A Message From Our Director

Teaching Tolerance director Maureen Costello implores educators to pass on these lessons of love in the face of hate.

Maureen Costello
Maureen Costello

It’s August 24 as I write this column. Twelve days ago, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, armed anti-government militias and assorted proponents of racist ideologies brought havoc to Charlottesville, Virginia.

Five days ago, a different scene played out in Boston.

The images and video from Charlottesville led the news for days. Boston was covered only briefly, and mainly as a “disaster averted” story.

But Boston has more to tell us about what we need to do.

When I taught high school students about Selma, Birmingham and Little Rock—and showed images of the white people who raged against threats to their cherished caste system—my mostly white students reacted with disbelief that anyone could be so far on the wrong side of history. They wanted to believe that, had they lived during those times, they would have stood against oppression and with the activists seeking justice. It’s a story many of us tell ourselves when we study history marked by prejudice and hate.

But, as it turns out, we do live in those times.

We are experiencing a fraught moment in which it is impossible to stay neutral. The students we teach in 20 years will want to know, “Where did you stand? What did you do to combat hate? How did you seek justice?”

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

—James Baldwin

In the past 10 days, I’ve read countless messages from educational leaders exhorting teachers to denounce hate and fearlessly teach about what’s going on. I’ve been one of those exhorting voices. Within hours, writer Melinda Anderson created #CharlottesvilleCurriculum and, just as we’ve seen so many times before (think Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, the aftermath of the presidential election), educators exchanged resources and ideas for teaching about race and having difficult classroom conversations.

How about if we also teach the #BostonCurriculum? There’s a lot we can learn from Boston.

Lesson #1: Love is bigger and stronger than hate. In Boston, about 100 people showed up for the so-called “free speech” rally to proclaim their right to spew hate; 40,000 people joined the peaceful counter-protest, “Stand for Solidarity.” Across the country—and in your school—most people are repelled by messages of hate. They want to take a stand. They just don’t always know how.

Lesson #2: We lead and teach by taking a clear stand. “The young people of our city are watching TV, are following this,” Mayor Marty Walsh said the day before the scheduled rally. “We have to make it clear what we stand for in the city of Boston.” After the march, the police commissioner, William Evans, added that “99.9 percent of people were here for the right reason, and that’s to fight bigotry.”

Lesson #3: There is no moral equivalency between the opposing sides; hate cannot be tolerated. It has no valid role in societies based on the ideal—even if unrealized—that all people are equal and have equal rights. The Paradox of Tolerance is that a democratic society must tolerate all ideas, with one exception: intolerance. Hate has a unique power to intimidate, silence and injure an entire class of people. It stifles free expression and harms us all in the process.

Yes, many of you will hear that you can’t take a side, that your job is to be neutral and nonpartisan. But hate speech, especially in schools, cannot be subject to debate. There’s simply no reason for any teacher to legitimize a hateful position with, “Well, some people think…”

In the end, we will only inoculate young people against hate by developing their positive self-identity and empathy, helping them recognize and think critically about injustice, and equipping them with the skills and dispositions to take informed action.

Our schools are the crucibles in which we’re forging the future. As educators, we need to hold on to a vision of the society we want to live in 20 years from now. Picture it as clearly as you can: Is it a place where people listen to each other and participate in civil dialogue, even when they disagree? Does every person have a stake and take responsibility for the health of the community? Is authority exercised wisely? Does everyone have equal access to opportunities?

Fix that picture in your mind. Share it with colleagues. And build it in your classroom and school.

Maureen Costello