Sally Kohn and Erick Erickson
Relationship Across Rupture
Sally Kohn is a progressive columnist and political commentator for CNN. She’s also contributed to Fox News. She hosts the podcast, State of Resistance. She’s the author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.
Erick Erickson is editor of the conservative blog, The Resurgent, host of The Erick Erickson Show on WSB Radio in Atlanta, and contributor to Fox News. He’s also contributed to CNN. He’s the author of Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children.
Krista Tippett, host: We generally avoid lightning rod figures on this show. But earlier this year, the University of Montana in Missoula — a blue city in a red state — invited On Being to attempt an outside the box civil conversation between two pundits with big followings on contrasting ends of the U.S. political spectrum. It became a sold-out public event in the spirit of Montana’s Senator Mike Mansfield, who famously modeled integrity, courage, and humility across the partisan aisle in the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s.
We first reached out to CNN commentator Sally Kohn, who for several years was best known as “the liberal lesbian contributor” to Fox News. She’d just written a book which gathered its own controversy called The Opposite of Hate. Sally asked to be paired with Erick Erickson. He was longtime executive editor of the conservative blog RedState, and he’s an evangelical daily drive-time radio host in Atlanta. He enthusiastically agreed.
Since we recorded this conversation, the two of them have been on polar opposite sides of the Kavanaugh hearings and as controversial as ever before. But I couldn’t let go of a conversation I had after the event with two 12-year-old girls who waited in a long line. They told me they’d come at the insistence of a teacher and had expected to be bored. They were instead exhilarated. In the short span of time in which they’ve come into political awareness, they told me, they had not witnessed or imagined that this was possible: a true back and forth marked at once by bedrock difference and goodwill, humor, and a willingness to bring our questions as well as our arguments, our humanity as well as our positions, into the room, if only for an evening.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. This conversation unfolded at the Dennison Theatre in Missoula, Montana and was co-hosted by Montana Public Radio.
Ms. Tippett: As I moved through 2016, what started being clear to me midway through that year is, whoever won — the deep work that we were going to have to do as a society was human work about repairing, stitching relationship across that rupture that had suddenly become — we could no longer not see it. And that, somehow, that was gonna involve each and every one of us, wherever we were on the political or social spectrum, taking some kind of stock in terms of how we got to this place.
Sally, as you say, you’re a liberal. Your credentials are firm.
Sally Kohn: Thank you. I’ve worked really hard on that, so thank you.
Ms. Tippett: All right, you’ve demonstrated that. You talk about how you grew up as a community organizer. And you’ve said this: “Right-wingers were my enemies, and I hated them.” You even grew up with a philosophy of community organizing that formed a lot of people, that your political enemies were devils. You’ve worked to not be that way, but in this election, that all resurfaced for you.
Also, something that you both have in common is you’re both parents. You’re right in the thick of parenting, and that’s influencing this reckoning you’re doing. You tell a story of being in your lovely, leafy neighborhood block party in Brooklyn in the summer of 2016, and there was a piñata of Donald Trump’s head. And you complained, uncivilly. [laughs] But you also told your daughter —
Ms. Kohn: I mean, it is Brooklyn. So you gotta use certain language to be heard, you know?
Ms. Tippett: Right. But you told your daughter that she couldn’t go because that was not right.
Ms. Kohn: One of the things that’s interesting to me — in this book that I wrote, one of the things that I did was I talked to former terrorists and former neo-Nazis and people who had left extraordinary lives and mindsets of hate behind, and one of the through-lines, for so many of them, that transition, that inflection point, was parenthood.
It’s interesting, in a way, because the opposite is also the case as well — that it can be either this gateway to “I have to do what’s right for my kid, and my kid only,” and all of the tribalism and otherizing. Or it can be a lens to critique our own non-generosity, our own insularity, our own cruelty. When you hear certain things coming out of your children’s mouth and say, “Why do I think it’s wrong for my daughter to say she hates Trump?” Well, then, it’s wrong for me to do it too. My partner and I tried very hard during the election to say, “Look, you can not like what he stands for, but you don’t hate him.”
I think you’ll enjoy this story, Erick. One of my favorite moments during the election was — this package arrived at home, and it was a mermaid snuggie. My daughter saw her name was on it and opened it. I come home, and she is clinging to this thing for life. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened in her little eight-year-old life. It’s amazing.
