Looking Back at the Yale Mess

Two years ago I wrote about the widely reported Yale dustup over Halloween costumes. The incident has become something of a cultural touchstone, and while I’m pretty sure no one reads this blog, you never know who’s going to go poking around in your social media history. So I want to say I no longer hold the views aired in that post.

At the time, I didn’t think the incident fit the profile of a free speech crisis, mostly because the professor involved held an unusual position on campus:

“I didn’t go to Yale. I can’t claim to know much about the intricacies of social relations there. But as I gather, a college master like Christakis, in his role as a master, is responsible mostly for watching over students’ social lives, planning events, and building a healthy community in the residence halls. Not for stimulating incisive classroom discussions (though presumably he would also do that, in his role as a professor). So the angry student has a point. As master and associate master at Silliman, Christakis and his wife do have a responsibility to create a safe home there, not to stir up controversy. I think it’s at least credible that they got confused about the different roles they’re supposed to play on campus.”

Well, okay. In essence, my argument was this. Professors play multiple roles on campus. They research, they teach, they organize events. Each role comes with special responsibilities. If a professor is, say, a faculty leader of the Safe Space Club for Fragile Snowflakes, or whatever, and she keeps pushing club members into charged debates about sensitive issues, I think it’s fair to say she should no longer lead that club. By the same token, I think it’s fair to argue that a professor who’s serving as a kind of glorified chaperone to a residence hall, and who is tasked with building a warm community in that residence hall, and who somehow fails to do so, shouldn’t keep chaperoning the residence hall. That doesn’t mean she should lose her job as a lecturer, or be hounded off campus, or be publicly shamed.

It also seemed to me at the time that the severity attacks on the Christakises had been exaggerated. As I wrote:

“And now we come to the real reason the story has taken off. A group of students met with Nicholas Christakis, the Master of Silliman college, to object to Erika Christakis’s email. The meeting became a shouting match. One student lost her cool. A representative of FIRE was on hand to record the moment. And there you have it: a perfect recipe for viral content.

No question, the resulting video is painful to watch. The student lost her temper in a big way. Some people sympathetic to her position have tried to justify her screaming fit as an act of passionate truth-telling, but that won’t wash; this kind of public meltdown is always more embarrassing than inspiring.

But let’s keep things in perspective. We see one student blowing her stack in that video. One. We’re not talking about an angry mob. Watch the video, and you can see other students dropping their eyes and shuffling furtively away. They want no part of a chaotic shouting match.”

Well, that opinion sure didn’t age well.

In retrospect, it’s clear I read the context wrong. We really do have a free-speech crisis on campus–and everywhere else, for that matter. And the essence of the crisis is that so few people–on the left or right–even bother to think through these kinds of distinctions. Forget about different roles with different responsibilities. The current standard seems to be: sure, it’s fine to air controversial opinions–unless someone, somewhere, gets upset about it, in which case God help you.

To begin with the obvious: at the time I wrote my original post, Erika Christakis still had her job. She later left, and it does indeed look as if she was bullied out of her position. (Nicholas Christakis stepped down as Master of Silliman College, but stayed on as a Yale professor, a remedy closer to what I had in mind.)

It’s also clear that the reaction to Christakis wasn’t just whipped up by a few irate students and free-speech advocates. Nor were protests against the Christakises limited to calls for them to step down as residential college Co-Masters; by their own report, they were subject to death threats and intimidation. And this is far from an isolated incident. Later scandals have made it clear that partisans in these battles aren’t concerned with quibbling discussions about exactly when and where and to what extent provocative discussions are appropriate. Any potentially offensive remark, in any context, is treated as grounds for firing, threats, abuse, and intimidation.

We had the Murray protests, in which protesters tried to shut down a speaker invited by a student group–a clear imposition on the intellectual freedom of their fellow students.

We had the Milo protests, which made it clear that left-leaning students condone and even promote violence against offensive speakers.

We saw resistance to Laura Kipnis’s appearance at Wesleyan, which showed that these no-platforming tactics aren’t limited to students and that some faculty approve of and encourage this kind of behavior.

We had the Tuvel affair, in which scholars–philosophers, of all people–proved incapable of leveling an academic complaint (that Tuvel had done too little research on her chosen topic) without elevating it into a vindictive personal attack.

We had the Griffiths and Weinstein cases, in which professors were persecuted for objecting to administrative measures.

And lately we’ve had a spate of suspicious firings and punitive measures provoked by snappish social media posts, all targeting women and people of color: Kathryn Detwyller, Johnny Eric Williams, June Chu, and Lisa Durden.

