Interview: Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist, author, and Pacific Crest Trail hiker. You can get his columns and other neat stuff in his newsletter, find his latest insights on Facebook, and read his thoughts on courage and listening right here.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

I think of myself as a journalist out to make a difference. People periodically will come up to me and call me a crusader. I always flinch a little bit at that because if you’re a crusader, then there’s a risk that you get a little carried way, miss nuances, and your position maybe becomes more important than the truth.

I’m steeped in journalistic values, but on the other hand, I also think that journalism can be a spotlight in support of larger values that we all hold.

 What does it take to listen well?

A lot of intellectual curiosity and a certain humility about how much we know. There’s always a risk, especially if one is writing about the developing world or about other places around the world, that we march in and think we know what’s going on, and then we talk to people and we listen only to confirm our previous prejudices.

When I was a foreign correspondent living in China, it always struck me how often the Chinese leaders themselves had no idea what was going on in the countryside and American experts sitting in the bubble in Washington or New York knew even less. It's really important to get outside of the capital and talk to people in the villages. You often learn all kinds of surprising things. Since becoming a columnist, I’ve really tried to keep up the travel and the grassroots reporting. I think it’s critical to do that sort of listening.

We saw that in the Iraq War where there were a lot of smart people who “listened” to Iraqis and what they heard was that we were welcome. I reported in Iraq under Saddam and it seemed clear to me that if you listen more intently that Iraqis (a) hated Saddam Hussein, but (b) were very wary about us marching into the country. They viewed the West through the prism of suspicion, colonialism, and outsiders trying to get their oil.

It’s really important to put aside our preconceived notions. I often go to a village and just sit down and ask people all kinds of very practical questions: What did you eat this morning? Who ate first? Where do you keep your money? Who has access to it? If there’s a decision about what to buy, who makes that decision? All kinds of nitty gritty decisions to try to understand village life.

How do you cultivate the confidence to go your own path?

In part it arises not so much from confidence, but from a certain amount of uncertainty about what is the truth, [which is] what leads me to do a lot of grassroots, more anthropological reporting.

One of my favorite philosophers is Sir Isaiah Berlin, and he argued that it’s important to both acknowledge that one can make mistakes and that one’s never fully confident, yet also to go ahead and do the right thing as you see it at that time. That thought gives me comfort.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we make moral and ethical decisions based on uncertain information and we may end up revising them. But still, we don’t really have much choice other than to do what we perceive is right at any given time.

How do you sustain compassion when a huge percentage of the world seems to be indifferent at times?

The individual stories just move me. You can be numbed by statistics and numbed by the accounts you read in UN reports. But when you actually get to a village and see a kid who is starving or a woman who’s just been beaten up by her husband or a girl who’s been raped and thus stigmatized - when it’s an individual case, your heart just goes out to that person.

I do think that we're hardwired to some extent to be empathetic to individuals around us. The challenge for journalists [is] to try to build on that hardwiring for individual cases for empathy to create a broader empathy that is for classes of people and helps build solutions.

In doing your work, what have you learned about the human spirit?

People always assume that I must be kind of gloomy about the human condition. That because I cover genocide and atrocities and sexual violence and famine, I must be the Eeyore of journalists. The truth is that you do see really terrible things out there, but you also see the human capacity for courage and altruism and decency and resilience in a way that you don’t often see in the West.

We’re not tested in New York or Washington in the same way that people are in Burundi or South Sudan. When people are tested, they really are capable of amazing virtues as well as vices. That's what's really struck me: that side-by-side with the worst of humanity, you invariably see the best.

How do you define courage?

[It's] not the idea that you’re fearless, but that even if you’re petrified, you go ahead and do what you think is the right thing, whether it is a matter of physical danger or of upsetting your friends. Often it’s those social pressures that we’re more afraid of than the physical dangers.

What would you want your legacy to be?

I think people exaggerate the degree to which a columnist changes opinions on issues. I find that [when] I write about a topic that people have already thought about - like guns or presidential politics or the Middle East - that I change almost nobody’s mind. People who start out agreeing with me think it’s brilliant, people who start out disagreeing with me think it’s completely beside the point.

Where I do think we can have impact - and I try to focus on that because I think that’s often where the leverage lies - is shining a light on issues that are neglected, and thereby projecting them onto the agenda. In other words, I think we can have more of an impact on shaping the global agenda than we can of disposing of controversial questions.

It seems to me that the issues that I’ve had the greatest impact on have been things like helping bring more attention to Darfur or sex trafficking or obstetric fistula. Once those issues are on the agenda, then that’s half of the way toward addressing them. I’d like that to be my legacy - a sense that I'm equipped with this great, big spotlight and I tried to shine it on things in ways that helped project some of them onto the agenda and as a result, got them addressed.

What have you learned recently that’s really struck you?

I’ve always been interested in nutrition - there are six million kids who die each year before the age of five - and [trying] to figure out how we save some of those lives. One of the things that has struck me is that while we tend to yearn for high-tech solutions to child mortality, one of the most powerful ways to save lives globally is also one of the most ancient and that’s encouraging more optimal breast-feeding around the world. That would save more than 800,000 [kids'] lives a year. There have been programs in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Ghana to promote optimal breastfeeding, and boy, it just saves lives at a remarkable rate.

How do you relax?

I try to run quite regularly, I ran this morning. The thing that I really enjoy the most is every year I do a certain amount of backpacking. My daughter and I are backpacking the entire Pacific Crest Trail in chunks. She’s 18 and we started when she was about two. We’ve been doing it seriously for the last half dozen years. We’ve hiked a little more than half the 2,600 miles and do a few hundred miles a year. So, we’re getting there.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?

I think one crucial secret is the importance of hypocrisy. All of us - before we were adults - did things that were fun but probably inappropriate. So, we may value our irresponsible pasts and yet also not want our kids to engage in similar behaviors. That clearly involves a certain amount of hypocrisy, and yet acknowledging that and believing in it simultaneously is both inconsistent and probably a crucial part of being an adult.

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