Monday, November 9, 2015

Yale at a Free Speech Crossroads

"I normally, don't do this, and I apologize, but due to the events of the last seventy-two hours, I will have to leave right after my speech. I also apologize for reading my speech, but I haven't slept in four days."

Nicholas Christakis, a professor and Master of Silliman College (one of Yale's twelve undergraduate residential houses) looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but few of us had any idea what was going on. It would become apparent as the afternoon unfolded as two stories intertwined to tell one: free speech is in critical danger at Yale.

Professor Christakis

We were there for a William F. Buckley Program conference. The title? The Future of Free Speech. Consider this a trigger warning if irony is something you find offensive, because it will bludgeon you over the head, momentarily. The Buckley Program is dedicated to bringing intellectual diversity to campus. Not just the occasional conservative, but speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist for women's rights in the Muslim world. (That was a saga unto itself.) They also have an annual "Disinvitation Dinner," where the keynote is delivered by someone who has been disinvited to speak on a college campus. That would have amused Buckley.

The Buckley Program, mind you, is not supported by Yale. It is privately funded, and its office space is off campus. Yale - the administration, anyway - tolerates it. That's something, anyway.

Christakis began by saying he was a proud liberal and he probably would have disagreed with just about everything Buckley stood for. But, he believed, the left was taking its crusade against free speech too far, that it was a dangerous thing, and that we had to re-learn civil discourse. We didn't realize just how much he was speaking from experience. 

Master Christakis, looking very much in a hurry, finished and left the room, and the conference moved on, albeit with unanswered questions hanging in the air. 

Fast forward about two hours. Another speaker, Greg Lukianoff, clues us in about the events on campus. Master Christakis's wife, Erika, had sent out an email to students about Halloween and campus activists went nuts. This is where the second part of the story starts. Lukianoff says the reaction of students was so strong, "that you'd think someone had burned down a Native American village."

 While Lukianoff was speaking, a campus activist had sneaked in the event and was taping up posters, one after the other. They read:

"Stand with your sisters of sisters of color. Now, here. Always, Everywhere."

As we were trying to understand the relevance of this, a security guard walked over and told the fellow he had to take it outside, that this was a registration-only event. He refused. The guard asked again. Nope, nothing doing. In fact he objected, loudly, and yelled that none of us understood America's history of oppression.

Now the guard had had enough, and he wrestled the kid and his beard though the double doors. Just before they swung closed, he yelled, "And you're talking about burning down Native American villages!"

Things settled down, but I leaned to my friend next to me and said, "This isn't over." I had no idea.

So what had happened to the Christakises? Here are the facts, so you be the judge. The university sent around an email that basically warned students to watch what they wore on Halloween, and that they shouldn't be culturally insensitive. Erika Christakis thought the email went too far, and wrote to the students in Silliman. The is her entire email:

Dear Sillimanders:
Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear [more on that below -EV]. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween — traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people — is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.
When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.
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 blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan 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 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.
Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. 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 skin-revealing 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. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
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.
Happy Halloween.
Yours sincerely,

When Lukianoff said, "You'd think they burned down a Native American village," he was referring to the reaction of the campus left to this email. Here is a little taste. Watch, as the left eats its own, in this case the unfortunate Master Christakis:

Best quote: "You are not here to create an intellectual environment, you are here to create a home!!!"

They are now demanding that Master Christakis, and his wife, be fired. If any of this is surprising you, you are out of touch with what's happening on college campuses.

Back to the conference. The noise outside was building. "They're here," I said to my friend. Out of curiosity, I went out to look. There were perhaps twenty students, in high dudgeon, trying to get in to disrupt the conference (did I mention it was about free speech?). I engaged them, which was probably silly. "Why are you here?"

"We are Native Americans and you are talking about burning down Native American villages." (They looked about as Native American as Elizabeth Warren - were they appropriating a culture?) 

"You realize, right, that no one in there is advocating burning down villages, Native American or otherwise? That it was merely an analogy to describe something bad?"