I go into the other room, and my partner’s like, “Who sent her that in the mail? Why are we getting mermaid snuggies at home?” And I said, “Oh, it’s my friend Scottie Nell Hughes. She’s someone I’m on CNN with, I’m on air with. She’s the Trump supporter I’m often on air with.” My daughter had obviously overheard this and comes into the room holding the mermaid snuggie at arm’s length like it’s now poison. And I said, “Honey, she’s a Trump supporter, and she’s a good person.” Those two things are true. And there are a lot of people who do not-nice things who are Hillary supporters; the two don’t have to go together.
What’s amazing is, I’ve heard her repeat that. I’ve heard her say, “Trump supporters are good people too.” If we can figure out how to get through this moment of what I think is really important and profound ideological wrestling over what does justice look like; what does equality look like; how do we get there? — and, at the same time, hold in our hearts the aspiration of that idea, which is: If you believe in equality and justice, then treat everyone with equality and justice while arguing about the paths and policies to get there.
Ms. Tippett: You’ve said, “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.”
So Erick, you have had a pretty exciting early century. You became the editor-in-chief of redstate.com. You were involved in the Tea Party. You became a syndicated newspaper columnist, a very popular drive-time host in Atlanta, occasionally guest hosting Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated radio show. And in 2016, you were a conservative who was not supporting the Republican nominee. But your year was a lot more eventful than that.
Mr. Erickson: As all bad stories begin, I went to a CrossFit box in 2015.
Traveling the country in the debates, needing to get back in shape, was just out of breath all the time, and it just got worse. My dad told me everything went downhill at 40, and I had hit 40 and thought, “Everything is falling apart.” Couldn’t do CrossFit — couldn’t keep up. It got worse. Thought it was allergies. Next thing I know, I am being rushed into an ICU after getting a CT — literally, I got a CT scan. And you know the techs aren’t supposed to tell you anything? The guy comes in ghost-white, and he says, “Do I strap him down?” I just fell out laughing and started to sit up, and he pushes his chest — “No, you can’t get up. You should be dead.”
I had 20-some-odd blood clots in my lungs. They had been accumulating. And my wife couldn’t be there; she had to pick up the kids. We weren’t expecting anything; it was allergies. While I’m in the CT scan, of course, you can’t get your cellphone working; and I get out of range, and my phone just lights up. It’s my wife. The Mayo Clinic had called. She had these random spots in her lungs, had had them for years, and they called and said she needed to come in. They were starting to see people with her condition develop lung cancer. So all of this happens, and my wife has a very rare form of genetic lung cancer — there is no cure.
We have all these things happen, and I had written that I wouldn’t support the president. We had to have armed guards at the house for three months. I couldn’t support him because he didn’t reflect my values, and I didn’t think he reflected the values of the people I saw who were aggressively supporting him. I just felt like somebody need to say: This is madness.
Ms. Tippett: You also, then, set out to write this book, which came out at the end of last year, of 2017 — When I Wake.
Mr. Erickson: It’s my closet cookbook. There are lots of recipes.
Ms. Tippett: There is a cookbook; there are recipes. It’s fascinating.
But you have to read a little while to get to the cookbook. It’s life lessons from a father to his children because what you also do in that book — and I do want to say that you also are on record saying that if somebody pointed a bullet at your head and said, “You have to either vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, you would have to choose the bullet.” So that’s also who you are.
Mr. Erickson: Yes. It’d be a welcome relief.
Ms. Tippett: I need to provide context in this room.
Ms. Kohn: It’s good context.
Ms. Tippett: In this book, you start looking at, I do think, this reckoning: What have I done in these last years that is on record, that is on the internet, that my kids are gonna read one day? And I want them to understand me in a greater fullness.
Mr. Erickson: I make my living on the internet. I’m very blessed. I’ve had a TV and a radio studio in my house for years thanks to the internet. I initially got started as a writer on the internet because I hated being a lawyer. And I’ve increasingly become mindful of two things about the internet: One is that all of us, myself included, we can lose ourselves on the internet and become our worst selves. And then others want to define us by the worst thing we’ve done on the internet, even if it was a decade ago. And probably the worst thing I’ve ever done on the internet was a decade ago. People still bring it up — that you have no credibility because of this thing you did ten years ago. And if none of us are allowed to move beyond the worst thing we’ve done, there’s no incentive for any of us to become a better person. I wanted to make sure my kids understood that.
