As I mentioned last week, there has been growing pressure on college campuses for universities to hand down guidelines on “offensive” Halloween costumes. This debate exploded recently at Yale. A letter was sent out on the subject of appropriate Halloween attire (composed by 13 administrators … and people wonder why college is so expensive). Erika Christakis, associate headmaster of a residence college, responded in a manner was that totally inappropriate for college professor. By which, I mean, she addressed the students like they were adults:
Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?
In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.
The students at Yale did not respond well to this eminently reasonable dialogue, culminating in an incident this weekend where students confronted Nicholas Christakis (Erika’s husband and Silliman headmaster) to demand an apology, a confrontation that ended with one student screaming in his face about how he is supposed to be creating a “safe space” for students rather than an intellectual space (notice that Christakis doesn’t raise his voice at all, even when she’s screaming in his face).1
Something important to remember: what the students are objecting to is not offensive Halloween costumes. It’s not even Yale’s refusal to ban said costumes. What they’re angry about is that a professor had the temerity to engage them on this issue. What they’re furious about is that someone didn’t immediately agree with them. That’s their definition of a “safe space”. Not a space where someone is physically safe. Not a space where someone is safe from racism. No, they want a safe space where they are protected from ideas they don’t like and from challenges to ideas they do like. And, as Ken at Popehat points out, they want that safe space forcefully extended everywhere:
[the safe space] is not a self-selected community or an exercise of freedom of association, because it lacks the element of voluntary entry. It’s the safe space of an occupier: students demand that everyone in the dorm, or college, or university conform to their private-club rules. Your right to swing your fist may end at my nose, but their asserted right to safety surrounds you.
Conor, in a really great and thorough piece, makes other great points:
In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that too many college students engage in “catastrophizing,” which is to say, turning common events into nightmarish trials or claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear. After citing examples, they concluded, “smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable.”
What Yale students did next vividly illustrates that phenomenon.
According to the Washington Post, “several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore.” These are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?
This weekend, the Yale Herald published an op-ed (since withdrawn because it drew some actual harsh criticism) exploring these points, claiming that students couldn’t eat or function … because of the e-mail. Not because someone burned a cross on their lawn (as happened to my synagogue when I was kid). Not because someone used racial epithets (which happened in my high school). Not because someone wore an offensive Halloween costume (which itself seems relatively trivial). No, they’re unable to function because of a respectful e-mail that made the mistake of trying to engage them on a subject rather than simply saying, “Oh, your feelings are hurt. Well, that’s all that matters.”
To me, this trivializes … everything. One of the points being made is that minority students at Yale (of which there are very few) often feel like outsiders. They often feel like there is very real racism within the Ivy League — racial epithets, exclusion and prejudice. That is an issue that’s worth exploring. Getting angry because a professor, while acknowledging your point, respectfully disagrees with the idea of subjecting Halloween costumes to some kind of cultural vetting process is a waste of life.
But … as I’ve said before, we are raising a generation of people who have been coddled from the crib. They have helicopter parents who don’t let them do anything risky. Their schools are more focused on their self-esteem than their education. They play soccer without a score so no one’s feelings get hurt. And, for those who go to elite colleges like Yale, they’ve been told all their lives how brilliant they are. And this is the result: they can’t tell the difference between racial discrimination and a minor political disagreement. As Gregg Easterbrook once said, they can’t tell the difference between a crushed bicycle and the end of the world. And they think they have a right to be protected from all of it.2
It bears repeating: these are not children. These are grown men and women. This business blew up because the Christakis’s treated them like grown men and women. Neither Yale nor the Christakis’s have anything to apologize for. At least, not when it comes to e-mails about Halloween. How much culpability they bear for molding students that think like this … well, that’s another question.
1. Side note: I’m really hoping, not optimistically, that the screaming student doesn’t become the target of an internet shaming campaign. No one should be judged by a two-minute video clip. She acted like an idiot. Let’s not compound that by acting like assholes in response. She’s probably 19 years old. No one should be nationally judged by dumb things they say and do when they’re 19. Drezner makes a good point on this, pointing out that “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.” I was an even bigger idiot in college than I am now. I was fortunate that nothing I said “went viral”.↩
2. In the meantime, back on planet Earth, we have a President who is about to get into his second illegal undeclared war, has launched hundreds of drone attacks that kill ten bystanders for every supposed terrorist, has declared the right to track our phones without a warrant and is piling up debt that these kids are going to have to pay off. It’s not like there’s a dearth of big issues they could be protesting over. ↩