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Is it possible for liberals and conservatives to see past their politics and really hear what the other side is saying? Sally Kohn thinks so. The former Fox News contributor and CNN’s newest contributor (according to TV Newser) spoke about "emotional correctness" in her TED talk last fall, a kind of behavioral intervention for political dialogue that often leaves us gridlocked and divided. In an exclusive interview with AlterNet, Kohn talks about how she discovered emotional correctness and what the left and the right could be doing better.
Jaclyn Munson: So your TED Talk on "emotional correctness" that you gave in October discussed the importance of seeing people past their politics —
Sally Kohn: That’s a good way of putting it.
This is an important concept because discourse will get gridlocked almost immediately if we don’t respect each other. What experiences have you had that informed the necessity of practicing emotional correctness?
SK: It’s funny because people will watch the TED talk or know I was on Fox and they’ll ask, “What lessons do you have for how I talk with my conservative uncle on Thanksgiving?” And my initial thought is always: Wait a second, what lessons do you have for me? Because the way we talk to our relatives — having those debates, those tensions with people we already love — actually informs the way we can have those debates with strangers. That’s how I started working on my emotional correctness.
Finding ways to have those disagreements, in ways that are authentic and sharp-elbowed and real and have integrity and still be loving and hug and kiss each other at the end of the night...it’s these sort of private experiences more than any public moments that really was the incubation of that notion.
Do you think it’s possible to have emotional correctness without mutual respectability?
SK: Well, you can fake it! Yeah, you can fake it, I’m sure. But, no. I think both whoever you’re talking with, and then this sort of public writ large, can sort of tell when you’re not genuinely connecting with their human experience, right? And I think that’s probably part of the problem. For too long there’s this notion of — that some folks on the left have, that "Oh, people on the right and voters on the right are not voting in their self interest," right? And the ways in which that conversation was had was at times immensely condescending toward conservative voters, toward Republican voters.
You can get at the essence of that point around — ”Do you realize cutting welfare hurts you, cutting taxes hurts you because voters in red states are net beneficiaries of federal tax redistribution?” — all of that, without this sort of, “Oh you Republican voters are just naïve” attitude. That means authentically understanding and not trivializing other people’s real fears and concerns. I think if you don’t do it authentically people can tell.
That’s an interesting point, only because recently we heard a lot about the GOP training their candidates on how to talk to women and I think that, what that whole idea was lacking was empathy and I think it was because maybe they didn’t get the votes that they wanted. So how important is real empathy in emotional correctness? Or could it be just a means to an end for some people if they don’t use it the right way?
SK: An even better example was the recent memo training House Republicans on how to talk about unemployment benefits. You know, remind Republicans in Congress to know it’s a real “personal crisis” if you lose your job. Like “I feel your pain” robots. But great politicians are not emotionally tone deaf. And I think that translates to political communicators as well, right? I think we’ve gotten to the point in our society where we’re so incredibly ideologically divided. And this has been happening for a while.
I remember after George W. Bush was elected, all these maps that circulated, I probably circulated them too, the ones that portrayed all the places that voted for him in America, like those parts are backwards, those voters are stupid and backwards and regressive. You know, and that’s tempting. It’s tempting to sort of, in a world of uncertainty, it’s tempting to build up your own sense of righteousness by condemning the other side. What if it’s not that simple?
It’s really not.
SK: And I think that is really the essence of what’s missing. We’ve become divided to the point where we think the other side are like separate creatures, separate species almost.
I think there’s this need to claim our allegiance and our alliance to either side because of reasons like that and I guess, you know with the whole Duck Dynasty thing, last spring, Rob Portman who was notoriously against gay marriage, all of a sudden decided he was going to be for it when he found out that his son was gay. So how can you — because not everybody is going to have that evolution or that kind of experience that’s going to change their frame of reference. So how can you get people to use emotional correctness for scenarios or situations that they don’t have a frame of reference for?
