The video is enough to make your blood pressure jump through the roof. It shows a crowd of students gathered around and furiously jeering Nicholas Christakis, the headmaster of Silliman Residential College at Yale, who simply stands still and takes the abuse. One particular female student’s voice rises above the rest as she thoroughly lights up Christakis, shouting that it’s his job as master and professor to “create a place of comfort” for the students and that his actions subvert that responsibility. He calmly replies, “No, I don’t agree with that.” And that’s when the student explodes, shouting expletives at him to which he, again calmly, responds, “I have a different position than you.” Her counter to this perfectly reasonable statement: “Then step down!” The force of such self-righteous intransigence literally made me withdraw slightly from my computer when I heard it. He has an opinion that differs from hers, therefore the only acceptable remedy as far as she’s concerned is for him to quit his job and go away. “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!” she screams. “Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!”
What sparked this insanity was, not surprisingly, a debate over what’s now become the young, identity politics-minded left’s most “problematic” time of year — Halloween. On October 27th, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee fired off an e-mail to all undergraduate students warning them to be sensitive with their Halloween costume choices and avoid any that might be deemed “culturally appropriative.” The e-mail even provided some handy suggestions for what to wear and what not to. Some students saw this as invasive and condescending, the implication being that they can’t make decisions for themselves, so they reached out to Erika Christakis — the associate headmaster of Silliman and Nicholas Christakis’s wife — and she wrote her own e-mail response to the school’s missive directly to the students at her residential college. Her tone was highly deferential toward the concerns of Yale’s marginalized students and her points were entirely reasonable, as they came from someone who’s been a professional educator for years. Her argument was simply that students should be given authority over their own choices and that college is traditionally a place where being playfully transgressive is a rite of passage and therefore should be tolerated.
Can you guess what the response was to Erika Christakis’s request for a simple conversation about what constitutes an offensive Halloween costume? Well, seeing as how she dared to issue even a tepid challenge to the accepted orthodoxy of the inconsolably victimized collegiate activist set, she was promptly made the recipient of an open letter co-signed by 740 Silliman students, calling Christakis’s e-mail “jarring and disheartening” and accusing her of “invalidating the existences” of the students in question. (Apparently that Hyperbole 101 class at Yale is paying big dividends.) The almost comical rancor directed at Erika Christakis eventually spread to Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who was confronted in a hallway and accused of being disappointing “as a black man,” and finally to Christakis’s husband, Nicholas, who is seen on the aforementioned video clip trying helplessly to both defend his wife and take a personal stand against the public kangaroo court that had suddenly formed to adjudicate his case and which would accept nothing less than a full confession and apology for his crimes against the students of Silliman College.
The whole thing was shameful. It looked like something you would’ve found in Soviet Russia except that the accusers were kids — kids shrieking about how mere words and ideas were erasing their existence and therefore had to be banished.
You wouldn’t be blamed if you’d noticed a trend developing recently on campuses across not just in the United States but the U.K. as well. It’s been written about, pondered and even excoriated at length by myself and many others. There was the piece in The Atlantic called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which decried a movement that seeks to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” There was the column at Vox titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” that lamented a student-teacher dynamic that’s been so upended that students can now claim “grievous harm in nearly any circumstance” and practically end a professor’s career. There was, likewise, the essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis describing the sexual politics and paranoia on college campuses these days — an essay that saw Kipnis encounter the new weapon wielded by students against educators they believe are injuring them: a Title IX charge. There was the Atlantic piece titled, appropriately, “That’s Not Funny!” which detailed the perils stand-up comics face playing colleges where political correctness means they’ll have to constantly walk on eggshells. And of course there was the comprehensive Jonathan Chait piece in New York, “Not a Very PC Thing To Say,” which earned the author a swift vilification by Twitter fire.
