Imagine for a moment a group of stereotypical regressive leftist college students for whom everything is a possible source of consternation and offense. Whatever ridiculous caricature you’ve just envisioned, understand that reality has nevertheless outdone your imagination, as you are about to see in a few moments at Yale University.
The disturbing melodrama began a few days before Halloween, when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students advising them to be mindful of other peoples and cultures when choosing their costumes, lest they offend someone. But the email didn’t sit well with Erika Christakis — associate headmaster of Yale’s Silliman College — who sent her own email to students at Silliman. It read in part:
“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 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.”
Christakis’ email is worth reading in its entirety. It is frank and thoughtful. She conveys a genuine desire to have a discussion about what constitutes appropriation and offensiveness, and challenges some firmly-held preconceptions that many have about cultural sensitivity. In other words, Christakis was doing exactly what an intellectual and an educator should be doing.
Unfortunately, many in the Yale community don’t understand the role of intellectuals; nor do they seem to have read the school’s robust take on freedom of expression in the undergraduate handbook. Hence this preposterous open letter to Christakis signed by 740 members of the Yale community and others that claims her email was “jarring and disheartening.” The letter requested, “We… simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” as if mere differences of opinion are capable of erasing human beings.
Speaking of invalidating people, here’s how one Yale student spoke to Erika Christakis’ husband — professor and Silliman headmaster Nicholas Christakis, who attempted to have a dialogue with some disgruntled students. In the following video, see if you can tell whose “safe space” is being “invalidated”:
Student: 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?
Nicholas Christakis: No, I don’t agree with that.
Student: Then why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?!
Christakis: I have a different position than you.
Student: 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!
“I have a different position than you.”
“Then step down.”
How privileged must one be to demand that because another person holds a different albeit reasonable position on something that he must resign his post? Here is a man whose “crime” is sharing his wife’s view that there’s a discussion to be had on what constitutes an acceptable Halloween costume, and maybe — just maybe — public condemnation of “violators” might sometimes go too far. And for this, he is told, “You should not sleep at night!” and “You’re disgusting!”
In a way, the exchange is an all too appropriate microcosm of the battle between those who understand the importance of uninhibited dialogue and those who are stark-raving umbrage-takers who literally shout down those with whom they disagree.