The other thing — and I think this is the most deeply disturbing thing about the internet no one talks about and should — is it has allowed every single person in this room, and all of us up here, to ignore our physical, actual, next-door neighbor and become friends with the next-door neighbor on Facebook.
I tell my kids all the time, and I mention this in the book, that Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the welfare of the city in which you are in exile, for there you will find your salvation.” I really do believe that means your local community. All politics is local. If you don’t know about the homeless man under the bridge or that your next-door neighbor is sick and needs food, you’re not being a good member of the American community. My kids need to understand that they need to know their next-door neighbor, not just their people on the internet.
[music: “The First Surface” by Near the Parenthesis]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today at the University of Montana with conservative commentator Erick Erickson and progressive commentator Sally Kohn.
I think that this phenomenon of trolls is — well, it’s made possible by the internet. On the other hand, it’s the dark side of the human condition, with a new canvas —
Mr. Erickson: Anonymity.
Ms. Tippett: And being disembodied.
One of the interesting things you’ve done, is you actually — I think you said, “I don’t want to brag,” but somebody at Twitter told you that you had some of the worst trolls on the internet.
Ms. Kohn: I mean, I’m just sayin’…
Ms. Tippett: But you actually called a bunch of them up.
Ms. Kohn: I did. There were so many interesting things about my trolls. Even the word we choose, “trolls.” They’re these little nebbish-y creatures who live under bridges and throw rocks. It’s dehumanizing language. I’ll say, I guess, that there were two things that I took away the most. One was, no one thinks they’re mean. It’s not just trolls. Talking to neo-Nazis and talking to terrorists, people think their motivation is fundamentally good, by and large. These trolls didn’t think they were doing something mean. In fact, they often thought I was the one who was mean or uncivil or cruel or unkind. And when I heard some of their stories, I was so struck that, here I am, mildly irritated by the annoyance of being called things I can’t repeat on public radio, online, and they’re going through real hardships in their lives. I think it’s unfortunate in a number of ways that this is one of the things they choose to do with their time. But still, no one thinks they’re mean. No one thinks they’re hateful. No one wants to be hateful.
Ms. Tippett: What do we do with that? What do we do about that, because we are full of meanness.
Ms. Kohn: The other thing I was going to say, and I think this is part of it, is that they also didn’t think anyone was paying attention to their tweets, which, of course, was like, “Why are you tweeting them?” But still, they were like, “I didn’t think anyone was reading them.”
Ms. Tippett: Or that they could hurt you, that they could make you feel the way you were feeling.
Ms. Kohn: Right, and the minute that they had the opportunity, a lot of them apologized. I was like, “Thanks, but why’d you, then, do it?” It has something to do with a lack of accountability. It also has to do with this way that the internet comes to exist within our own heads. There are studies that when people are challenged to engage online in a computer scenario, but where they can see a video of the eyes of the person that they’re writing to, we behave more kindly. There’s this dehumanization of technology that then allows us to fuel the dehumanization that — you’re exactly right, Krista — didn’t begin with technology. But they end up nurturing and feeding each other.
Ms. Tippett: It can amplify it.
Ms. Kohn: Part of what I think we do is start to understand that we all have a problem. Look, I don’t care who does it worse. I happen to have an opinion on the matter — I actually — I’ll be honest. What I really think, and I’m really curious if you agree with this, Erick: I’ve come to think that the left, by and large, is nicer to humanity in general but not people in specific, and conservatives are nicer to people in specific but not humanity in general.
Mr. Erickson: That’s actually something conservatives say regularly.
Ms. Kohn: OK, cool.
Ms. Tippett: That’s really interesting.
