The Author Who Went Around the World to Discover How Travel Can Heal Hate

In her new book, author Sally Kohn discovers the power of getting outside of the cultural bubble and making connections that transcend cultural differences.

In the months surrounding the 2016 presidential election, Sally Kohn found herself increasingly disturbed by the partisan nastiness sweeping the nation. So Kohn, an AFAR contributor, CNN political commentator, and host of the podcast State of Resistance, decided to take a deeper look. In her new book, The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity (Algonquin Books, 2018), she investigates the roots of hatred—both inside and outside of the United States—and how people and communities can start to heal after having been torn apart. One of her realizations? Travel has the power to get us out of our bubble—and better connect us with the world.

Your book couldn’t come at a better time. Why is it a valuable resource for travelers? 
I love thinking about the book as a travelogue. While researching the book, I was going on as much a personal moral journey as I was a physical one. The book offers us a chance to consider: How, in the way that we live our lives—including the way we travel—can we think about combating the mind-set of hate in ourselves and in the world around us, in both big and small ways? By seeing travel as a way to experience people not as odd “others” but with a curiosity that comes from respect and wonder—that can be a really beautiful, animating way to think about travel, even when you’re just going to lie on the beach.

How, in the way that we live our lives—including the way we travel—can we think about combating the mind-set of hate in ourselves and in the world around us, in both big and small ways?

What’s a small way that someone could be a bit more “woke” while traveling?
[Laughs] The truth is that we’re all in a perpetual state of waking—hopefully. If you see travel as an opportunity not just for downtime but also for expanding your mind, then you may change some things about your trip. For example, I always look for a way to experience another side of a story. When I was reporting in the West Bank, I was inspired by Breaking the Silence, run by a group of former Israeli soldiers who were disenchanted with the one-sided narrative they’d been fed during their military service. So they created a program where they take travelers on a partial tour of the occupied territories. We toured an Israeli settlement in Hebron, one of the largest cities in the West Bank, and met with Palestinian activists. When I tell Americans I went to the West Bank, their first reaction is often How could you? It’s so dangerous! They picture me in a war zone. It is obviously a politically complicated place to go and not easy to get in and out of. It helps to have a guide. And I’m not going to lie: Some parts are horrible. Conditions in the refugee camps are often inhumane. But overall it’s a thriving, lovely, complex, interesting place, and parts of it even feel like downtown Brooklyn, with little hipster coffee shops. We often have a sense of how complex the history of our town or country is, but we don’t often have that for other places. You just drive through a neighborhood and it looks the way it does and you often don’t realize why. So being consciously aware about that can be incredibly important and helpful.

What happens when your curiosity leads you to uncomfortable truths?
The goal is not to become paralyzed by guilt. Guilt is not a very constructive feeling. But you can be proactive, and that includes being proactive with your time and your tourist dollars. For instance, if I’m going to stay at a hotel, I can look into which hotels are locally owned. You can say I’m going to restaurants that support sustainable agriculture.

You talk a lot about “in” and “out” groups. It’s easy to feel like an outsider when you’re a stranger in a new place—why is that a good thing?
I don’t want to generalize, but if you’re a person who is used to being the norm and used to being in spaces that, whether you’re conscious of it or not, are made for you—you need to stay open. For example, I’m an upper-middle-class, white, English-speaking American; a lot of the world I inhabit on a daily basis, whether I recognize it or not, is designed for me. It foregrounds my needs and my comfort. When you travel, suddenly you’re not the center of the universe. And that is an incredibly healthy perspective—especially if you can settle into it and be more observant about what it feels like. You can use your temporary, chosen moments of being on the margins to try to develop empathy towards people for whom that’s their everyday experience. For example, you might think, “Gosh, I’m going on vacation with money, a hotel reservation, and an itinerary, but I can’t speak the language, and that’s hard for me. What must it be like for someone to leave their home because they’ve been forced to by war? They have no money and no hotel and no itinerary. They don’t speak the language, and they don’t know if they’ll see their family again. Wow, what must that be like?”

When you travel, suddenly you’re not the center of the universe. 

You write that we need to “make the invisible visible” to understand the world better. How do you do that as a traveler?
The people who read AFAR probably already think about these issues. So pat yourselves on the back—and now reach further. We all have ideas about Oh, that place is scary, those people are scary. But a lot of our ideas about travel are fiction, based on stereotypes and bias and history. The first step is becoming more conscious about it. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t see a problem. There are organizations that can help you connect in real ways. When I was sent to Amsterdam for AFAR’s Spin the Globe, I remember sitting in my nice hotel, eating my nice meal, and thinking, “I gotta get out of my bubble.” I really wanted to see the red-light district, but I thought it would be weird to just walk around. Then I looked around online and found a women’s rights organization that advocates for sex workers in the red-light district, run by current and former sex workers. I went on a tour with them and it was great.

What was the most profound moment you experienced during your reporting for the book?
In the West Bank, I went on a tour with Mejdi Tours, which is run by a Palestinian guy and his American friend. They take travelers to both Israel and the occupied territories, allowing each side to serve as hosts and tour guides. All the educational parts of the tour were interesting—the talk as we were going through the checkpoints, the geography—but the most memorable part was dinner at a Muslim family’s house in the West Bank. After a family-style meal, a local band played traditional music and we all started dancing. Suddenly a little 13-year-old boy comes out, and it’s clear this kid just loves to dance. He was spinning around the room and pulling others—Christians, Jews, Muslims—onto the dance floor. We don’t want to brush over our differences—the differences are what make us great, they’re what make travel rich—but at the same time, there’s magic in a moment of shared humanity like that.

So we may not see eye to eye on some large issue, but we can, in the moment, just enjoy moving our bodies to the music.
Yes. Like, “I can respect your moves.”

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