Learning from the 'Love Mail'

Curriculum specialist and writer Jeff Sapp on starting a conversation in the face of pushback and ignorance.

Whenever we get hate mail, which is often, it gets sent around to everyone in our department. Whoever gets it forwards it to the others, and in the subject line of the email we always put "love mail." Maybe it helps us brace and prepare ourselves before we read.

I like the "love mail." It was one of the first questions I asked when I got a job here: "Will I be able to see the hate mail?" I collect them all in a folder.

I especially welcome the ones that challenge us to do better, the people who help sharpen the effectiveness of our goal to promote tolerance.

Any time we print anything about gay and lesbian issues we get a lot of mail. Some of the readers just want clarification or more information. "What is the difference between 'transgender' and 'transexual'?" or "Why do you use the word 'queer'?" Answering these thoughtfully and compassionately always bring more clarity to all of us.

But another type of "love mail" frightens me. The ones who rage, who use violent and threatening language. I can tell they are raging because things are often very misspelled, as in the case of the guy who told us to "go to heel."

Letters escalate.

"Does this magazine embrace the belief that all ideas are of equal value? I refuse to teach any philosophy that embraces this ridiculous idea that all religions and lifestyles are just fine! That is ludicrous! We are Americans whose entire system of government, our history and economy are grounded in Judeo-Christian principles."

And escalate.

"What is wrong with hate? I hate fags, Jews, Chinks and Mexicans. What is up with this stupid concept of having to accept everyone? It sounds like a bunch of happy-crappy tree hugging *&#@ to me. I hate you so stay away from me and everything will be fine."

"Tolerance implies a respect for another person, not because he is wrong or even because he is right, but because he is human."

John Cogley

The escalation of the rhetoric in these emails reminds me of the rhetoric that sometimes overtakes our public discourse and disagreements. What starts as a firm admonishment too soon turns downright mean and potentially violent.

There is much that we discuss and disagree on in the field of education. This issue of Teaching Tolerance looks at a few such topics. Banned books. Making schools safe for transgender and gender-nonconforming students. Spirituality in education. How words hurt.

Ours is an attempt to begin conversations about difficult and important topics, to invoke conversations that don't provoke meanness or violence.

The Rev. Paul Osumi once wrote in The Honolulu Advertiser, "Each person should learn to see things from other people's point of view. Is this not the answer to the problems we face in day-to-day relations with members of our family, with our friends, our business associates, the stubborn issue of racial justice and equality, and the baffling problem of peace among nations?"

Yes, there are many things in education on which we find it difficult to reach agreement.

But the reason many of us went into education in the first place is because we are child advocates and want what is best for all children. I'd say there is much that we agree on.

Jeff Sapp

Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

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