The Yale Protests are not a Crisis for Free Speech

Update: I no longer endorse all the views shared in this post. More here.

As everyone now knows, students at Yale are up in arms about the politics of Halloween costumes. Or rather, about some emails that Yale administrators sent on the subject of Halloween costumes.

The brouhaha has been framed as yet another crisis for free speech on campus, and the usual PC policers have turned out to issue their warnings about the collapse of the liberal tradition. Normally, I’d be climbing the barricades on behalf of free speech, along with its close cousin, reasoned discourse. (Most debates about the right to free speech are really arguments about the value of reasoned discourse.) I was appalled by the charges against Laura Kipnis; I’m leery of trigger warnings; I’ve been unsettled by the demands of campus groups seeking to oust guest speakers, shut down debates, defund newspapers, and cancel events.

But this business at Yale is different.

Most of the initial reporting seems to have come from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group. As you might expect, they’ve put their own particular spin on the event. The fuss, they say, started with an email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, advising students to be mindful of offensive references when choosing Halloween costumes. The committee’s email recommended that students steer clear of blackface, redface, Sioux headdresses, turbans, and insulting stereotypes.

Apart from a mealy-mouthed bullet point warning students away from costumes that “further historical … inaccuracies” (which means what, exactly–no witches?), this is pretty anodyne stuff. It’s hardly an act over overreaching PC authoritarianism to suggest that students think twice before wearing blackface to a party. And what draconian punishments were threatened for students who ignored the recommendations? None, because the committee doesn’t have that kind of power. The email was  a reminder.

(Was it a useful reminder? I doubt it. Any college student who wears blackface for Halloween probably knows what he’s getting into, cautionary emails or no. But you never know.)

Nevertheless, some students were offended (naturally) by this perceived administrative threat to their sacred Halloween-costume-choosing rights, and they took their grievances (naturally) to another pair of authorities, the master and associate master of Silliman College. That’s when things heated up. The Associate Master, Erika Christakis, sent an email to Silliman College students reflecting, in a meandering and self-involved manner, on administrative overreach, child development, cultural appropriation, and the mores and origins of Halloween. And here’s where the framing of the story becomes important, because FIRE, in accord with their mission to safeguard free speech, has chosen to highlight the least obnoxious parts of Christakis’s email:

“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.”

That’s all well and good, and I applaud Christakis’s belief that college administrators shouldn’t meddle too much in students’ social lives. But her email also included a lot of boneheaded and off-topic stuff about the politics of mimicking foreign accents, the importance of imagination in the lives of little children, the author’s fondness for a sari she bought in Bangladesh, and other subjects apparently churned up by a process of free-association. Christakis used scare quotes for such terms as virtue signaling and cultural appropriation. She recommended–or rather, quoted her husband’s recommendation–that students enter into debate with wearers of costumes they found offensive, which is naïve at best and patronizing at worst.

Is it possible to raise provocative questions about the complex ethos and history of Halloween? Sure. Is it reasonable for a college administrator to raise these questions, in such a chatty and personalized manner, in a mass email to students? I don’t think so. Does any of this have much to do with the grand intellectual traditions of higher learning and critical thinking in an open society? Not really. The high-falutin’ language usually used to defend the inclusion of Ovid in course curricula or the importance of far-ranging student discussion has here been “appropriated,” if you will, to introduce some lofty “virtue signaling” into a prosaic discussion of student dress.

Now, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of the above constitutes grounds for termination. But Christakis’s letter is strikingly indulgent and tone-deaf for an email sent by a college official to a large student body. In its cavalier treatment of an important issue, it is, yes, insensitive.

I’m not surprised that students were alarmed at this chatty and long-winded rebuttal to what had, from the start, been a bland and forgettable document. For Christ’s sake, the letter pushing back against administrative overreach was more meddlesome and self-important than the document it set out to challenge!

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.

And then there’s what the student actually shouted: “Then step down! If that is what you think about being a 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.”

This certainly sounds bad. It echoes the anxious rhetoric that has been floated in the mainstream media, specifically the fear that college students nowadays are more interested in being coddled and protected than in seeking intellectual stimulation. Like many other people, I’m worried about that trend. But this particular contretemps doesn’t fit the broader narrative.

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.

I suppose you could argue that any professional educator ought to be dedicated at all times to stimulating and stewarding lively and challenging discussions. But that pushes the case for free speech–or even reasoned discourse–too far. It makes a fetish of debate at the expense of amicability. The college classroom is an important venue for complex and unorthodox arguments about thorny topics. But a campus Halloween party? Please.

We don’t need to insist that every second of a student’s college career be devoted to detailed dissection of difficult issues. And it’s absurd to suggest that loutish Halloween costumes should be afforded the same respect as contrarian dissertations. Are those costumes protected as a form of free speech? Certainly. So are the screams and rants of frustrated students. But the problem here is that a professor charged with cultivating a healthy social climate in a residence hall seized on a piece of bland campus boilerplate as an occasion for airing a jumble of controversial opinions. If that’s not a firing offense, it’s not entirely appropriate either. That this became national news at all is due largely to the zealous reporting of a free-speech watchdog group, who have cannily elevated a squabble about residence-hall life into a threat to our intellectual traditions.

We fret and moan endlessly about the hypersensitivity of today’s college students. But in this case the free-speech partisans look like the true histrionics.


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