Ms. Kohn: Right? If we could somehow figure out a way to say, “OK, you know what? Let’s try to do both.” But also from that point of recognizing that, at least at the very beginning, we all have a habit of dehumanizing and demeaning the other. And we all think we’re justified in doing it because of them. I’ve heard so many people in this election — I’ve been at dinner parties; so many people, my liberal friends, who say, “Oh, these Trump supporters, they’re so racist, and they’re so Islamophobic, and I hate them” — because they’re so hateful, I hate them. We blame the people for then expressing these views, as though — not “It’s been done to them,” but “It’s inherent in them,” that that’s who they are as people. How can we say those two things at the same time?
I do think we have to have some faith in people’s intention to be good — and this is where I think it is a spiritual quest — I try very hard to assume that you like me in spite of some of the things I know you’ve read and written and said about gay people. I still don’t assume you mean me ill will. I don’t. The rest of that is sort of in the tension, but it’s also — I want to believe the best in people. And it seems to me, that’s the gift I have to give others if I want them to believe the best in me.
Ms. Tippett: You have actually called that a daily spiritual practice. Erick, I feel like you also have been caught in one of the related dynamics to all of this, which is that the culture we’ve created, the dynamic is that we also really want to freeze people in the worst thing they ever said and then associate everybody who might be remotely like them or who voted like them. But in a very particular instance you said something — I mean, you’ve said a lot of things.
Mr. Erickson: I’ve said a lot of things.
Ms. Tippett: You’re a pundit. But a few years ago, you made a comment which you later really have said, many times in many places, “I regret.” You said something in coarse language about a Supreme Court justice, and…
Mr. Erickson: Wrote a whole chapter in the book about that one, yes.
Ms. Tippett: The word “goat” was in it.
Mr. Erickson: Oh, yes. I’ve had to talk to my 12-year-old about this.
Ms. Tippett: OK, and when we announced on Twitter that we were doing this interview, and I said how excited I was to talk to both of you, and I hadn’t actually followed this saga yet, but somebody came through, and said:
Mr. Erickson: Just mention me online. You’ll be amazed.
Ms. Tippett: “Ask Erick Erickson what saying this has to do with repairing civil discourse.”
Mr. Erickson: It goes to the point Sally made earlier, that we sometimes — and when I did that, it was, I think, 2009. I didn’t know anybody but a couple dozen people on Twitter at the time, and it was just friends. It wasn’t my remark; it was someone else’s, and we were laughing about it. I took ownership of it, though, and I’ve had to apologize for it nearly every day since. But the number of people who still bring it up because they think I need to be defined by that. I’ve gotten a lot people — “You wouldn’t say this about the right” — actually, I wrote this several weeks ago about people on the right suddenly being OK with dictatorship, as long as it goes their way.
The common themes are: One, people don’t know the record. But two, the fact that both sides really are at a disturbing point in this country, where as long as their side is winning, they don’t care. I think that is only possible, again — and I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but it really is where my heart is right now — that it only matters when we’re oblivious to the people on our city block, to the homeless people in our community. When it’s just national politics, when Washington is the be-all, end-all of everything, everything’s abstract because none of us are in Washington.
Ms. Kohn: Two points. I think that it’s dangerous to suggest that just a return to provincialism could be the solution because we have to remember that before the internet, before globalization and global interconnectedness and global awareness, we still had segregation. We still had sexism. We still had homophobia. We still had all the things. We had a lot of things that I think made this country great, but a lot of things that we had to work on — and that that provincialism, especially, given the historical way in which our neighborhoods have been shaped, led to a lot of myopia. So I’d say that.
Look, I have a bent on this, and I’m clear on it, which is: I want everyone to be nicer. I want everyone to hate less. And I think progressives should lead the way because somebody has to go first.
I also feel like, to the points that we’re making here, if there was a side that professes that people can change and grow — and in fact, that is a core of progressive politics, is that, please, don’t stay where we’ve been as a country in the divisiveness of racial segregation and slavery and the subjugation of women and the yawning economic inequality. We don’t have to stay there; please, don’t stay there. Let’s progress. That is the idea of “progression” that demands, invites change in the country and in individuals. So if your vision involves people changing and growing, then you have to be able to literally practice what you preach and create space for people to change and grow.
Mr. Erickson: Can I ask, when you say this — because I’ve said something similar on the right, that we’ve got to improve — “We can’t improve the other side; we’ve got to improve our side.” I get a lot, these days, “Well, that’s unilateral disarmament. We can’t be nicer, because the other side’s gonna…” It absolutely is this lack of faith to believe the other side is capable of growing.
