How we can build a more united United States of America: A Q&A with liberal FOX News pundit Sally Kohn

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Sally Kohn, once known as Fox News’ liberal lesbian pundit, shares an idea for how to progress across political divides. Photo: Ryan Lash

Sally Kohn is both liberal and a lesbian — and, until shortly after this interview, she worked at FOX News. She contributed to the conservative network for three years and, during that time, sparred with some of the most conservative minds on television. She thinks deeply about how to communicate with people whose political perspectives are fundamentally opposed to her own — and, more generally, about how Americans on both sides of the aisle can find common ground to address pressing challenges. (Ahem, U.S. Congress.)

At TED@NYC in 2013, Kohn laid out an impassioned vision of a more united United States of America. It starts with the idea of “emotional correctness.” Forget political correctness, says Kohn. Being PC can make any one of us self-righteous and emotionally vacuous, as we check off the right boxes without really meaning what we’re saying. Emotional correctness, on the other hand, pushes past the semantic nuances of what’s being said to look at the intended meaning, and the underlying causes for that belief. It opens up the possibility for human connection between people with very different political leanings. Case in point: “I might think Sean Hannity is 99% politically wrong, but he’s one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met,” she said in her talk.

Kohn, who will soon speak again at TED@NYC 2014, feels strongly that the only way to address the issues facing our country is to sit down and have a real conversation — no more talking past each other or walking out of press conferences. We spoke to Kohn to get her thoughts on how to push past political polarization.

How did you end up at FOX News?

Oh boy. So, I was a community organizer for 16 years. I lived in New York, but I worked nationally, and I worked on immigration reform, gay rights, health care reform, you name it. And I left, mostly because I was having political disagreements. I thought we needed to have a left in this country that is separate from the Democratic Party and that doesn’t just have its lips sewed to the ass of the White House — but that’s neither here nor there. I left and was looking for something else to do. I was at a conference, speaking on a panel, and this woman comes up to me afterwards and says, “We’ve got to get you on television.”

I literally laughed at her. I was like, “You’re joking. I’m an organizer. We’re behind-the-scenes people.” To her credit, she was incredibly persistent — her name is Geraldine Laybourne and she actually was the first woman to ever run a television network. One thing led to another, and one of the people who trained me had ties with FOX News. A year into doing what little baby pundits do — doing all the different cable channels — I was on FOX News with Sean Hannity.

It was like being thrown into the deep end. But turns out, I liked it. It’s a lot like organizing, but instead of a church basement talking to 10 people you get a million people — more people than I ever could imagine. And a year after that first appearance, Roger Ailes waved at me on the street. I waved back, and he called me up and offered me a job. It went like that.

It’s been three years now, which is kind of crazy. I’m very fortunate and lucky — people work their entire lives to get to do this.

How do you think your work has evolved in the last three years? Have you seen a progression of how you think and how you communicate on TV?

I think in the beginning, if you’d asked me — and if you ask most folks, left or right: “What’s your point in going on television?” They’ll say, “to deliver my message.” That’s what I thought it was. So I would prepare, I would do research — and yes, that’s important. But what I did learn was that if people can’t hear me, then they’re not going to hear anything I say and it really doesn’t matter. It’s more important to find ways to connect with people — not just the host, but with people who are watching at home. They have real concerns. They have legitimate fears. And I have a lot of the same ones too. I’m worried about the world and the future for my child — I don’t know anyone who isn’t. Thinking about that first — that’s been an evolution.

If people come up to me on the street, it’s: ” I don’t agree with you but I really like you. You seem really cool, you seem fun, you seem nice.” And to me, that’s huge. That’s 90% of the way there. As opposed to, “Oh you’re another one of those crazy, angry [people].”

So this idea of emotional correctness, where did that come from?

I think the right often mocks, or at least expresses a lot of frustration with, the phrase ‘political correctness.’ But I don’t think they realize how much it pisses all of us off too. Being politically correct can be emotionally vacuous, if it’s just about saying the right thing and checking the right boxes linguistically. It doesn’t matter how politically correct you are if you don’t actually put any heart into it and actually believe what you’re saying. Political correctness is almost a superficial way of saying that we’re on the same team. But are we really? That’s actually not about the words; it’s about the emotional content.

On the flip side, you can be emotionally correct but politically incorrect. I’ve had people say some pretty messed-up stuff to me, but I know they didn’t mean it to be messed up. Of course, we need to be careful about what we say. Political correctness is important — we don’t want people walking around calling each other the N-word or the C-word. Believe me, I’m not saying “as long as you mean well, darling, then it’s all okay.” We actually need to stop ourselves from saying problematic things. But we can’t stop at that point. We might all be polite and talk nice to each other, but it’s dangerous to think that we’ve come so far on racial relations just because we no longer have overt racism. Instead, we have implicit bias and structural racism baked into our whole society.

To me, emotional correctness is about how to preserve political correctness while also scratching a layer deeper and trying to find real compassion and connection with each other. I think we’ve always needed that, but damn do we need it right now. The insults getting hurled back and forth from both sides of the political aisle are insane, and it boils down to an incredibly divided country. We forget we’re actually all on the same team. That’s what a nation is! It’s one big team, for crying out loud!

How has working with people who have such politically different viewpoints from you changed the way you think?

I don’t think people who disagree with me are stupid — that’s the big the thing I’ve come to learn. They’re not stupid. They have real, genuine, authentic, understandable concerns and someone else connected with them first in explaining why those problems are the way they are. They’re not vindictive, they’re not mean — well, sure, some are — but by and large, not even close. When you actually do meet people face to face — whether it’s viewers who stop me on the street or some of the hosts or people I’ve been on with — you realize, “Wow, we all put each other in boxes. We do it on both sides.” You start to break through those boxes and see people as much more complex. It’s really just a metaphor for the fact that our problems are a lot more complex. Our disagreements are a lot more complex than we’re imagining they are right now.

Do you think if we push past linguistic correctness to emotional correctness that we’ll be able to address the fundamental problems that we’re having?

Absent unquestioned evidence to do otherwise, I would like to start to see a country where we all assume that we want what’s best for each other. That we don’t have this me-versus-you, us-versus-them, zero-sum game. That seems disgustingly utopian to say in this moment, when it is so extreme and there’s all this polling saying we’ve never been this partisanly divided before, ever. But honestly, even ten degrees more in that direction would make such a difference. It feels really Pollyannaish to say, “We should do it on the left.” But you know what? Somebody’s gotta be the emotional grownup. And the digging in on your own side, that self-righteousness I spoke about in the talk, really doesn’t serve anyone.

On a more personal note, what’s the emotional toll that your work has taken on you? Every day you wake up and you’re getting hate mail — how do you deal with that?

Some days you don’t read it; some days you drink. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because that would be a lie! It’s surprising because you think you’d be able to dismiss the hate mail more than you could the professional person sitting across from you. But the hate mail is somehow — and you realize normal people don’t send hate mail and it’s definitely not [representative] but — the things people say. I mean, I just had someone wish that my child had been aborted. It really can make you feel pretty sad about humanity.

But the flip side is that you constantly have to renew your faith in humanity. And I guess I see emotional correctness as part of that searching for the good in each other. In spite of sometimes very overwhelming evidence otherwise, that connection is there.