productive understanding of our current political landscape.

How do you think this election will be remembered? 

Either as the beginning of the end, or the beginning of the beginning. It’s very hard to say, in this universe of political thinkers and talkers. Everybody always says, ‘this is the most important election of our lifetimes.’ We’ve all heard this before. This actually does feel like an important one, in an existential way, in terms of the future of both parties’ ideologies which are being wrangled with in really interesting ways, and in terms of the future of American values and identity. Belonging and inclusion or exclusion are being wrestled with in fundamental ways. Fundamental precepts of democracy, voice, respect, and civility are facing unprecedented turmoil in this election.

Which way does it go from here? I think it’ll keep getting worse in some of these regards, but it could be the moment where, historically we’ll look back and say, this is when it started to turn. The profound ugliness, elitism, and exclusion of the racial bias-fueling politics of the right for the last forty years probably won’t end after November. But this could be the moment we look back and say the wool was pulled off the disguised wolf and America saw it for what it was. I hope that’s the case, but I’m not sure.

You wrote for CNN that “so many Americans see the advancements of others as a strike against themselves.” Why do you think that is?

How much time do we have? This could be the entirety of the interview, trying to understand this. I’m careful not to say that people who support Donald Trump, or who are against affirmative action, or who think we need a wall between the United States and Mexico are racist. First, I think “racist” is a loaded word that shuts down the conversation. Second, it locates the whole conversation in the personal, while what we’re going through as a country is bigger than that.

This is about forty plus years of politics—largely fed by the right, but not exclusively—responding to the progressive successes of the New Deal in helping to build the white middle class. These politicians thought, ‘we can’t attack those policies on their face because they’re so effective, but we don’t like them. What are we going to do?’ When the Civil Rights movement came along, and Lyndon B. Johnson tried to expand these New Deal policies, which specifically excluded African Americans, the Right saw an opportunity to exploit and fan white racial resentment, to turn it against public policy the Right didn’t like.

So you had Nixon, Reagan, and this practice called the “Southern strategy,” but which was really a national strategy, of Dog Whistle racial politics. ‘We’re not going to say Black people are inferior, or endorse segregation; we’re going to move away from that. But we’ll talk about law and order, welfare cheats, and cadillac-driving Welfare Queens.’ If you’re Bill Clinton, you’ll talk about Super Predators.  They tried to feed into the notion, or create the notion, that by making our country more equal, by creating opportunity for people of color and Black people in particular, that you’re taking something away from white people. Your schools will get bad, your neighborhood will get dangerous, your property values will decrease, you won’t be able to get that job.

It fascinates me when I hear white liberals say off-handedly when they don’t get a job—‘Oh, they probably gave it to a person of color.’ No, they probably gave it to a white person. We know the statistics. If there are five job openings, and one goes to a person of color, the inclination as a white person is to say, ‘Oh, the person of color took my job,’ as opposed to the four other white people. The assumption is that you, as a white person, and the other white people, were entitled to the job, but the person of color only got the job because of affirmative action. White people reading this, even the good Clinton-supporting or Sanders-supporting liberals, can hear a kernel of truth—they’ve thought these things, too. Certainly it’s something to be held accountable for as an individual, but it’s not just about individual bias. It’s also about these social, political, and economic systems that have encouraged white people to think of equality as a zero-sum game.

There’s a great, unattributed quote: ‘When you’ve only ever known privilege, equality feels like oppression.’ That’s true.

This is also how you end up with an economic system where working class and middle class white folks vote for elite economics, which is mind-boggling unless you understand this notion of racial hierarchy and racial supremacy, which is very much in place today.

Can’t actually figure out what to do about it. If you point it out, half the country will say, ‘Sally, you’re the racist for bringing it up.’ It’s like blaming the person who pulls the fire alarm for starting the fire. But you can’t solve a problem if you don’t talk about it.