SK: Good question. I have a Kindle single with Amazon Publishing coming out on this in late January, by the way, which will offer some concrete tips and tools and tricks that I’ve learned from trying to do this. So I’ve given that some thought and if people want to find out more, they’ll have to buy the book! [Laughs]
Really a big part of spreading “emotional correctness” for me is a plea for the left. Because I do think there’s something to the stereotype of the left being more condescending. There’s this way in which the "love the sinner, hate the sin" mentality on the right writ large, not just with gay things but sort of in general, and again. Not always. Not universally. Certainly complicated especially by race and gender and certain aggressive distancing and othering. But generally, conservatives are very accessibly nice. While Democrats and liberals can be a little snotty and condescending and holier than thou and whatever. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, right? And that’s certainly a stereotype that’s stuck, that of the liberal elite.
So there is, from my perspective for liberals a pragmatic piece to emotional correctness. It’s not like just, “Oh, let me do it if I can because it’s nice," right? It’s actually what makes you more persuasive. If whoever you’re talking to doesn’t feel that you genuinely understand their experience and have their interests in mind, they won’t listen to you. Or rather they won’t hear you. So it is essential to persuasion and I’d like to see the left be more persuasive so therefore it’s pragmatic imperative for the left to master emotional correctness.
JM: Right. On that note, when you talked about political persuasion with being emotionally correct and this is true but I think the political climate needs to change and be more accepting of bipartisanship. I think we’re really stuck with voting along party lines —
JM: — and having these lines as allegiances because people want to win reelections. I think people are afraid of political retribution. Right now it’s so polarized that it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for people to evolve publicly on these issues. So is emotional correctness the solution to partisan politics, or does something else need to happen first?
SK: Okay, so I would challenge sort of the lovely multi-partiness of what you just said. I’m still a partisan, I think one of the greatest tragedies in politics in the last 30 to 40 years that while the country is actually fairly liberal on any number of issues, certainly to a larger extent consistently on social issues, increasingly more so, and a bit up and down with respect to economic justice but certainly more so now. Everything we’ve seen, both polling-wise and culturally, reflects that. The political system does not reflect that. So you take something like, polls show a majority of Americans would like to see more of holding Wall Street’s feet to the fire for what they did in the financial crisis around unemployment, around the housing crisis and the ripple effects of behavior which is criminal behavior. That is a bipartisan desire widely shared on behalf of voters but it doesn’t happen in Washington.
You see a majority of Americans — a majority of Republicans and a majority of gun owners — want basic, tiny, common-sense gun law reform. Doesn’t happen in Washington. I think as the country is moving towards a more populist, progressive direction, the political infrastructure has perversely shifted to the right. I think that’s because we have such a corporate-owned political culture in general that’s only been exacerbated recently. It’s because of gerrymandering and the way districts are constructed, right, that allow a small minority of reactionary voters to maintain disproportionate political power. Some of these structural issues are more historic and some are more recent. But you kind of add them up, and that’s the net result.
So I actually — as much as I say bipartisanship and whatever, and I believe in bipartisanship, that version of bipartisanship that President Obama tried in his first term which is move towards their side, to me is fundamentally flawed in part because Republicans in Congress can’t even agree to policies today that they supported just five or 10 years ago. It’s haywire.
SK: Ideas that were once in the fairly mainstream Republican ideas and you can look at that over 30 years, over 40 years. Nixon supported the guaranteed income for all. Now Republicans won’t even extend unemployment insurance. You can look just a couple years. Immigration reform — Bush, McCain, even Rubio, were there and now they’re not. It’s this sort of incredibly reactionary and regressive politics of the Republican party right now. Which is even out of step with the mainstream of Republican voters now and is certainly out of step with where the electorate is going to be in 20 or 30 years. So I don’t think the answer in that sense is necessarily just, let’s all come together. It’s actually the Republican party needing to do some soul searching to get in line with where America is headed.
Right. So I guess, talking about the political environment and saying how our desires are often not represented by Washington, how do you think social media has played into that? Because especially with online harassment, and you talked about getting 238 emails in that one week, when you gave your TED talk, how does that impact our political environment? Because we are the people that are voting and with the presumption that some of the people that are engaging in that dialogue are voters themselves.