Ms. Kohn: Yeah, I get it too. I still have friends, activists and organizers, who feel like hate and divisiveness is one of the strongest tools in their toolbox. I always return to one of my favorite quotes, a Martin Luther King quote. He says, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” Hate is not the answer to hate.
Ms. Tippett: And he said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Ms. Kohn: Correct. You can’t hate your way out of hate.
Ms. Tippett: I want to say, liberals — and I love that definition of “progressive,” but I don’t think progressives have a corner on the market of believing in human growth and change.
You are a devout evangelical Christian, and conversion is an important value and belief in Christianity. You write about your Aunt Lucy. What’s interesting to me is, I feel like everyone in our society right now has the story of their loved one who’s on the other side.
Mr. Erickson: I thought you were gonna say we all have an Aunt Lucy because I’ve got an Aunt Lucy too.
Ms. Tippett: OK, well, maybe we all have an Aunt Lucy — or, it’s often the brother-in-law.
Ms. Kohn: I get a lot of uncles-at-Thanksgiving questions.
Ms. Tippett: For some reason — let’s say another way to paraphrase “repairing public discourse” is, we want to grow up as a society. We want to be worthy of the moment we inhabit and meet it with our best. We possess a lot of intelligence in our lives, in our families about, for example, that nothing gets any better if people don’t acknowledge mistakes they made, and we don’t embrace that and encourage them to grow, and that you never, ever change anybody’s mind by telling them how stupid they are, ever.
Ms. Kohn: Never.
Ms. Tippett: Ever in history has that happened.
Ms. Kohn: Well, I want to say, to me, the opposite of hate isn’t love. It’s connection. You don’t have to love people to not hate them. You have to see that you have something at your core, a fundamental humanity, a fundamental goodness, that transcends the division. The reason I talk about my Aunt Lucy is, there are people who, when you meet them, when you know them, when I talk to my trolls, you realize that we’re at a point in our society, in our history, where we focus on a very small sliver of our beliefs to fight over. I don’t know about you, but when I see my relatives who I don’t agree with on 100 percent of — first of all, I have a whole bunch of relatives I don’t agree with on 100 percent of political issues. But I don’t see them as — they’re still on my side because we — I don’t know; what do we agree on? Ninety percent of the political issues? Where’s that dividing line? The point is, when I see my Aunt Lucy — all right, maybe we disagree on even more — I still love her. I still care about her. I still know she’s a good person and wants what’s best for me and my family and the country and the world. That is a really good place to be able to start to then talk about what we disagree on.
Mr. Erickson: When I started at CNN at the end of 2009 — I grew up watching CNN, being in Dubai. It was the news channel you watched. And I came home, joined CNN, and was suddenly surrounded by people who, as a kid growing up interested in politics — they were the enemy. James Carville and Paul Begala, they got that Clinton guy elected. Donna Brazile — turns out they wound up being my best friends at CNN; still great friends with all of them, and being able to make those connections. A friend of mine who disagrees greatly with you on many things found out I was coming out here, and he sent me a text. He says, “You don’t need to go out there, because you’ll come back, and you’ll like her.”
He knows me so well.
Ms. Kohn: It’s been known to happen.
Mr. Erickson: It really is amazing that when you actually meet someone, and you learn about someone, and you learn their interests, you connect with them in a way you don’t over the internet. I tell people all the time that the reason I’m a conservative is because I believe we’re all sinners, and I want as few in charge of me as possible. Then I also say…
That’s exactly why I like small government. The fewer sinners in charge of me — I’ve got enough sins of my own. I wrote about them in the book. But a lot of evangelicals in current American politics have gotten so wrapped up in their belief in an existential crisis, an assault of their culture, an assault of their religion, they’ve forgotten the concept of grace. And I think all of us, whether or not you are an evangelical Christian — whether or not you are Christian — most faith cultures, most spiritual cultures have a concept of grace. I think we lose that over the internet as we interact, more and more, with people who are faceless.
