An important distinction needs to be made between what’s happening at Yale and what’s happening at the University of Missouri. While there may also be difficult issues about speech and freedom of the press at play at Mizzou, ultimately what’s at stake is the actual physical safety of students of color. Death threats have been made. The two situations are not analogous.
With that out of the way, let’s examine exactly what happened at Yale. On October 27, a group of thirteen Yale administrators sent out an email to the entire college community that provided some advice, or guidelines for what may not be appropriate as a Halloween costume. It included a set of questions one should ask oneself. This included things like “If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?” (which, you know, God forbid somebody wears a Halloween costume that is mildly historically inaccurate), and “Could someone take offense with your costume and why?” I personally find the reasoning that leads no fewer than thirteen administrators sending a set of guidelines on dressing oneself to a community of intelligent, thinking adults somewhat questionable. As do others, it turns out.
In response to the aforementioned email, Erika Christakis, who is the faculty “master” of Silliman College, one of Yale’s constituent residential communities, sent an email to the students living in Silliman, questioning Yale’s practice of dispensing this type of advice. She writes, very reasonably, “I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students,” but that she does not “wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation.” She goes on to advocate for free and open discourse among students about Halloween costumes, as opposed to top-down administrative guidance. The crux being, let people be offensive; if you’re offended, maybe it’s more productive to let the person who has offended you know, and have a conversation about it. This is a reasonable, if debatable, view on the matter.
What happened next is truly alarming. Students became outraged at Christakis, demanding her and her husband’s resignation (they preside over the college together; both are faculty). When Nicholas Christakis disagreed politely with one student’s public assertion, caught on film, that he had failed in his duties as master by sending out the email, the stuednt exploded into angry vitriol: “If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” She tragically assumes that an intellectual space and a home cannot be one and the same.
That the free exchange of ideas and room for offense and conversation advocated by Erika Christakis is met with this type of reaction is seriously problematic. It indicates quite clearly that there is a real issue with racial inequality on Yale’s campus. If students at one of the most privileged, expensive and, yes, safe colleges in the country feel unsafe in their residences, a problem must clearly exist that needs to be addressed. One possible reason why we aren’t having a similar conflict at Bates is because our campus can be considered a place of overwhelming inclusivity; the problem at Yale does seem to stem from a lack thereof.
But where the protesters fail is in their blunt and violent intolerance towards opposing viewpoints. Champions of civil rights and social justice simply do not succeed, ever, when their primary M.O. is to silence dissenting voices and make radical and ill-considered demands. The increasingly prevalent “politically correct” mindset, which stems from a socially Marxist notion that, in the process of remedying historical inequality, the rights and voices of oppressors are somehow less valuable than the rights and voices of the oppressed, hurts free discourse at its core, and in turn, hurts the very causes the politically correct work to advance. The gay rights movement didn’t achieve civil and legal equality for LGBTQ+ individuals by demanding those in opposition to it be fired, and newspapers which published dissenting articles be defunded. The movement succeeded by using constitutional protections for free press and speech to its advantage, and by persuading the majority of Americans of its merit through civil and productive conversations. If we are indeed engaged in a new civil rights movement, we must remember that the defense of free speech and advancing the interests of persecuted people, are not only mutually inclusive, but necessary for each other’s survival.