written by
Flavian DeLima

How to become friends with your foe

self-improvement collaborate 6 min read , September 23, 2020
Photo by Clay Banks

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By Flavian DeLima

It is possible to start as enemies and become friends. It takes longer and requires more effort and patience to reduce cognitive bias

It has gotten easier to meet people online or in-person that you disagree with vehemently. It’s also gotten easier to block them. Running into lies and bullshit has always existed but the Internet and social media put everything on steroids.  Sadly, I can count on two hands the number of people I unfriended, unfollowed, or blocked on social media this year. I got tired and frustrated with the online bickering.


Cognitive Bias 1: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a big problem today. It’s the tendency to seek information (and people) that confirms our world view while avoiding and ignoring everything else. Police officers who build a case around a suspect for expedience follow confirmation bias. This happened with The Central Park Five case in 1989.

Cognitive Bias 2: The Backfire Effect

Another bias is the backfire effect, which explains why people don't change their minds. The backfire effect causes people who are presented with evidence that challenges their beliefs to reject the evidence outright. Instead of changing, they "double down" and their beliefs become even stronger. Psychologist David McRaney in his book, You Are Now Less Dumb, says the backfire effect is the reason conspiracy theories get started and gain traction. In 2011, after the Obama administration released the president's long-form birth certificate, the birthers became even more emboldened in their beliefs and gathered online to mock it.

Confirmation bias and the backfire effect are both cognitive biases. Both lead to poor choices, bad judgments, and incorrect insights and conclusions. Both explain why we are attracted to silos and bubbles on the Internet and why we don’t change. It’s easy and convenient when everyone agrees and shares our beliefs.

You are not welcome here

Here is an example of how to reduce cognitive bias. In June 1991, in Omaha, Nebraska, Rabbi Michael Weisser got an anonymous call. The voice on the other end, said,

“You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy.”

Two days later, his wife, Julie Weisser opened a package addressed to her husband with a note that read,

“The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The package was filled with brochures and flyers claiming the Holocaust was a lie and that America's problems were because of Jewish people.

The Weissers discovered from the police the culprit was Larry Trapp. He was a Nazi and the grand dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan responsible for the state of Nebraska. His goal was to intimidate people of color and Jewish people and recruit members to make Nebraska a Klan stronghold with as much hate as Florida and North Carolina. In a 1992 interview with Time Magazine, Larry said,

"I spent a lot of money and went out my way to instill fear."

Inciting fear and violence

The police warned the couple that Larry was dangerous even though he is a diabetic and confined to a wheelchair. They were instructed to take their kids to school using different routes. Larry stockpiled machine guns and automatic weapons. He threatened a local Vietnamese refugee assistance center and had members burn it at night. He called the NAACP leader and yelled racial slurs and hate speech. Despite paying fines and doing time in jail, he continued to incite violence and hatred. In August, two months after leaving the package for the Weissers, Larry started a white supremacist local public TV show.

Talking to the enemy fixes cognitive bias

Michael was disgusted after watching one of the episodes and decided to call Larry and leave messages on his answering machine. Instead of yelling and making threats, Michael left short messages he called “love notes” asking questions like:

“Why do you hate me? You don’t even know me, so how can you hate me?” ... “Larry, do you know the very first laws that Hitler’s Nazis passed were against people like yourself who had no legs?… Do you realize you would have been among the first to die under Hitler? Why do you love Nazis so much?” ... “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?”

Because of his cognitive bias, Larry got angry after Michael’s many “disturbing messages”. Finally, after Michael called again, Larry asked, "Why the fuck are you harassing me? Stop harassing me! What do you want?"

At his wife's suggestion, Michael chose kindness and asked Larry if he needed help getting groceries or anything else because his legs had been amputated due to complications with diabetes. After a long pause, Larry said,

"That's nice of you, but I've got that covered. Thanks anyway. But don't call this number anymore."

Change comes slow

Inch by inch, other small acts of kindness opened Larry’s eyes. One of his former nurses sent him a letter explaining the concept of Christian love. A Vietnamese woman helped him get onto the elevator because he was almost blind. On November 12, Larry stopped his TV show. He now blamed the US government and wanted equal rights for everyone.

Later that same week, Larry called Michael, saying,

"I want to get out, but I don't know how."

To reduce cognitive bias, Michael and Julie visited Larry's home and brought food. Larry handed them his swastika and rings to take away.  They talked for hours and ate dinner. On November 16, 1991, Larry formally resigned from the Klu Klux Klan and started writing apology letters to people he had harassed.

On June 5th, 1992, Larry converted to Judaism at Michael's synagogue — the same building he targetted bombing that summer. His friendship with Michael and Julie grew deeper. When Larry’s health failed, they took him into their home and Julie stopped working to care for him. About nine months after quitting the Klan, Larry died in their home with Julie and Michael by his side.

How a Jewish cantor and his family changed the life of a white supremacist leader

Larry's Transformation

Larry’s transformation and ability to overcome cognitive bias happened slowly through acts of kindness. Through conversations, questions, and self-reflection, nobody forced Larry to change. He changed himself. He also changed his community by resigning from the Klan, apologizing to those he hurt, converting to Judaism, helping police go after the Klan, and shared his story in the media.

Socrates said people do not knowingly desire bad things. (Trolls are exempt and more on them in the future). Due to cognitive bias, individuals make decisions based on the current information they have. Who will you speak, listen, and learn from who holds different views from you?

Photo by Tim Mossholder

If you enjoy engaging and diverse dialogue, join a future conversation event here or sign up for the newsletter for future events.


Watterson, Kathryn (2012) Not by the sword: how a cantor and his family transformed a klansman.

Levy/Lincoln, Daniel S. (Feb. 17, 1992) Time Magazine, The Cantor and the Klansman: WEISSER, TRAPP

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