Apparently they did, but that didn't matter. We said the words, and that "trivialized" genocide, and that was the offense. I said, "You do realize that you don't have the right not to be offended, right?"

How wrong I was about that, I later reflected. That may be true, Constitutionally, but I was in a "safe space" where the these delicate orchids are protected from hearing unpleasant things. The right not to be offended now always trumps the right to free speech.

The conference went on for another two hours, and the crowd grew. It was as if they had a button they pushed that sent out an alert - get to these GPS coordinates now, someone said something offensive! Is there an app called Grievance?

They got quite noisy, often making it hard to hear inside, and only an expanding police presence kept them out. At the end, we were escorted out through a phalanx of about 150 students, chanting "Genocide is not a joke." They even found the time to make signs that said things like "You cannot silence us." (There's that irony thing again.)

I filmed our exit:

That wasn't all of them, there were at least one hundred more outside.

Don't imagine any of this is just Yale. It's virtually all of academia, liberal arts schools in particular. They are all at a free speech crossroads. Teachers are now widely afraid of their own liberal students, because the slightest slip - the absence of a trigger warning, for instance - can result in accusations of microaggressions, racism, sexism, cisgenderism, whateverism, and that can result in getting tossed from tenure track. The administrators who make these decisions are afraid of the students, too, because fundamentally, the left has become a mob, and mobs are dangerous. 

These are the bullies of our time.

UPDATE: Two conference attendees claim they were spit on and called racists. I can't claim to have seen this, but I was one of the first people to walk out. The activist who interrupted the conference has been identified as Edward Columbia '18.

UPDATE 2: The Buckley people are circulating a petition in defense of free speech at Yale. It also calls on Yale to reject some of the ridiculous (and dangerous) demands that activists have made on President Salovey. I would urge anyone to sign it.


  1. YOU ARE NOT HERE TO CREATE AN INTELLECTUAL ENVIRONMENT, YOU ARE HERE TO CREAT A HOME!!!! wtf? It is abundantly clear that any possible logical or sane rebuttal would be completely lost on this individual (group?) and would result in more extremely loud and extremely inane gibberish. I am at a loss for what I would say in such a situation, but I am certain it would be taken as offensive and as a not so micro aggression. Free speech for me, but not for thee. Great concept!

  2. As an addendum to this, one of the speakers from the Harvard faculty said you couldn't even hold an Oxford style debate there anymore. Assuming you could find someone brave enough to argue against, say, illegal immigration, the whole proceeding would likely get shouted down.

  3. Great column, Scott. University campuses are nurturing totalitarian strains that are already spreading in the wider culture.

  4. In a first, I am with Scott on this one

  5. Twas ever thus, I suppose. The humor magazine I co-founded and wrote for at Yale lost its charter in 1979 due to racial insensitivity ascribed to my cartoons. Illegal Alien Comix was the straw that sent the camel to the chiropractor if I recall correctly. I say BS. All is fair in love, war, comedy, art and Halowe'en costumes. The challenge being, how good is your idea? Making a 9/11 joke? It HAS to be good (see Louie CK's 9/11 joke--a masterpiece). Dressing as Amadou Diallo? Man, that one really better be good. The point being that, in my opinion, the sensitivity of the subject area elevates the bar of ingenuity that must be reached in order to justify its invocation. I will always reject assigning across-the-board areas of expression as off limits, whatever the reason.

  6. I have worked as a professor on a university campus since 1999. I have seen literally none of this kind of thing on my campus. Is this kind of censorship dangerous? Yes. But do not be fooled into thinking this is some kind of spectre hanging universally over all of academia just because it's a big deal at Yale.

    1. I assume you've seen the events in Missouri over the past few days? The drive to obliterate opposing opinions and thoughts seems fairly universal indeed.

  7. Wow. Yale needs to decide if it's a university or a kindergarten.

  8. Its time for university heads to crack some heads, suspend the "activists", who are nothing more than a small minority of troublemakers. Do the administrators have any "gumption" (say GUTS); who is in control ???