In your Ted Talk, you talk about emotional correctness. I think we could all use more of that every day, but do you have advice for someone who may have a hard time cultivating that emotional correctness because there’s so much at stake? I’m imagining a member of the Black Lives Matter movement who feels that ending police brutality is a matter of life or death for them, and then you have people vilifying them for questioning the police’s tactics.

I’m working on a book that’s informed by the idea of emotional correctness, the Ted Talk, and how we can be less uncivil and mean to each other in small ways and in massive ways, in terms of actual hate and violence. Part of my work with the book is me interrogating these questions, like, how much of this is naivete? There are times when incivility could be seen as being in furtherance of justice, but I maintain that there aren’t. That’s where I am the moment, and have been for a while.

If we look at the history of social justice movements, long before Black Lives Matter, there have been these tensions, the tensions between Martin Luther King’s idea that ‘Hate cannot solve hate; only love can do that,’ and Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and a very understandable desire to fight fire with fire, literally and metaphorically.

I personally, spiritually, and ethically fall on the side of peace, love, kindness, and civility as the antidote to hate, violence, and cruelty.

For me, the answer is try to lead by example with my own life and share those ideas, but that’s a far cry from proscribing that everyone should act that way in every single situation. It’s a personal choice. Now, there are some interesting and real tensions in social justice movements that I support, like Black Lives Matter or immigrant rights. There are dimensions of these movements that are more on one end of that spectrum than the other. That’s both an individual decision to make and a movement-wide struggle which is sort of healthy. For me, I try to find compassion for the people I not only disagree with, but who are fundamentally lacking in compassion for me and my side. So far I’ve found that effective.

I’ve been talking to people who have left movements of hate, like former white supremacists. One common thread in their transition out is that someone they would never have expected it from showed them compassion, like an African-American woman showing compassion to a white supremacist. I take that as a good sign.

Emotional correctness is a daily challenge. To me, it’s a daily spiritual practice. I could pick up my Twitter feed and find fifteen tweets that it would be so fun and gratifying to tweet rude, nasty responses to. It would probably feel great—I don’t know, I haven’t done it—but only for a few minutes.

I have a seven-year-old, and one thing you try to teach your kids is not just delayed gratification, but that you can make choices that aren’t just satisfying in the short-term but that are good for you, your family, and everyone around you in the long-term. I feel that way not just about social media but about being a public voice in general. Yes, you can say the thing that would be gratifying and cathartic in the short-term, that would get you the most clicks and the most airtime, but are you actually doing good for society and your own soul in the long-term? I don’t think so.

How do you explain thorny or even painful political topics to your daughter?

She’s only seven. By the time this comes out she’ll be eight. She’s very excited. She’ll also have pierced ears, so look out, Park Slope, when you see that bling walking down the street.

I realized this the other day when I did a CNN interview on Skype in my in-law’s basement, which one can do. Everybody wanted to watch it, because my in-laws wanted to see their basement on TV. We all watched it, including my daughter and her little aunt and uncle who are around her age. We were talking about some god awful thing Trump had said. I felt ashamed watching it, though not for anything I’d said. I pride myself on helping my child to be informed, engaged with the world, and thoughtful, in age-appropriate ways. This was one of the moments where I thought, I’m not sure if I want her to know this, that people are saying these things, and someone running for President is saying these things.

It’s a hard time to talk to kids about politics. The same thing goes with what’s happening around race and racial bias in this country. People, including well-meaning liberals, think the way to talk to their kids about race is to teach them to be color-blind. That’s not practical, first of all; it’s not the world we live in. Secondly, the elevation of color-blindness as a solution to racial injustice in this country is a right-wing adaptation intended to serve their agenda. As in, race can’t be a factor in affirmative action or public policy.

The same way we talk to our daughter about gender is the same way we talk about race. She picks up gender cues all the time—pink is for girls, blue is for boys; boys are good at this, girls are good at that. When we see these things in movies or in books, we say, ‘you know, the thing I don’t like about this is…’ and we help her deconstruct her environment, and think thoughtfully about the world as it is and the world as it should be, as opposed to letting her live within her metaphorically and literally lily-white bubble.