That’s to say nothing of the campaigns of intimidation waged against Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, Sarah Bond, and Tommy Curry, who (as of this writing, and so far as I know) have kept their teaching posts.

The Durden case was particularly shocking to me: a professor given the ax for airing views that are, it seems to me, all but de rigueur on liberal-leaning campuses. I’m extremely leery of the idea that racial exclusion is okay when practiced by certain groups, but this is very much the kind of idea that should be debated and not suppressed. (Personally, I would have chosen to debate it with someone other than Tucker Carlson, but, well. And as with all these scandals, I have to wonder if something else is going on behind the scenes–drama in the faculty lounge, turf battles in the administration. Maybe Durden’s real offense, in the eyes of her colleagues, was just to have gone on Fox news in the first place. All I can say for now is that her treatment, as reported, looks hamhanded and vindictive.)

I’ve seen people trying to use Durden’s firing as a club to beat on free speech advocates, the idea being that this somehow exposes their fundamental hypocrisy. Really? I can hardly think of an incident that lends more support to their position. This is why we have to defend free speech as a general principle and not just a perk enjoyed by inoffensive people. This is why we put up with the Milos and Spencers and Coulters–so that when someone like Durden comes along, we can offer her the armor of a robust and universal moral standard. Free speech champions have been warning for years that abandoning this principle would backfire on leftists, liberals, and minorities. Now, half a year into a Republican administration, we’re already seeing punitive measures against black intellectuals who hurt white feelings. Give credit where it’s due: the free speech champions who spoke out about Durden–Friedersdorf, Haidt, de Boer–have spent years building the credibility it takes to say, with some authority, “This is never okay.”

But the main reason to think that censorship is on the rise is that, well, so many people say they want more censorship. Some advocate new federal laws limiting speech. A much bigger number champion institutional measures, like ritual firings of upstart employees. And everyone but everyone seems to think it’s a great idea to use mob tactics to bully undesirable people into silence.

I’m not sure how we get out of this, since free speech itself has become the main threat to free speech. The argument I hear from all quarters is, “Why shouldn’t I be able to harass my political enemies until they shut up? After all, they’re awful people and their views are toxic in any form. My people are the real victims. Hunting down those who say things we don’t like and scaring them into cringing silence, that’s just activism for a good cause.”

Sure. Because that’s what all the good guys say.

Whenever I air these concerns–for that matter, when I see or hear anyone, anywhere, make similar points–someone inevitably pipes up to say, “But this isn’t actually a free speech issue. After all, the government isn’t explicitly censoring anyone. In everyday life, words have consequences. If citizens have the right to air controversial views, they also have the right to attack and punish controversial views. And organizations should be allowed to fire employees who don’t reflect their values. When people suffer for saying horrible things, that’s their own fault.”

Sometimes this argument takes a form that’s almost comically extreme, as when people argue that Middlebury-style protesters or Twitter harassers are just exercising a healthy right to free speech, as if death threats and intimidation are just part of the give and take of a healthy agora. “Well, sure, the villagers formed a torchlit mob, brandished their pitchforks, and chanted in unison, ‘Outsiders must die!’ But did they actually impale anyone with the pitchforks? Isn’t pitchfork-brandishing itself a form of free expression? Did the ghost of Stalin rise from the grave and guide Trump’s hand as it penned an executive order banning the use of the alphabet? Ah, didn’t think so! What’s the problem?”

Part of the problem is that a government’s practice of censorship follows from a public’s tolerance for censorship. I mean, who staffs the government? Citizens. Who votes the government into power? Citizens. Who chooses whether or not to protest government censorship when it occurs? Citizens. If citizens are collectively saying, “Free speech is for suckers,” what does that forebode?

But even if we’re only looking at private actors, I can’t see a way to square this kind of cartoon libertarianism with what’s actually happening in the street. The ugly truth is that today, freedom of expression is imperiled mostly by ordinary people. The roving eye of the social-media panopticon alights on offender after offender, and with a thousand tongues the vengeful spirit of the populace cries, “Condemn, condemn.” When slurs and intimidation fail, citizen mobs resort to institutional solutions: firings, hearings, vaguely defined investigations and disciplinary measures, threats to careers and sustenance and security. When that doesn’t work, they use threats. Can anyone speak freely in these circumstances? What does free expression mean in a society where people are routinely bullied into abjection by ephemeral crowds of fellow citizens?

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