The Yale Controversy

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Yale University (Source: Wikipedia)

Yale’s Halloween controversy raises chronic issues that won’t go away. Prior to the holiday, the University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent students a memo: To quote directly:

While students . . . definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

The memo claims that some Yalies previously made “culturally unaware or insensitive” choices, choices that had a deleterious impact on various marginalized groups. Intended or not, such actions “sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact.” (No evidence is cited nor are claims made regarding the seriousness and extent of the alleged impact.)Accordingly, Yalies dressing-up for Halloween are urged to consider whether their costumes:

  • Make fun people and their traits or cultures?
  • Promote historical inaccuracies?
  • Reduce cultural difference to jokes or stereotypes?
  • Belittle faith traditions?

Finally, students are directed to a site presenting acceptable and unacceptable costumes:
“Rosie the Riveter” is acceptable; women dressing in traditional Muslim garb is not – not even for Muslim women?
Erika Christakis (an administrator – master – of Yale’s Silliman college) hazarded a rejoinder “Dressing Yourselves.” It proved – to understate the case – controversial. She argued that avoiding hurt and offense is laudable in theory; however, in practice even laudable goals can create a bureaucratized, stifling environment that undermines student autonomy. It’s inappropriate for administrators to foist their Halloween standards on young adults. College administrators shouldn’t act in loco parentis. If a student finds a costume offensive, it’s up to him or her to act: “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.”
Taken literally, this exchange of administrative memos is nothing more than just that – something faculty and students usually ignore. Taken at face value – without considering the symbolic import – we witness certain well-intentioned administrators urging students to avoid potentially offensive costumes. In response, another well-intentioned official finds such exhortations patronizing. At worst – or so it seems – this is a first-world dispute that pales beside the third-world problems surrounding the campus: New Haven is not noted for safe spaces for its less fortunate inhabitants.
The textual harassment, the vitriol hurled at Christakis is ironic and – to understate the case – disproportionate. I find it ironic since, as a student, I protested against administrators acting in loco parentis. In a video that went viral, scores of students are heard hurling vulgar insults and Christakis, and demanding her resignation. Here’s an example:

In your position as master,” one student says, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email; that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”

“No,” she said, “I don’t agree with that.”

The student explodes, “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master 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!”

Less vociferous students blamed the Christakis memo for their quiet despair: It was so upsetting that they couldn’t sleep or concentrate on their studies. As one commentator quips: apparently these students can’t bear to be in a milieu that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings. Believing, apparently, that no good deed goes unpunished, Christakis resigned.
Unlike some commentators, I don’t mock the students’ overreaction, nor do I suggest they’re feckless victims of some bizarre, PC ideology. In the spirit of tikkun, I’m concerned with understanding and healing.
Could it be that the Christakis Memo became what social psychologists call a “condensation symbol”: redolent with surplus meaning it evoked the train of rejections and injuries experienced by minority students. The vociferous response was not merely about the master’s apparent indifference to offensive costumes. It stood for collective memories of slavery and Jim Crow. It evoked searing current injuries such as Ferguson – or closer to home–being tracked in local stores, and lack of acceptance – real and imagined – at Yale. As Freud taught, the effect (in this case the affect) is often greater –
much greater – than the cause.
We’re left with a dilemma demanding Solomon-like wisdom. Shall we comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable? Who doubts we should foster a campus environment where students feel at home, rather than alienated. Even so, as educators, are we called upon to afflict the comfortable by promoting their autonomy and by provoking them to question deeply held assumptions and beliefs? Is there a proper balance, a Golden Mean? I invite readers’ responses.

Ron Hirschbein authored five books taking radical, humanistic approaches to the causes of war and prospects for peace.