There’s an interesting conversation around police. As a white parent with a white kid in a somewhat diverse but still fairly privileged community, especially for New York City, my instinct is to teach my kid, if you’re ever in trouble, you can go to the police. But I don’t want to instill the notion in my child that ‘the police are always a good thing, so if someone is critiquing the police, then they’re necessarily wrong.’

We have to help our children understand from the very beginning that their perspective isn’t the only one in the world, which is incidentally really hard to do with little narcissists, which all seven-year-olds are. Like all of us, when I was a kid and didn’t finish the food on my plate, I was told, ‘there are starving kids in Ethiopia.’ It was very distant, but there are starving kids in New York, too, and we try to help her see that. There are things we’re fortunate to be able to expose her to, through travel, through having a diverse group of friends, through going to a racially and economically diverse school, but also in the way we talk to her, to help help her situate herself and deconstruct the world around her. That’s what makes a good citizen.

But she’s only seven. How do you explain Donald Trump to a seven-year-old?  How do you tell her, ‘you can’t talk this way. Even though Donald Trump said it, you can’t say it.’ My kid thinks that being President must be the greatest thing in the world, and you would have to be a pretty special person—a great role model—to run for President. The Right has made the same critique about rappers. Fine, some valid points, but what about your presidential candidate?

Some people say that you shouldn’t vote for ‘the lesser of two evils,’ but should vote your conscience, even if that means abstaining. What would you say about that in this election?

I’m going to say this as clearly and as non-judgmentally as I can—if you do not do everything you can to get Hillary Clinton elected this November, I think you have some soul-searching to do. This includes not just voting yourself, but spending your time, money, and talent to elect Clinton and defeat Donald Trump.

I’m a lifelong left-wing progressive. I agree our two-party system is broken, that the Democratic Party is too beholden to corporate interests, too hawkish, that a lot of these dynamics around Dog Whistle politics harken back to Bill Clinton. I’m not naive about the past and present structural issues in the Democratic Party, and the challenges and blindspots of Hillary Clinton in particular.

That said, elections are about choices. If we had a multi-party system, which I really wish we did, it would go a long way to address issues like the current hyper-partisanship. But when you have two parties, you have a choice. You pick one or pick the other. Any action you take is picking one or the other. I’ve admired Jill Stein for a long time. I find what she’s doing now unconscionable. Donald Trump isn’t Jeb Bush. If this was Jeb Bush, and we said, ‘Ok, it’s time to teach the Democratic Party a lesson. We’re going to use this as a teachable moment to transform the party for the future, and so it’ll stop taking these issues and these voters for granted.’ I’m down. But this isn’t that time.

And thinking like that assumes that the only way to have power or influence in this two-party system is by withholding votes. Look at the influence that Bernie Sanders had on the party platform; it’s the most progressive platform in history for either party. You can say, ‘look, you’ve  had influence by being at the table, and you can continue to do so.’ If Clinton wins, constituencies that weren’t involved in helping her get elected will have less input. When we talk about a broken political system, that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about, ‘who helps?’ We’re never going to have as much influence as big money, but if you didn’t help, if you weren’t there, you have no influence. Clinton has already moved to the left in this election, but the larger point is, you can engage in that struggle, but you can’t win it. I’ve talked to people on the left who insist they’re not going to vote for Hillary. Some of those people have the luxury to do that because Trump’s policies won’t affect them. They’re not immigrants who will be deported or whose families will be broken up, they’re not Muslims who will be treated with suspicion and whose loved ones won’t be able to come into the country.

Also, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. You can support Hillary Clinton. I don’t think she’s the lesser of two evils. When you look at what she stands for and what Sanders and Jill Stein stand for, there’s 80% or 90% overlap. There are real, serious issues around which we should still be struggling, but to cast those disagreements as overly broad is disingenuous and in the case of this election, very dangerous.

