There’s been a lot of commentary on the protests at my alma mater, which I guess shows that Yalies are right to assume the world revolves around them. Highlights, for me, include this piece by Alan Jacobs, this one by Conor Friedersdorf, and particularly this one by Kate Maltby, first, because she explains one distinctive driver of alienation for black students at Yale:
New Haven, one of the north’s poorest, densely African-American cities, spreads around a single island of privilege, Yale University. Last December, while I was back on campus to research my PhD, America learned that no officer would face charges in the death of Eric Garner, the black man killed in New York during an arrest for selling tax-free cigarettes (a libertarian cause if ever there was one). So each night I listened to angry protests spill out onto the streets – angry, but essentially peaceful. During trips to nearby New York, I hovered with the other awkward white liberals on the fringes of the perma-protest encamped at Grand Central Station, unwilling to walk past without a thumbs up or a few limp handclaps of support, but not sure if we were wanted in an African-American space and really quite keen to get on with our shopping.
This matters at Yale, perhaps more than any other Ivy League college. Europeans have always visited America and come back in shock at the implicit racial segregation visible on every street. (Americans, on the other hand, can never quite believe that Britain’s problems look different). But I’d never felt it in my marrow until I lived in New Haven. For the first time, I lived in a city where every single person on the margins was black, each one so much easier for the average white student to dismiss due to the darkness of their skin.
And then because of her distinctive take on Halloween:
I never thought I’d be defending American Halloween traditions at all. When I was young, my mother banned us from celebrating a ghost-day on Protestant grounds – and what’s fun about a feast that seems based on extortion? (‘Trick or treat? Kinder Egg in our basket or broken egg on your door?’) So when I arrived at Yale, a lost, cold foreigner recovering from a nervous breakdown at Oxford, I found the entire concept of a university-sponsored Halloween culturally alien – some might say, offensive.
But in a new community, you muck in, and pretty soon I discovered a carnival so far divorced from ghoulish paganism as to have abandoned it entirely. Instead, emerging from the Mexican Día de Muertos, and the 1970s drag fests of San Fransisco, adult Halloween became a Latin-style Mardi Gras, a day when any thing goes. It seemed the only day in the year when the pains and pressures of late adolescence were abandoned in favour of something like community: in my second year, deep in nasty student politics, a bunch of us at each other’s throats suddenly dropped the malice and banded together as a beaming Henry VIII and his six wives. (Five years after graduation, Henry and Kathryn Howard are happily expecting their second child). Who ever heard of a carnivale with rules?
It’s this spirit of Halloween – and with it, the balance between adulthood and childhood – that Christakis defends in her email, as she has consistently done in her previous writing. She’s doing exactly what an academic is supposed to do – drawing from her immediate research to inform university debate. ‘Pretend-play is the foundation of most imaginative tasks,’ she writes – in other words, our culture may be obsessed with authentic identity, but dressing-up still requires us to try out false identities instead.
That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype. Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?
There’s a deep irony in any student asking a university to censor them more, not less. These are students who crib Foucalt between classes, when they actually go to them (one student wrote that in response to Christakis’ email, ‘friends are not going to class, are not doing their homework, are losing sleep, are skipping meals, and are having breakdowns.’) But have they never discussed the institutionalisation of power?
The truth is that Yale has always encouraged students to talk back. In Britain, the student who screeched ‘F-you’ to a professor would be suspended: here, she’ll probably end up on a senior committee. It was this licensed rebelliousness that I loved when I first arrived, a refugee from stuffy, hierarchical Oxford. They really didn’t know how good they had it. At Oxford, it was hard to find a tutor who gave a toss for guidelines on sexual harassment – but at Yale, members of the Women’s Centre, with its safe rooms and empowerment seminars all funded by the university, felt strong enough to sue… the university, alleging that Yale failed to deal adequately with sexual harassment complaints. It is a liberalism to be celebrated, but a liberalism dependent on a lot of money. And a liberalism that reaches stalemate when students ask, according to their rights as adults, to be infantilised, again, like the masochist who demands to be beaten. I used to think Yale was the great example to which all British universities should look. Now, I’m not so sure.
I appreciate her piece because instead of talking in the abstract about racism or kids these days, she talks about her own experience in a particular place. In the face of someone she calls “screaming girl,” she doesn’t scream back. But neither does she respond analytically. She puts herself in the narrative.
I’m a fellow alumnus, and, personally, I think the email from Erika Christakis was a model for how civil discourse should be conducted, and the behavior of the protestors strikes me as ridiculous. But notwithstanding the tiny amount of skin I’ve got in this particular game, my personal opinions are pretty darned irrelevant. Indeed, the mere fact that I have personal opinions about this situation – and that so many of us internet voyeurs do – is a huge part of the problem. (And I’m an alumnus; imagine how irrelevant the opinions of most of the rest of you are.)
Which is why, for my money, the most important response was from Dan Drezner:
As Friedrich von Hayek observed 70 years ago, there is an awful lot of knowledge that is local in character, that cannot be culled from abstract principles or detached observers. What looks like free speech infringement at first glance can turn out to be something different the more one drills down. For one thing, the events of late last week were part of a larger chain of events at Yale beyond the e-mails that suggest a few obvious sources of frustration for minority students there in particular.
For another thing, part of the dispute is over the unique role that house masters play at Yale. . . .
An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.
The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.
In writing her email to students, Erika Christakis was doing her job, and doing it well. In standing in the yard and listening to students scream at him, her husband was doing his job – and, from what I could see, doing it reasonably well: not being dismissive, not losing his cool, not backing down. I hope that, in person and outside of the bounds of the video we’ve all seen, that he did what Maltby did, and put himself into the narrative.
But what job did the person taking the video think he or she was doing?
Most likely: protecting Master Christakis from being slandered in social media as a raging bigot. And, given the way the story has played out, it strikes me as relatively less-likely that the Christakises will lose their positions as a result of these protests. (I certainly hope they won’t.)
But what about “screaming girl?” The same piece of video that “defended” the college master is the one that could be used to “indict” her. Is she going to become an internet meme? Are there going to be hate websites set up specifically to mock her? To ask those questions is to answer them, isn’t it? This woman says she felt unsafe before. She has no idea how unsafe she could feel if the digital mob found out her name and address. All because someone took a video of her losing her cool.
And, of course, the dynamic could still play out differently. Take a look at what happened to the president of the University of Missouri, who did a notably lousy job (according to reports) of responding to student concerns about the racial climate on campus. If Christakis had lost his cool or been dismissive, I would bet he and his wife would have been canned by now, as Tim Wolfe has been.
(Not that I mean to pre-judge Wolfe’s sacking either. For all I know, he richly deserved his fate for mishandling race relations and campus justice over a long period. And for all I know, his resignation is a tragedy. If I had to put money on it, I’d bet that there were knives out for him already, perhaps for unrelated reasons, as often turns out to be the case when an institutional leader is abandoned by his board in the face of protests. But I’m not putting money on it, because I lack the local knowledge to have a meaningful opinion.)
All of which is to say: if you really think Erika Christakis had it right in her email, then the last thing you should be doing right now is wringing your hands about how “screaming girl” is a sign of the apocalypse. Instead, you should be engaging with her, directly, or ignoring her.
After all, that’s what she recommended that Yale students do when confronted with speech that they find offensive.