[music: “Where Are You Driving” by Laura Veirs]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Erick Erickson and Sally Kohn. We’ve also just released a new episode, only in the On Being podcast feed, of “Living the Questions,” where I move to the other side of the conversation in shorter form. This week with some thoughts on the tender, inflammatory heart of our life together right now. Find that on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your favorite shows.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with two pundits on opposite ends of the American political spectrum. Sally Kohn is a progressive commentator who’s also worked for Fox News. Erick Erickson is a conservative commentator who’s also contributed to CNN. I spoke with the two of them at the invitation of the University of Montana center named for Senator Mike Mansfield, who famously modeled integrity, courage, humility, and respect across the partisan aisle in the tumult of 1960s and ’70s.
Since we recorded this conversation, Sally and Erick have been on polar opposite sides of the Kavanaugh hearings and as controversial as ever before. But I couldn’t let go of a conversation I had after the event with two 12-year-old girls who’d come expecting to be bored and instead were riveted. They told me they had not witnessed or imagined that a political conversation like this was possible. Michael Marsolek, Montana Public Radio’s program director, moderated a few questions from the standing-room only audience.
Michael Marsolek: Here’s a question looking for practical kind of answers to questions, particularly hopeful about this localism that Erick talked about. This person wonders if any of you have any practical tips for navigating political minefields such as the PTA or the co-op or the block party.
Ms. Tippett: OK, that’s where life happens. That’s a great question.
Mr. Erickson: I will say that I have commented, more than once in the last few months, that I may give up politics for the pulpit at some point. I was a city councilman, elected, and it’s worse than national politics. Local politics is far dirtier. People get mad at you in the grocery store because their garbage wasn’t collected.
The thing, though, I would tell you is to go full circle to where this night began. Just don’t impute motives to someone when you don’t really know their motives. A lot of people believe a lot of things. Some people believe things that are mutually contradictory. I think we all do. I know I do. But don’t impute motives to the person. You haven’t walked in their shoes. You don’t know their background. We could all do a better job, particularly at the local level, in a PTA or whatnot. It may not be that they just want a way to get their kid ahead over your kid. They may have real reasons for wanting to do these things. Just getting out of imputing motives would go a long way to helping things.
Ms. Kohn: I’ll give a practical tip and a challenge. The practical tip is: We know from neuroscience that when people sense an argument, their brain shuts down. The persuasion parts of their brain shut down, and the fight-or-flight parts of their brain light up. They pick a side. No one’s gonna pick your side; It’s by definition an argument, so the person you’re arguing with is gonna pick their side. Then the whole thing breaks down, and everybody leaves feeling pretty crummy about things. So the extent to which we can keep things conversational — and also, if you want to persuade someone else, you have to be open to being persuaded yourself. These are two-way streets. They have to be. And not like you’re faking it — really, authentically, meaningfully hearing what someone else is saying.
Then the other is: Look, we have to do something about the way in which our lives and our communities are segregated. That is increasingly ideological. It’s also racial, economic, and — it’s a very interesting thing about the gay thing. You could have these stealth gay people — I was one — where I was dormant in my family that whole time. Then, suddenly, surprise, I’m gay. And they already liked me, so it worked out well, and that’s why we had such quick progress on gay rights as a country. That doesn’t usually happen, say, with black people or Muslims. Your cousin doesn’t just suddenly, one day, come out as Mexican.
But there are studies that kids who go to racially integrated elementary schools grow up to actually have less racial bias. College students who participate in racially integrated activities and after-school programs actually reduce their racial bias. There’s something about us knowing each other, being together, relating to each other, that then has a much more positive effect, more broadly.
Ms. Tippett: That actually leads me to one of the questions I want to ask as we wind down, which is: If the goal of a robust civility is not that we agree, and that, in fact, we really do have some deep, deep differences, where there’s not even going to be a lot of common ground in the room — but I think an assumption we’re making here, or a proposition, is that we’re not going to let common ground, easy common ground, be a prerequisite for common life. We are going to insist on creating something called common life. But if it is about, also, just learning to disagree better, with more personal integrity, not hating, what difference does it make? The two of you are both really good at saying, “I’m not perfect at this.” Sally, you’ve said, “I haven’t learned to stop hating yet.” And Erick, you said —
Mr. Erickson: Oh, yeah, I have lots, some of them not repeatable.
