Halloween, Safe Spaces, and Yale

I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance. That is my religion, and every day I am sorely, grossly, heinously and deeply offended, wounded, mortified and injured by a thousand different blasphemies against it. When the fundamental canons of truth, honesty, compassion and decency are hourly assaulted by fatuous bishops, pompous, illiberal and ignorant priests, politicians and prelates, sanctimonious censors, self-appointed moralists and busy-bodies, what recourse of ancient laws have I? None whatever. Nor would I ask for any. For unlike these blistering imbeciles my belief in my religion is strong and I know that lies will always fail and indecency and intolerance will always perish.

Stephen Fry, “Trefusis Blasphemes” radio broadcast, as published in Paperweight (1993)

I interrupt a long hiatus at this site to expand upon the latest controversy of victimization and censorship in the Academy.  Generally, I avoid this type of subject here, if only because arguments related to campus correctness tend to generate more heat than light. However, this one involves two institutions I love dearly: Yale and Yale’s own Silliman College.  It has been particularly poignant to see the part of campus I remember most fondly featured in heated press reports and painful videos of students surrounding the “Master” (faculty in residence).  I once dressed as the Master of Silliman for Halloween and attended a party in his house, so it all feels quite close to home.

Silliman Halloween 1985 with Fran

Your author, in 1985, dressed as the Master of Silliman (Bill Bennett, Physics, inventor of the Gas Laser). That’s Bill’s wife, Fran, that I’m manhandling. The best comment on this so far – “OMG, they’re in whiteface!”

It should be noted that the Halloween controversy erupted at a time when the campus is highly sensitized.  There are allegations that a fraternity had a party and stationed brothers at the door to state that “white girls only” were allowed.  Campus discussion of this incident brought forth many more allegations of really disgusting and bigoted behavior.  It is safe to say accounts vary, and there are extremely hard feelings.  I certainly don’t know what happened, but the high level of emotion you see in the videos linked below probably cannot be separated from the campus mood about the SAE allegations. [update: this article makes it clear that the context is far wider than the Halloween emails described below.  The emails may be the MacGuffin.]

The Halloween part of the story begins with an email from the “Yale Intercultural Affairs Council”  to the students asking them to be sensitive in their choice of Halloween costume, and referencing alleged past incidents of “cultural appropriation” such as headdresses, turbans, blackface, etc.  While the tone of this email might be considered condescending and preachy, it is hard (for me) to interpret as a University directive.  Some students apparently did, however, and may have expressed their concerns to Nicholas and Erika Christakis,  Master and Associate Master of my beloved Silliman College.  These are essentially faculty in residence in the residential colleges (dorms). They are in charge of discipline within the college, managing cultural events and college facilities, and sometimes function as a kind of family within the college (more on that later).

Erika Christakis was concerned enough about the Halloween guidelines to react with another email (yay email!) to the Silliman community.   She seems to share the students’ concern, and expresses her feelings that students should not be told how to dress.  Her disapproval of inappropriate costumes is clear, but she doesn’t believe the suggestions from the university are the way to deal with it. She goes on to relate her husband’s opinion that an offensive costume deserves not censorship, but dialogue. As I indicated above, I don’t see the Intercultural Council’s email as a directive, but I do perceive its hyper-sensitivity and condescension.  I am sympathetic to Christakis’ assertion that the University should treat students as adults, which means letting them make their own choices, allowing students to be exposed to offense, and not to seek it out ex ante. [Erika Christakis also apparently “sought to leave” a meeting at the African-American Cultural Center where this was discussed, but I can find nothing further than that in press accounts].

Dialogue, of a sort, is what Nicholas Christakis sought and received.  You can find four successive videos of a confrontation in the Silliman Quadrangle, in which Nicholas Christakis is confronted by a group of students about the email. I gather the background is that these students moved from an event at Cross Campus to Silliman, and Christakis decided to come out into the Quad to engage with them. In fact, he apparently did it for much longer than the duration of these videos.  An admirable notion in principle, but it didn’t go well.