I get emotional about it. I was a Hillary Clinton critic, I remain a critic, I was a Sanders supporter. But you don’t go and elect a protofascist hatemonger and call yourself a Leftie. Clinton wants to raise taxes on the rich; Trump wants to give away $7 billion in tax giveaways to millionaires and billionaires. Clinton believes in public education, while I think Donald Trump wants to get rid of the Department of Education. These are fundamental things. The edges of the conversation are essential, but I think the core of agreement between Sanders, Stein, and Clinton is profound, vast, and not to be overlooked.

What was it like to be at the Democratic National Convention?

It was very helpful, inspiring, and positive. I learned things about Hillary Clinton I didn’t know. Her record fighting school segregation early on, the work she’s done for foster kids in New York City, her deep commitment to children with disabilities, and to 9/11 victims’ families, survivors, and first-responders. I used to question whether Clinton was a progressive. The Convention challenged me, in that I don’t think she’s a progressive on certain issues, but on other issues, she is. It’s dangerous if we become too dogmatic. And she’s the first presidential candidate to talk about getting rid of the Hyde Amendment and expanding access to abortion. In my book, that’s progressive. So the Convention made my image of Hillary Clinton more complex.

It was also incredibly inspiring to me, in the juxtaposition with the Republican National Convention, which was not only frightening because of Trump’s rhetoric, but also decisively white. That reflects choices made by the Republican Party post-1964, to be the party of white people, and they’re succeeding. Going to the DNC helped me appreciate that the Democratic Party is a diverse, pluralistic party that’s largely led by women of color, in terms of the Convention and now the DNC itself with Donna Brazile. Appreciating the social and political significance of that made me proud to be a democrat.

Did the anti-Clinton mood wane?

Yes. People needed to get it out of their system. Bernie did a good job going group to group, talking to folks. A larger percentage of Sanders supporters now support Hillary than her supporters supported Obama in 2008. It continues to strike me that some of these Bernie-or-bust people were very pro-Obama, and Hillary is running to the left of Obama, or at least his governance for the last seven years.

Has your work as a community organizer influenced your current work in media?

Yes. Organizing is about communicating ideas to people, helping make ideas accessible and understood. That carries over.

What do you think is the most pressing issue for Park Slope residents to be involved in? 

There’s something about the complacency of liberalism, that everyone in Park Slope should be thinking about. There’s the notion that ‘we live in a progressive bubble, so we’re good.’ Demographically, it’s a diverse community, but there’s a fair amount of hierarchy and segregation in Park Slope. Are people thinking about the overwhelming whiteness of PS 321 and the implications of that? Are they thinking about their nannies and housekeepers, how much they’re being paid, and whether they’re getting paid sick days? As liberal Park Slope people, we say, ‘Of course we support raising wages and paid sick days,’ but are we doing that for the people who work for us who, in this neighborhood, are largely women of color? Systems of inequality and patterns of bias are about systems and structures, but they’re also about us. I’m not saying, put on a hair shirt. Don’t walk around feeling guilty and suffering. But everyone can ask what they can do in their own lives, not to mention their own companies and investments. We can ask ourselves, am I investing in companies with diverse leadership in terms of people of color and women? In every facet of our personal and professional life, can we all look at how we can do 20% better? What kind of difference would that make? Especially for people with privilege and power, which people in Park Slope tend to have.

What is your favorite part of living in Park Slope?

I love running into friends, knowing people on our block, having neighbors we hang out with. I do love off-leash hour. I wish it were an hour later on weekends. I love small businesses. I love the walkability. A lot of what I love is about city life in general, but there is a really lovely sense of community and belonging that’s delightful.

As the weather cools but the presidential election heats up this fall, we can hope that the values of community, belonging, inclusion, and civility are given their due.

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About Author

Mirielle Clifford once heard a poet say that “Brooklyn is the home of every new creation,” and she just might agree. Her writing has appeared in One Green Planet and Philanthropy News Digest. She has studied poetry with Cynthia Cruz and Jean Valentine, and she is a co-founder of Sweet Action, a monthly poetry workshop

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