By Marina Cantacuzino

Sitting in The Forgiveness Project office a few years ago one of my colleagues came across a brilliant TED Talk about emotional correctness being shared widely on social media. None of us had heard of the speaker, Sally Kohn, a progressive political commentator who had spent two and a half years on the most prominent right wing media outlet in the United States and arguably the world, Fox News. We were hooked by her dynamism and passion!

Some time later as we were planning our 2018 Annual Lecture and debating who to invite as speaker, Sally’s name came up again. Now working for CNN I had just read her stunning debut book, The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity and loved the central idea that change will only happen “when we start confronting hate with compassion rather than more hate.” The book also featured some of our storytellers such as Arno Michaelis and Bassam Aramin. I loved the book also because so much of what Sally wrote about profoundly resonated with me, echoing the ethos and values of The Forgiveness Project’s work.

Being a small charity with limited resources, we knew we couldn’t afford to fly Sally over from America but we decided to ask her anyway! And we were in luck. It turned out that Sally was planning a visit to Europe in September 2018 and could easily extend her trip by one day to fly to London to deliver The Forgiveness Project’s 8th Annual Lecture. We called the lecture, ‘The Burden of Hate.’

And so on Thursday evening, 13th September, at West London’s beautiful Tabernacle, the hall packed with nearly 300 people to hear what Sally Kohn had to say. While not the household name she is in America, we had sold out even before BBC's Woman’s Hour invited Sally to appear live on the programme that morning.

Sally Kohn at BBC Radio 4

The lecture covered a wide range of fascinating, challenging, sometimes alarming ideas - all delivered with Sally’s trademark quirky, passionate, highly entertaining style. She began by revealing how when she arrived at Fox News she had expected to be hated by both her fellow employees and listeners, but found that people were in fact mostly supportive, kind and caring.

A realisation then hit her: “I HATE THEM! I was the one who had all these stereotypes and preconceived notions and made these blanket generalisations and judgments about people and whole groups of people I’d never met.” It was this realisation that led to wanting to understand, research and write about hate.

She framed forgiveness as a determination to see more of the good in people than the bad; to believe that people who had once hurt others could transform.

Referencing research studies similar to those covered in the book I co-authored earlier this year with Dr Masi Noor, Forgiveness is Really Strange, she referred to hate as “a national health crisis, bad for all involved and corrosive to a healthy society.”

Arguing that the opposite of hate is connection she admitted to feeling, at times, ambivalent about the idea of forgiveness, declaring: “I continue to struggle with what I’ll call the ‘burden of forgiveness’ — the idea that while all of us are to some extent on the receiving end of hate, certain communities are more so. Queer people, women, people of colour, immigrants, Jews, Muslims.”

And she acknowledged that while believing deeply in the moral and political righteousness of eradicating hate, she also sees the danger of “whitewashing — literally and figuratively — the history of injustice…placing too much burden on those traditionally hated to do all the heavy lifting of salvation.”

I agree with and appreciate her premise that she supports The Forgiveness Project because as an organisation we never “preach or push forgiveness, but rather hold the importance forgiveness must play in peace and justice, alongside these tensions.”

The evening was skilfully and sensitively chaired by Raoul Martinez, the author of Creating Freedom – a book described by the Guardian as “essential text for thinking radicals”. Before opening out to questions from the audience, Sally was joined by three people whose stories are rooted in lived in experience.

Gill Hicks, a survivor of the London bombings, spoke on film from Australia asking “how do we evolve from otherness and hate?”

Ivan Humble, a former member of the English Defence League who has transformed his life, startled the audience by announcing: “I have moved from being the hater to the hated”.

Dunia Shafik whose son is serving a long sentence for a gang related murder, appealed for answers as to how to overcome the prejudice of a society where perpetrators are evil and their parents bad?

All three found they were battling the same ground – because the sad truth is that whether victim or perpetrator the more you work towards peace and reconciliation, the more hate you will receive.

From left to right: Raoul Martinez, Marina Cantacuzino, Ivan Humble, Dunia Shafik, Sally Kohn

There were of course no easy answers other than to just keep on going, to protect yourself when the hate becomes unbearable or the divide unbridgeable, and to keep promoting humanising stories.

Living in times where hate is so easily magnified, when the rise of the internet has turbo charged abuse and fuelled extremism, one powerful message from the evening was the urgent need to change the dominant narrative of our time away from one of hate division and insularity to that of compassion, empathy and forgiveness.

Please consider helping us promote humanising stories to counter hate and division by donating to The Forgiveness Project and supporting our work in schools, prisons, the community and online.