SK: Yeah, I’m not sure. That’s a great question and I’m not sure of the answer. Because there’s also a way in which social media fans this dynamic. Look, social media, the expansion of the Internet, blogs, all of that in general is democratizing. More people have a voice, more people have access. But just as with other structures in society, inequality in all of its incarnations — including racial bias, gender bias, discrimination, exclusion — still get layered on top of that. Those aren’t new things, right? But still, overall more people have a voice, more people have access, it’s a good thing. It’s good for democracy.
At the same time, there is this way in which new media has allowed the loudest and most outlandish voices to be amplified — whether on reality TV shows or on Twitter. Then there’s the anonymity online which allows or encourages incredible nastiness to percolate. So it’s interesting. ... I think for instance that the actual political mobilization of the Tea Party, and the religious right that merged into it, have done more to move the Republican party to the right than, say, extremists on Twitter. But the sense that one, right, the explicit infrastructure efforts to shift the party are validated by the cultural appearance of people who seem to agree and are very vocal on places like Twitter. In a sense it kind of gives cultural cover for that shift. I’m not sure if causes that shift.
All right. So can we talk about your time at Fox a little bit?
Do you feel like you understand conservatives better after being on Fox?
SK: Ask them! I feel like I understand myself better.
SK: There’s this instinct to go into an environment like that, or any kind of polarized political environment — and someone says up, you say down. They say black, you say white. And being on Fox News I got to hang out in the green room and be on air with a lot of well-known, impressively talented and intellectual folks. The fact is, a lot of us go through life without having to think very much about what we believe. And if you’re going to go into an environment where the host, the people you’re debating, the three people you’re debating, the audience, is not perfectly aligned with where you are politically, you all of a sudden have to really think about. “I believe this is important,” just isn’t enough.
So, it really made me think about that. I was on Sean Hannity’s radio show just the other day, we were discussing a potpourri of topics and one of them I was like, “Yeah, I agree with you.” Because I did. Whereas reflexively in the past, I might have thought, “Okay, it’s my job to disagree with Sean Hannity at all costs! So I better figure out how to disagree." Well, why? If we agree, we might agree on something! And yeah, it’s made me think harder. It’s made me think harder about what I believe and why I believe it. I don’t think that’s turned me into a mushy, compass-less liberal. I think that rigor, being aggressively challenged, has made me an even stronger and hopefully more effective progressive.
So is emotional correctness something you started to develop once you got into this environment or did you at least realize how important it was? Was this the space that really kind of solidified that?
SK: I just wanted to be effective. I wanted to be a good steward of my beliefs and vision and you know, I just didn’t want to go on and scream and argue. I wanted to go on and reach people. And then you really start to think: What does that take?
So what kind of impression did you want to leave people with being a liberal on Fox? What did you want the viewers to get out of that experience too?
SK: So that’s a funny question to answer yourself, right? What I can say is that in addition to the hatemail I talk about in the TED talk, I get a lot along the lines of, “I don’t agree with you at all but I used to watch you on Fox and you always seem like a good person.” Listen, that alone — I mean I like to persuade people, I like to make them think and I’ve gotten those emails, too: “I disagree with everything you said but you made an interesting point and made me think.”
But even just to like me enough, to connect with me enough to listen — that’s massive. I become not an enemy but a human, and then maybe the people I talk about — people on welfare, people locked up for petty crimes, women who need abortions — maybe I help make them seem more human, too.
So what was your biggest surprise being at Fox News?
SK: Two things. First, the people. Top to bottom, everyone was and continues to be absolutely lovely and supportive. So that’s one. Because we have all these ideas about the "other side.” And we demonize them in ways that, in my experience, is wholly unjustified. And second, I originally thought I would get flak from the left both for going on Fox in the first place to then saying nice things about Sean Hannity in a TED talk and everything. Not a lick. Not once. Ever. It’s been nice to feel that support and trust from my community. And hopefully I’m helping open their eyes a bit.
What do you see for social change going forward?
