Boo Who at Yale

DotCommonweal readers may be forgiven for thinking that I’m obsessed with this topic, but events keep conspiring to focus public attention on the subject of political correctness and campus speech codes. And each time they do, I recall Jean Raber’s post to one of my earlier entries, in which she asked, in effect, What do people mean when they refer to “political correctness?”

What they mean is being amply illustrated on campuses this fall. I’ve already written about the turmoil at Wesleyan University, where students effectively sought to shut down the school paper after it ran an op-ed, written by a 31 year old undergraduate and Iraq War vet, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently I wrote about various campus dust-ups over the issue of Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation.

Now Halloween is gone, but the Boo! controversy is continuing to convulse Yale University with events politically lurid enough to have been torn from the pages of a Tom Wolfe novel. The flap began when several students at one of Yale’s residential colleges complained to their house masters about what a downer it was to receive guidelines from Yale’s administration concerning Halloween costumes. Yale undergraduates live in dorms known as colleges; the residences have live-in advisors – typically faculty members – who play an in loco parentis function. The masters at Sillliman College are Nikolas and Erika Christakis; he is a physician and sociologist, she is a lecturer in childhood development and education. After fielding the complaint from dorm residents about the Halloween costume guidelines, she sat down and composed a lengthy and conspicuously thoughtful email in which she essentially agreed with them that the University should relax and, well, let Halloween be Halloween. Speaking, she said, as a child development researcher, she asked aloud, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?” and argued for basing costume decisions on individual prudence rather than administrative fiat. “[I]f you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” her email counseled. “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” She sent the email to residents of Silliman.

And then all hell broke loose.

As the New York Times reports, Christakis’ email “provoked a firestorm of condemnation from Yale students.” A group of students called for the removal of the Christakises from Silliman. Many signed an open letter rebuking Erika Christakis for “defend[ing] the right to wear racist or marginalizing costumes” and perpetuating “old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people.”

Her husband meanwhile was assailed by a group of students who demanded an apology for the email. When he declined, the students berated him. You can watch part of this contretemps on a video posted to YouTube by a free-speech group. It is an encounter of raw emotion. At the start we see Christakis standing among students as one calls out: “Just walk away – he doesn’t deserve to be heard!” When Christakis attempts calmly to explain his views, another student cuts him off. “Be quiet!” she shouts, a finger in his face. She then proceeds to excoriate him for misunderstanding his job as house master and teacher. “Who the fuck hired you?!” she screams at him. “You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down!  It is not about creating an intellectual space! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here! You are not doing that!” Refusing to allow him to respond, she levels a final judgment -- “You shouldn’t sleep at night. You are disgusting!” -- and walks away.

Of course, a short video clip by definition lacks context. But with that caveat, and while acknowledging the passionate and aggrieved sincerity of the student berating Christakis, I can’t help but find the video – and the animus against the Christakises – chilling. Whether you agree with her or not, Erika Christakis’s email is the very essence of the kind of intellectual exchange that college exists to promote. The email raises questions, it acknowledges the validity of other people’s judgments while directing skepticism toward its author’s own; indeed it is so thoughtful, calm, and so wholly within the bounds of reasoned discourse that it's hardly imaginable to me that anyone could justify condemning it. The fury directed toward this email, and toward the Christakises themselves, looks, sounds and feels a lot like the fury of a mob. And if that’s what it is, it’s surely a paradox of political correctness: asserting themselves as victims, the students behave like bullies.

You can read a long and intelligently argued account – sympathetic to the Christakises – of this drama and its implications by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic here.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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