These articles all lay out the overall situation, but above and beyond that there are the myriad instances of oh-so-fragile students lashing out at perceived individual persecutions. We’re talking about stories that would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing in what they reveal about our kids’ readiness to confront the real world. Back in March of this year, I wrote three pieces over the period of just one week describing three separate examples of hyper-sensitive collegiate snowflakes self-infantilizing in the name of protecting their delicate sensibilities. In the first, students at Brown University had set up a “safe space” on campus in response to a debate taking place at the college on the subject of “rape culture” that students felt might be “triggering” for some. The space included “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies,” making it the most expensive daycare center on earth. In the second example, the National Union of Students Women’s Conference in the UK warned attendees not to applaud during the event, claiming that it might, again, be “triggering.” “Some delegates are requesting that we move to jazz hands rather than clapping,” the warning read. Finally, there was — and still is — the situation at Ithaca College, where the student government passed a bill setting up a system to anonymously report “microagressions” on campus, meaning that students could hand up each other for minor “offensive” comments and never have to face the accused. Orwell couldn’t have imagined a more dystopian environment.
All of this, with the situation at Yale and even more recently at the University of Missouri being the latest examples — on Monday at Mizzou students and faculty threatened and assaulted the media for intruding on protesters’ “safe space” in a public area — all of it represents a disturbing morphing of our college campuses from a place where tolerance and youthful transgression against cultural constraints were the norm to a place where oppression, self-censorship and intolerance are the new articles of faith. In an effort to shield the traditionally marginalized from legitimate maltreatment — an inarguably noble goal — college students have overcompensated, turning every word or idea that challenges their accepted, politically correct dogma into an excuse for an immediate retreat to a warm bed and a woobie or an outraged, buzzword-filled crusade designed to utterly smash that which has so upset them. What should have been a beneficial no-brainer — students who are civically engaged and who stand against injustice — has been twisted to the point where hashtag-armed warriors, obsessed with defending divisive identity politics, are a hammer and everything is a nail. We’re through the looking glass now, with liberal college students being the prudish scolds in our society rather than the conservative schoolmarms of old.
It would be easy to chalk this problem up to a mere issue of political correctness intruding on speech, which of course is exactly what conservatives are doing right now. They’re claiming that the absurdity we’re seeing on college campuses is the chickens coming home to roost for Baby Boomer liberals who were simultaneously permissive (in terms of cultural relativism) and dictatorial (in terms of knowing what’s best for society) and who instilled those qualities in their children through coddling and excessive paeans to their greatness. As much as it hurts to admit this, to some extent they’re right. It was helicopter parenting and a culture in which so many children were constantly indulged and validated in everything they did — to say nothing of growing up in the era of social media-fueled narcissism — that helped to create this monster. But more than that, they’re right that while “political correctness” has become a seemingly meaningless cliché at this point, it’s a phrase that sums up nicely the seemingly never-ending push to stifle “offensive” language and behavior in our culture. And it’s not just conservatives who feel this way, incidentally. Plenty of people whose politics fall on the center-left side of the spectrum see oppressive political correctness as an entirely illiberal conceit.
In a piece published on Tuesday, Jonathan Chait returns to sum it all up following the Mizzou incident. “To imagine p.c. as simply a thing college kids do relieves us of taking it seriously as a coherent set of beliefs, which it very much is,” he writes. “Political correctness is a system of thought that denies the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender. It manifests itself most prominently in campus settings not because it’s a passing phase, like acne, but because the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” And impose its will the phantom victimized mob does, across a vast swath of our universities. We saw it yesterday at the University of Missouri, where a student hunger strike and an almost ridiculously strident list of demands by student activists contributed to the resignation of both Mizzou’s president and it’s chancellor. (I say contributed because what very likely forced the administration’s hand was money; Mizzou’s football team had promised to boycott future practices and games until the situation was resolved.) We saw it over the weekend at Yale, where students shouted down and demanded nothing short of complete acquiescence from a respected educator whose only crime was offering a contrary opinion in good faith.