Ms. Tippett: In your book, you said, “The need for relationship and community is why it pains me to have to acknowledge what a jerk I have been and can still be on social media.” This is a work in progress for any of us. We are all sinners. What is the experience you have of what does shift? What shifts? What becomes possible? What difference does it make?
Ms. Kohn: I have had the experience, myself, of being unexpectedly kind in the face of people being cruel, online or off, and seeing the difference it makes.
Ms. Tippett: In yourself. And in them?
Ms. Kohn: First of all, I feel better. I feel better when I’m not a jerk. I just do. Try it.
But in them as well. People write back and say, “Hey, you’re all right” — your friend warning you that you might like me. I had the privilege of finding example after example. There are incredibly powerful stories of people who were professional hatemongers; or kids who were just saying nasty, violent, racist things, and who the targets of that hate showed kindness and generosity and transformed those dynamics on Twitter, people who left entire hate movements because the people who they had been raised thinking were hateful showed them kindness.
I have to say, I’m aware of the burden that, in a way, this suggests that — if you believe it’s not even — those who perhaps are at the receiving end of more of the hate should have to shoulder the burden of taking the high road. I get that. There are times where it feels deeply unjust to me.
Ms. Tippett: In some cases, it’s too much to ask. But some cases are strong enough to ask it of.
Ms. Kohn: In some cases, it is too much to ask. On the other hand, this is where those of us who are more privileged can, in fact, step up. Also, I want to say, look, I believe in the high road. I believe in treating people like they are all extraordinary and beautiful and equal. I do feel like that is it. That is the work. And I am blown away by the difference it makes.
Mr. Erickson: I’m always struck — just riddle, to some degree: What is the first “bad” in scripture? What is the very first bad thing that happens in Genesis? It’s not Cain and Abel, and it’s not the fall, the serpent, and the apple. It’s actually in the Garden of Eden before evil even enters the world. God says, “It’s not good for man to be alone.”
That’s the first bad: loneliness. So many of us concoct relationships and communities online, and we’re still alone. Then we get in our tribes — Republican, conservative, liberal, progressive, Democrat. Well, that tribe then becomes alone, insulated. We don’t mix and mingle with the “other.” And when you don’t mix and mingle with the other, it’s a lot easier to believe the other is the enemy. I really push myself, more and more, to make sure I’m actually having physical interaction with other people. And with a wife who has cancer, and I know we’re running out of good years; and being in middle Georgia, where most of my friends are online and not there, I’m more and more mindful of the fact that it really is necessary for people to have actual, real friends. I don’t think there’s a coincidence at all, relatedly, that we both began having these internal conversations with having kids. That level of local — and I don’t mean to keep harping on “local” here; that’s not intentional — just community, physical, real, break-bread community. In my book, I am a firm believer that everyone should learn to cook because you should open your home and bring people in who you want to be your friend that you don’t know.
There’s a great Christian author Rosaria Butterfield, who was a lesbian scholar at Syracuse, and she writes to the Christian community a lot that there is no better community in America than the gay community, where an unlocked door and a warm meal could be the difference between drugs, depression, suicide — and that if we want real community, it needs to be radical community. We need to recognize that our blessings are blessings to be shared with other people.
Ms. Kohn: Preach, Erickson, preach!
The gay gospel, coming from Erick Erickson! I never thought I would see the day, but like you said, I believe in change — hallelujah!
Mr. Erickson: Praise Jesus. Let me just say, we undervalue in the 21st century real community and real meal. If we get back to that, I think lots of the world’s problems can be solved around the dinner table with a warm meal with strangers, getting to know them.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with Erick Erickson and Sally Kohn.
Ms. Tippett: OK, we could finish one minute early, which would please something deep in my radio bones, but can we just keep going for five more minutes? Is that all right?
Mr. Erickson: Sure, I’ve got nowhere to be.
Ms. Tippett: Something I just want to bring up with the two of you and in this room — something that’s very much on my mind is, I’m just so happy we haven’t talked about the White House tonight, just because we’re so fixated. Thank you.
