As I’ve always said, the best way to counter offensive speech is with counter-speech, not by trying to ban or punish people for what they said—unless what they say constitutes an imminent call to violence or creates an illegal atmosphere of racial or sexual harassment. That is basically the principle of free speech endorsed by the government and the courts.
But free speech off campus is different from what happens in American colleges and universities, where anything that offends students is construed as “hate speech”, even if there’s no hatred involved but merely a divergence in views. I’ve written about this enough, so will briefly recount an episode at Yale University that’s reported at length at the FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) Site.
In short, on October 28 a dean at Yale sent an email about Halloween costumes to the student body, an email signed by 13 members of the Intercultural Affairs Committee, a group of administrators from various units of the university. Here’s an excerpt from that email:
However, Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.
Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.
The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
There is growing national concern on campuses everywhere about these issues, and we encourage Yale students to take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have. So, if you are planning to dress-up for Halloween, or will be attending any social gatherings planned for the weekend, please ask yourself these questions before deciding upon your costume choice:
• Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
• Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
• Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?
• Wearing a ‘religious’ costume? Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?
• Could someone take offense with your costume and why?
Well, I don’t see a big problem with that, except that some of these costumes could simply reflect admiration for another culture, or make political points (I’m thinking about religion-themed costumes). Further, the notion of “someone taking offense” means that costumes are verboten if only a single person takes offense. As I’ve said, while things like blackface, because of their historical connotations and use, are offensive to everyone, other costumes, including ethnic dress like Japanese geishas or Mexican garb, aren’t so clear. One person’s admiration for a culture’s dress is another person’s offensive “cultural appropriation.”
What happened then is chilling, but predictable. Some students expressed concern about the University’s email to Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman College, a residential part of Yale. (Her husband Nicholas is master of Silliman). Christakis sent an email to the “Sillimanders” giving her thoughts on the costume issue. Here’s part of it, but you can read the whole thing at the link. Note the first sentence and the first paragraph, which I’ve put in bold:
I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blondehaired child’s wanting to be Mulan [a legendary Chinese woman warrior] for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess [a black character in a Disney animation] if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
. . . . When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.
Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skinrevealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.
. . . But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?
In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.
What Christakis is doing here is, as I did, groping for standards that allow free expression and enjoyment of the good aspects of other people’s cultures while not being gratuitously offensive. And she’s expressing concern about who should control or police what is considered an “inoffensive” costume.
Unfortunately, this rather tame letter set off an explosion. 740 Yale students, alumni, faculty and staff signed an open letter to Christakis, accusing her of “invalidating the existences” of marginalized students and disrespecting their cultures and livelihoods. Her husband, the college’s master, met with the protestors, who demanded that he apologize for the email (he wouldn’t). As the Washington Post reports, some Silliman students say they can’t bear to live in the college any more, and others are drafting a letter calling for the resignation of both Nicholas and Erika Christakis.
Here’s a video of students confronting Nicholas Christakis (remember, it was his wife, not he, who sent the email). Apparently he patiently faced the students for hours, but some of them got quite exercised (transcript from FIRE, which filmed this) below:
“As your position as master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?”
When Christakis replied that he didn’t agree, the student thundered back, “Then why the fuck did you accept the position! Who the fuck hired you?”
Christakis began to say that he had a different view of his role at the college, but the student cut him off, saying:
“Then step down! If that is what you think about being a [inaudible] master, then 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. You’re going against that.”
On the other hand, this isn’t exactly a reasoned discussion; the student tells Christakis to “Be quiet!”. She doesn’t want to listen; she wants to harangue. Then she stomps off.
Asking for resignations is going too far. Criticizing the Christakises is one thing, demanding that they be punished for their views is another. Erika Christakis’s letter is thoughtful and certainly an expression of free speech. Students are free to criticize it, of course, but if Yale takes any action against her or her husband, I would be both saddened and surprised. The letter to the Yale students about the issue written by Yale’s Dean of the College Jonathan Holloway is mealy-mouthed, taking no real stand on the issue.
Yale should, like all American universities, adopt the exemplary freedom-of-speech principles that recently became policy at the University of Chicago. I quote from that document (my emphasis):
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
The students, by trying to intimidate and even end the jobs of the Christakises, are indeed trying to suppress speech. And if Yale caves in to them, acting “as an institution”, it will be a dark day for American education.