About that: In the video clip of students cheering as Nicholas Christakis is verbally thrashed, the language is worth noting because it speaks volumes about what today’s student activists expect from those they’ve deemed enemies of their special brand of social justice. After shouting obscenities at Christakis and proclaiming that his only recourse after offending her and her ilk is an immediate resignation — there is no other option, after all — remember that the headmaster’s female prosecutor laid out what she believes his job is. “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that?” she shouts. “It’s about creating a home here! You are not doing that!” Granted, Silliman is a residential college that puts students and faculty in close quarters, but regardless Nicholas Christakis’s job is, in fact, to create an intellectual space because first and foremost he’s an educator. He’s not this young woman’s best friend and he damn sure isn’t her mommy or daddy. His role is to stimulate the minds of people ostensibly just beginning to face the difficulties of the real world — a world that won’t coddle these kids’ every neurosis and may even laugh in their faces — and it certainly isn’t to promise every student that he or she will feel safe from provocative ideas and words at all times. As with all educators, his job isn’t to ensure that she remains forever in her intellectual and cultural cocoon — quite the contrary, in fact.
I’ve written this before but there’s something that bears repeating over and over. The supreme irony of the war these young people are waging in the name of freedom from every single offense and instance of alleged marginalization is that it’s a product of the very thing they claim with unquenchable venom to be against: privilege. The name of the protest group at the University of Missouri is “Concerned Student 1950,” with 1950 being the year black students were first admitted to the university. Now imagine for a moment what it was like for the nine African-American kids who entered Mizzou that year — as a result of a court order forcing the school to integrate. The blatant, ugly racist threats those students faced down every single day. Imagine having literally almost no one to complain to or feel a sense of solidarity with — having no power whatsoever. Those kids fought through hell every single minute of every single day and I guarantee you they never once demanded to be able to retreat to a safe space filled with teddy bears and bubbles.
There was a time when iron-willed student activists could go head-to-head with genuine threats like the possibility of being shipped off to fight and die in an unjust war or being persecuted by seemingly untouchable authority figures. Now? Most of today’s Western college students, irrespective of their identity, have been raised in a country where they were largely safe and comfortable. They’re privileged — yes, privileged — to be living in a society where their biggest concern is a thoughtless, accidental or ill-informed comment or an opinion or joke they happen to dislike. They’re privileged to be able to blindly rage against “problematic” issues rather than the actual problems their forebears faced. They’re privileged to have been coddled and catered to their entire lives. They’re privileged that they have the luxury of obsessing over microaggressions rather than macroaggressions. And maybe most of all, if they believe their lives are so free from real dangers to their freedoms and identities from frighteningly regressive politics to the point where they can afford to attack their well-meaning allies — they’re indefensibly privileged.
At some point, as the situation at Yale perfectly illustrates, the grown-ups are going to have to step in and take control rather than ceding the floor to these screaming, petulant children and the bullying mobs they assemble on a whim. It has to be done for the good of the liberal education system and for the good of the students themselves, who whether they want to or not need to learn that the real world won’t indulge their demands, insecurities and tantrums the way their parents and, now, their educators have. Certainly, they’re college students and there’s an argument to be made that they’ll grow out of this phase, but traditionally the role of our universities was to help them do just that — to shepherd them from childhood to adulthood. What our universities aren’t and never were, in the words of Tablet columnist James Kirchick in response to the Yale debacle, are “cosseting nurseries for overgrown neurotics” who proclaim loudly, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” As Kirchick perfectly sums it up, if that’s what you’re looking for then maybe you need a therapist rather than college.
In response to the protests and activist demands at Mizzou, the Missouri University Police Department on Tuesday sent an e-mail out to all students urging them to call the police to report any hurtful speech they might encounter. The goal is to “ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe.” In the name of keeping the students’ space “safe” the police want to know about hurtful language.
How much more chilling a development do we need before adults finally decide to stop entertaining this draconian lunacy?