The students are claiming that Christakis’ wife’s email hurts them and makes them feel unsafe. If you read her email, that is just a huge  stretch.  The students also claim that the Master’s primary role is to make a “home” and “safe space” at Yale. I don’t think so – it is also their duty to uphold the principles of the University, enforce discipline, and a variety of other more administrative functions.  I was quite close to the Master of Silliman in my time (1982-86), but I was an exception in that regard.  Most students of my day would bridle at the suggestion that the college Master has the role of a parent.  Student physical safety is certainly a consideration, but coddling their feelings is not part of the job.  Consider Yale’s expansive protection of freedom of expression, and the rightful role of a College officer upholding it. It seems to me that Erika Christakis’ email is in the spirit of Yale’s guidelines.  Not only that, but it is also protected by the university guidelines.  So while the students may be offended by it, it should not be cause for removal from office, which is what they are now calling for.

The discussion in the quad is heated and emotional throughout, but really breaks up when a student simply asks for an apology and Christakis won’t give it.  I’d like to think I would handle it better than he did, but I also understand that he is surrounded and under attack AND that he disagrees with the premise that his wife’s email (inclusive of a quote from him) is something that should make any student feel ‘unsafe’.  Apologies are easy. I might have said that I am truly sorry to have made you feel unsafe, but I also think that this email should not give anyone cause to feel unsafe.  I don’t think that would have gone any better given the already high tempers clearly in play.

I cannot put myself in these students’ shoes, and Christakis probably cannot either.  But that fact does not confer special privileges.  I think the students are reaching for victimhood where no oppression has been given. Christakis has nothing to do with the SAE incident, and his wife’s email, with its weak defense of a hypothetical offensive Halloween costume, simply cannot justify the outpouring of hurt and anger in the third video.  All the talk of “safe spaces” and the enormous hurt done by this email seem like shroud waving.  Can the students truly be so fragile that an email suggesting the university not try to influence halloween costumes, and that students are adults who can sort out non-violent offensive behavior, cause them such offense that they must move out of their residential college?  Apparently so.  To quote a Yale Herald editorial by Jencey Paz, of Silliman (which seems to have been pulled, but is archived here):

…..in his ten weeks as a leader of the college, Master Christakis has not fostered this sense of community. He seems to lack the ability, quite frankly, to put aside his opinions long enough to listen to the very real hurt that the community feels. He doesn’t get it. And I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.

My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone’s pain.

I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.

Seriously?  That just sounds like nonsense to me.  It’s repeated in the videos, and it sounds like a huge overreaction (at least to the Christakis email).  Overreaction or not,   Yale’s statement on freedom of expression will tell you that no part of Yale is a “safe space” in any sense:

Yale’s commitment to freedom of expression means that when you agree to matriculate, you join a community where “the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox” must be tolerated. When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.

Now someone I respect, and a fellow “Sillimander” disagrees with me [Update:  this is Peter Adolf, SM ’89, quoted with permission].  He describes the situation as one where Christakis’ invited people to express their disgust at bigoted behavior and they did. Neither Christakis’ behavior was bigoted, but I agree that they invited confrontation and got it.  He states that Christakis handled it poorly. I agree, but I doubt he or I would do better in that situation.  He states that Christakis’ primary responsibility is to make students feel at home:

As Master, your primary job is to create a welcoming home environment for all of your students, not to validate bigotry as a useful teaching moment for those students who have to deal with bigotry as an ongoing personal challenge rather than an intellectual exercise……The University is two things for the students – a place for often-challenging intellectual engagement, but also home for four years. The two are inseparable but also conflict. That is why for me the fact that it was the Master of the college is a big part of the problem. Students have their ideas and even identities challenged on a daily basis, but the symbolism of coming home to your residential college and having your perspective, and your concerns about whether you are welcomed and understood, dismissed by the Man in the literal Big House is a little too much.

I cannot follow my fellow Sillimander there. This seems to me like part of treating college students as children. It is nice when the Master has a personal, even somewhat familial relationship with the students, but he is not, as the Herald/Jencey Paz editorial directly suggests, their Daddy.  The students honored with admission to Yale are expected to be adults. They are not there to be “made at home”, and there is nothing special about the residential college that requires suspending the University’s expressed commitment to challenging and diverse expression. In fact, the Master’s job is as much to uphold those ideals as to provide support to students.  Certainly the Master need not go out of his way to coddle a student who feels that the women should all cover up more. He needn’t protect them from his or other student’s views about *how* we are to take offense to non-violent expression.  There is no such thing as a “safe space”.  The very concept is vague and shaped to the user’s preferences, so holding the Master responsible for it is nonsensical.

