American colleges have long struggled with the issue of free speech, and for good reason. At what point does the open expression of ideas skirt past constructive discourse and become hate speech, and when do we limit ideas because they make people uncomfortable?
Yale has taken on this conflict full force. Before Halloween, the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to the students asking them to avoid “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes, citing components such as turbans or feathered headdresses.
Erika Christakis, a Yale faculty member specializing in developmental psychology, expressed her frustration at the request, following up with another email directed to Yale students. She compared the Committee’s initial message to that which is commonly directed toward children on Halloween, calling it “an occasion for adults to exert their control,” adding “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.”
Rather than intentionally attacking any marginalized groups, the email’s primary message is an endorsement of personal freedom, suggesting that students should be allowed to make mistakes. Instead of being intercepted from above before potential offense happens, she suggests that students should communicate with one another what they deem offensive or inappropriate. This approach is positive in that it puts the power in the student’s hands, offering them the opportunity to understand one another through active communication.
Many Yale students did not feel that Christakis meant well, some demanding the resignation of Christakis and her husband, who is also Yale faculty. One of a group confronting Christakis’ husband expressed their anger: “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here.”
This reaction is understandable, but it is antithetical to the open community that structures higher education, and it only serves to stifle the potential for collective understanding and the building of a community. It is easy to see the benefits to making a college into a “safe space,” but the intended comfort is not always worth the price of free speech.
At Yale specifically, the issue is not the request for cultural consideration or Christakis’ response, but the conflict that then arose from her difference of opinion, broached diplomatically. The purpose of representing a diversity of opinion on a college campus is not to create an echo chamber for the opinion that is generally considered right, but it is to provide an opportunity for students to understand the breadth of an issue. If we shave the edges off an issue, it becomes too easy to digest, and some will believe there is only one right stance while the rest sink away into the shadows. It is invaluable to represent the nuances and spectrum of an issue, lest some become afraid to speak up because they fear the backlash or they refuse to listen to others because they disagree with the message. Once this happens, the chance to learn from one another disappears.
This approach has obvious limitations, and hate speech should not be tolerated, but, if we intend to learn, a difference in opinion should be approached first as an educational opportunity. It is easy to offend unintentionally, but once that offense is made, we are presented with a choice to educate another or to funnel that anger elsewhere. In the case of malicious speech, a conversation is likely not the best way to solve the issue, but in this case at Yale a discussion may have helped prevent greater conflict.
In response to the conflict on campus, Yale held a forum on free speech, which created more controversy. Speaker Greg Lukianoff commented that “Looking at the reaction to Erika Christakis’ email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.”
In response, Yale students reportedly stood outside the forum chanting “Genocide is not a joke” and spat on several attendees as they left the event.
The joke, while distasteful, was still simply a joke, and the reaction it garnered was ultimately overblown and contrary to the cause of mutual understanding. Beyond the irony of protesting a forum on free speech, this protest was fruitless because it merely served to separate the involved parties further. The right to protest is extremely important, but if it is done too often or over small issues, it detracts power from future protests.
To effectively create a community on a college campus, the first step is to allow comfortable disagreement. The destructive thing about outrage is that it feels right. If someone says something that seems offensive, it is natural to get angry and try to combat it, but often our natural inclinations are not the most constructive. Outrage perpetuates difference, and it stops people from understanding one another, which is what college is for.
Conlan Campbell ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Burnsville, Minn. He majors in English.