SK: I think we are poised as a country for an incredibly powerful mass populist movement that does not align with what we’ve traditionally thought of as left/right, Democrat/Republican, whatever. Because people are fed up. People are fed up! And you’re seeing it now. You’re seeing Republicans all of a sudden instead of demonizing poor people, they’re now trying to talk about economic inequality. And you have millions of middle class Americans who have realized that they’re working harder and harder for less and less money even as corporate profits rise. Not to mention issues of mobility, college, finding that entire ladder of opportunity in American is in crisis. That sense of devastation doesn’t know party lines. And to me, it’s progressive populism that offers some incredible possibilities for mass movement across traditional blue versus red lines, hopefully the kind of mass movement for change we haven’t seen in this country in a long time.
If you were to make a prediction, where do you think that’s going to happen first?
SK: You know Jaclyn, I have no idea. There are a lot of people and at a lot of meetings, myself included, who’ve spent years and years puzzling over it and trying experiments and it’s one of those things — you can’t plan a movement. I don’t think it happens online alone, it certainly is harder to do than ever before because we’re so disjointed culturally, we all read different sources. I think online helps as we’ve seen in other countries in the last five years. Online tools as ways of mobilizing people.
But one of the inhibiting factors is the over institutionalization of the left which focuses on neat and tidy, brand-able, organizationally fenced-in campaigns and not enough on creative experimentation and failing and trying new things in collaboration and that sort of thing. There are national groups that are better at this, that get close — National People’s Action, 350.org, Power Shift, a number of environmental justice groups and prison reform groups, the Working Families Party in New York and increasingly elsewhere — there are pieces that have that spark or sizzle.
And don’t forget the Tea Party began as an economic populist opposition to bank bailouts. So, I hope that maybe the next 10 to 15 years we see the emergence of new forms of a creative, powerful, risk-taking, populist “coalition of the fed-up.” That becomes the seed from which big change grows.
No. And I think that, one place I’ve been concerned with are these emerging super conservative darlings of the Republican Party — Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan even, with these hard-right ideologies and these really highly influential people who I don’t really see leaving that space for a long time.
So do you think that these — do you think the unwillingness from — and I don’t mainly want to pin this on the right because there’s extremists on both sides but do you think that these younger, people who have recently been elected and who are going to be around for a while are going to be inhibitors to these social movements?
SK: Politicians don’t create social movements. In fact, they are excuses for them not to happen.
SK: When we look to our leadership being in politics or in the media for that matter I think that says something about the very thin nature of real, authentic social movements we have in this country right now, is that we sort of factor people like Marco Rubio or President Obama or Rachel Maddow into that calculus at all. What the hell do they have to do with a grassroots populist social movement? Nothing. It’s something that exists outside of that. Importantly, necessarily! That’s thought number one. Thought number two is there’s no way that the sort of rightward "shift" of the Republican Party which I’ve already said has outdated public opinion, there’s no way it can maintain itself in the next 20 years. It can’t. Because there will be no Republican base for those figures. So I don’t actually look at Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or Bobby Jindal or Michelle Bachmann, you name it, as the future of the Republican Party but rather its last gasps. The Republican Party has to radically, dramatically evolve or it will die.
So what’s next for you now, post-Fox?
SK: Stay tuned, I’ll pop up again on television more soon. In a way that allows me to be a part of shows and projects that are fun and funny and fascinating but also political enlightening — hopefully reflective of emotional correctness. I love writing and I’m enjoying being a columnist with the Daily Beast, which has a great roster I’m proud to be a part of. And I’ll keep exploring other writing options.
But then the other piece — you know, I spend a lot of time consulting, doing media coaching and writing and other strategic thinking for all kinds of grassroots and national organizations and public figures. And I want to make sure I keep doing that, so I still feel and feed that connection to my own populist, progressive roots. And in that sense, hopefully have a small hand and voice in thinking about and bringing about the next mass social movement in America to address the injustices that so many of us are still confronting. That’s what I’m thinking about right now. That’s what keeps me up late at night, thinking about my part in helping that happen.
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