Peter also alleges that Christakis “couldn’t take it”. But that’s not true.  He toughs it out, despite the obscenities and hostile environment.  He didn’t apologize, and the students made it clear they couldn’t stand to continue the dialogue without him performing the ritual obeisance to their feelings.  The people who couldn’t take it were the students.  Certainly, the authoritarian impulse to have Christakis fired is alarming and over the top, as another friend points out.  Treating the students like children, and supporting authoritarian responses to free expression are not solutions. They are wrong from  both a normative free expression perspective and a consequentialist perspective.

Alas, even in a place with a population selected for academic achievement and ability to express oneself, a real dialogue on racial sensitivity and truly free expression remains elusive.

————————–UPDATES BELOW_____________

Conor Freiersdorf outlines the cultural and speech issues better here.

As students saw it, their pain ought to have been the decisive factor in determining the acceptability of the the Halloween email. They thought their request for an apology ought to have been sufficient to secure one. Who taught them that it is righteous to pillory faculty for failing to validate their feelings, as if disagreement is tantamount disrespect? Their mindset is anti-diversity, anti-pluralism, and anti-tolerance, a seeming data-point in favor of April Kelly-Woessner’s provocative argument that “young people today are less politically tolerant than their parents’ generation.”

A recent Tweet from the man himself:

And I find myself in unsurprising agreement with Eugene Volokh:

But faculty masters aren’t supposed to just be hotel managers, whose job is simply to make things pleasant for guests. Their job is to convey the values of the university — to help “foster[] and shap[e] the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” I would think that one of the values of the university is precisely to support both student and faculty member free speech, and to teach students to respond to civil arguments with civil arguments, not with outraged complaints to the dean or with calls for dismissal.

I suppose, though, we’ll soon see what Yale’s values really are. If the administration, including Dean Jonathan Holloway, to whom some of the student protesters were appealing, does push out the Christakises, or forces them into apologies or retractions, we’ll know what sort of speech is dangerous at Yale — and the message will of course go out not just to administrators, but also to students and faculty members (especially untenured ones).

Conversely, if the administration stands up to the student demands and makes clear that people are free to debate Halloween costume etiquette without risking loss of their positions (administrative or otherwise), that will show that Yale really is committed to academic freedom and substantive discourse.

Here’s the other side of the argument from within Yale. I’m afraid I disagree with much of it, such as this:

Giving “room” for students to be “obnoxious” or “offensive”, as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe.

As I said above, it isn’t violence, and there can be no ‘safe space’. Amazingly, the letter accuses Christakis of ‘infantilizing’ the students. I see her as doing the exact opposite.

..and here is Freddie DeBoer:

[Erika Christakis’ email is] sufficient to get people screaming for your firing, nowadays. Note that what Christiakis [sic] is talking about — students becoming complicit in the hierarchies of the neoliberal university by constantly invoking the power of administrators — is precisely what I was warning about in my New York Times Magazine piece… and that the students have responded by epitomizing that tendency.

And another perspective down the center.

Again I don’t think Erika Christakis should be fired. I don’t believe in censorship and political correctness. But I do believe in creating a home for students and actually caring how they feel. And I think it’s too bad that Erika Christakis was willing to throw the marginalized students of Silliman College under the bus in order to show solidarity with the fragility of entitled, privileged students who felt “oppressed” by a “politically correct” email. I’ve seen Erika Christakis’ blog. She seems like a thoughtful, compassionate human being. One calloused email doesn’t negate her genuine care for her students, but the mistake does need to be acknowledged even if it’s perceived to be caving to the pressure of supposedly fragile, whiny social justice warriors.

3 comments on “Halloween, Safe Spaces, and Yale

  1. Believe it or not, you’re far too charitable these spoiled brats and unfair to the adults. These overgrown children deserve nothing short of the most extreme derision, scorn and ridicule. Anything less is plain wrong.

    • I don’t know about that. I don’t mean to be hard on Christakis, he bravely put himself in a very difficult situation that few could handle. As for the students, I see their pain and frustration. That doesn’t make what they are doing right, but I can see it in that light. Derision doesn’t get us anywhere.

  2. That isn’t to dismiss all complaints by Yale students. If contested claims that black students were turned away from a party due to their skin color are true, for example, that is outrageous. If any discrete group of students is ever discriminated against, or disproportionately victimized by campus crime, or graded more harshly by professors, then of course students should protest and remedies should be implemented.

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