Mr. Erickson: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, no, really, because there’s more to life, and there’s more to politics, and there’s more to us than politics. Something that puzzles me, and I’m curious with the two of you, because you are in that world — is that on so many of these things on which we’re so divided and on which a lot of hate gets thrown around by the extremes, which we allow to define and frame all of our important discussions, there’s this middle ground, this vast middle ground, where people aren’t the same, but — for example, for a long time, it’s been true that on abortion, something like 60 to 65 percent of Americans across party lines favor abortion with limits. Now, there’s a big conversation to have about what those limits are. But rather than always having the same fight about, it’s always right, or it’s always wrong, why can’t we start our conversations where we are all ready to have a fruitful conversation? Could we start talking about the things we all want to be talking about, where we’re actually ready to begin? How would that begin?
Mr. Erickson: I’m so cynical on this issue. I’d probably depress you all. I am of the belief — and again, it goes back to being a conservative, because I want as few sinners in charge of me as possible — that the solutions that will move the country forward, by and large, tend to be at the state level. I get a lot of hate from my conservative friends for saying, “If I want a state where I can put restrictions on abortion and a Christian can run a business and doesn’t have to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, I need to allow there to be a state that allows unrestricted abortion and sanctuary cities and tells a Christian, ‘Bake the cake.’” That if we aren’t willing to respect that diversity under federalism, if it’s one size fits all, then it’s one size fits all at the extremes of both parties, fighting over power.
Ms. Kohn: Here’s where I am biased, and I will disagree, because I actually think, whatever word we want to use, we are a fundamentally progressive country on issue after issue after issue: immigration reform, abortion rights. Look, what I think is true is that the parties have become captured by, by and large, corporate elites as well as special interests and that our media has been infused with a sort of reality-show, cage-match-esque dynamic that forces the extremes because what fun would it be to watch people agree about fundamentally important things in our country? Which is not to say that I believe in centrism, but that you’re right: Those two things can coexist.
I will say this: The politicians and the media have to stop dumping toxic sludge into our democracy. And we have to demand it change.
Ms. Tippett: We have to finish. Erick, something you’ve been really articulate, I feel, about, is you don’t want to be completely focused on what you think is wrong. I feel like we’ve been circling around this all this time. We’re very fixated on what we hate, really clear about that, but so focused on it that it starts to define us, and, I think, deform us. Again, in the book, you say: I’m gonna also be really clear about what I love. I don’t know if I’m saying it exactly the way you would say it, but I think you know what I mean. What is it that you want to be? I think, with, sometimes, King — you see the darkness, you grapple with the darkness, but you keep walking towards the light. What’s the light now that’s drawing you? What is what you love that is mobilizing you every bit as what you know needs to be better?
Mr. Erickson: Other than food? That’s kind of a problem.
I keep pitching this TV show where I bring politicians in and cook, and we don’t talk politics. I want to talk to Nancy Pelosi about chocolate because I love chocolate, and so does she. Find common ground that way.
This sounds very trite — I’m from the South; forgive me — I love Jesus. And I do a very bad job of modeling him, more often than not, and have to conform towards that. What I love is knowing that, at some point, there will be a better life. Particularly, given my wife’s situation, that gives me hope — and knowing that I want my children to see a glimmer of it now. What am I doing to give them that glimmer?
I just tell my kids all the time: Don’t be like the kid you don’t like in school. Be like the person you like and model that behavior. We all fail; we’re all sinners; we all fall. But I love God, so I’ve got to do better, looking like him on the planet. And I’m gonna fail — Bible says I’m gonna fail — but it doesn’t mean I will always fail.
[music: “Feedback In the Remotelight” by Hyakkei]
Ms. Tippett: Erick Erickson is editor of the conservative blog The Resurgent, host of The Erick Erickson Show on WSB Radio in Atlanta, and a contributor to Fox News. His books include Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children.
Sally Kohn is a columnist and political commentator for CNN. She hosts the podcast State of Resistance. Her book is The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.
This episode with Erick and Sally will be added to On Being’s Civil Conversations Project, which also includes resources for communities and families. Find that at civilconversationsproject.org.
We loved being in Montana and look forward to opening On Being–Missoula. Special thanks to Dane Scott, Abraham Kim, Nicky Phear, Michael Marsolek, Linda Talbott, and all the great people at Montana Public Radio and the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.
[music: “Ursa Minor, Ursa Major” by Tarentel]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, and Damon Lee.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.