They're mad for a reason: Campus activists are yelling because too many of us still won't listen

A misguided and obtuse attack on Yale students shows why their protests are still so necessary

Published November 11, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Jeff Roberson)
(AP/Jeff Roberson)

I am not the first person to observe that the way mainstream America talks and thinks about its youth is disjointed, strange and rife with neurosis. But the conversation that kicked off last week in response to student protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri has placed the bizarre mix of envy and resentment with which so many regard college students in especially sharp relief.

Thanks to that new clarity, two aspects of the “debate” over free speech and campus activism are now easier to recognize. First, that much of the conversation happening on the national level is, at least so far, not really about anything. It’s divorced from the specifics and context of the respective campuses, and, like so much online discourse, it’s little more than cultural signaling. (With the Op-Ed as the pundit equivalent of a peacock spreading his wings.)

Second, that while there are people on every side of this issue — and there are more than two sides, here — who would benefit from talking less and listening more, the worst behavior, by far, is coming from the student protesters’ harshest critics. And I’m not just talking about the reactionaries at National Review, who are always eager to cosplay the 1968 Columbia University student uprisings. In fact, one of the most wrongheaded takes has come from the center-right.

Let’s look at one example in particular, from the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. The essay has been widely shared and praised; yet its failures of both logic and empathy are glaring. Friedersdorf is appalled by the goings on at Yale, and he presents himself as a defender of what he imagines to be the Enlightenment tradition. But rather than expose those at Yale who have participated in and backed the protests as authoritarian prigs, Friedersdorf’s piece helps explain why students at Yale and Mizzou erupted to begin with.

Friedersdorf’s argument is undoubtedly offered with sincerity. That said, his treatment of the students’ concerns is by turns obtuse and dismissive. And the piece is thus little more than a long attempt at special pleading for one Erika Christakis, who is an “associate master” at one of Yale’s dozen “residential communities,” and for one Nicholas Christakis, her husband, who is that same community’s “master” as well as a professor of sociology. (“Masters” are professors who live in these communities and are responsible for their social and intellectual health.)

The reason Friedersdorf is talking about the Christakises in the first place is complicated. And to a significant degree, a point of contention is where, exactly, to place the start-point of the story; the students describe their uprising as something that was a long time in coming, while their critics prefer to begin the narrative in late October. The short version, though, is that after receiving an email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee (ICA), which asked students to be mindful that their Halloween costumes are not offensive, Erika Christakis sent one of her own. It was not entirely well-received.

(You can read the emails here and here, via the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a “free speech” advocacy group headed by the civil liberties* activist Greg Lukianoff. Disclosure: I “debated” Lukianoff once on the radio. I did not find him remotely persuasive, but he seemed nice.)

Friedersdorf immediately makes clear where his sympathies lie. First he describes advice along the lines offered by the ICA as “heavy-handed”; this, despite the fact that college kids dress in blackface or as racial stereotypes for Halloween so often that it’s become an annual viral tradition. Then, he attempts to link the ICA with the administrative inflation currently plaguing academia by remarking that “no fewer than 13 administrators took scarce time to compose, circulate and co-sign” the letter.

More strikingly, Friedersdorf goes on to describe students’ concerns over offensive and alienating costumes as “misguided,” and argues that seeing the issue through a “social justice” lens is a “mistake.” Dismissing or diminishing concerns specific to those unfortunate enough to not have been born white and male is a time-honored practice of guys like Friedersdorf (and me), of course. Still, Friedersdorf’s hand-waving is unusually blatant. By this point, most white elites at least feign sympathy for those who don’t think their skin color should be a source for white kids’ amusement.

It’s when Friedersdorf turns his attention to Erika Christakis’ letter, though, that things start to really get ugly. Again, you should read her email for yourself; but I can say that I found his description of it as “a model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement” to be obtuse in the extreme. Christakis’ email was surely not sent from a place of malice; but any real attempt to understand and appreciate the concerns of those who disagreed with her was similarly missing. And in the specific context of ICA’s missive, her implicit defense of some costumes as “subversive” — rather than, y’know, bigoted — is concerning.

At one point, in fact, Christakis decides to use the ICA’s letter — which, remember, was nothing more than a reminder to students to appreciate the feelings of those in the community who come from minority backgrounds — as an excuse to wax philosophic about the mystery of subjectivity and the nature of youth. Assuming we can “agree on how to avoid offense,” she writes, “[i]s 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?” (Won’t somebody please think of the children?)

As a white person, and as a rule of thumb, I try not to treat discussions of racism and cultural appropriation as a springboard for the kind of musings that come to me post-bong rip. But my more substantial quibble with Christakis isn’t to do with her etiquette so much as her understanding of “offense.” Right before she expounds on letting kids be kids, she offers a brief aside about what it means to be offensive. And it’s telling. “I’ll note,” she writes, “that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes.”

If this is the portion of her letter that got students at Yale’s blood boiling, I could not blame them. She’s implying that the “offense” a conservative evangelical Christian might take to an exposed midriff is equivalent to the offense an African-American might take to a white woman putting on blackface, stuffing a pillow into her pants, and calling herself Nicki Minaj. But these offenses are not equivalent. And Christakis’ still needing that to be explained to her, in 2015, is proof that she has not been paying attention.

Unfortunately, she is far from the only one with this blindspot. It seems to be, in fact, lodged quite firmly in Friedersdorf’s eyes, too. Take a look at what he writes in the beginning of his essay, for example, about diversity and discrimination on college campuses. He not only echoes Christakis’ conflation of social conservatism with race, but takes it a few steps further (emphasis mine):

Those who purport to speak for marginalized students at elite colleges sometimes expose serious shortcomings in the way that their black, brown, or Asian classmates are treated, and would expose flaws in the way that religious students and ideological conservatives are treated too if they cared to speak up for those groups. I’ve known many Californians who found it hard to adjust to life in the Ivy League, where a faction of highly privileged kids acculturated at elite prep schools still set the tone of a decidedly East Coast culture.

To his credit, Friedersdorft writes that “outsiders who also feel like racial or ethnic ‘others’ typically walk the roughest road of all.” (Out of generosity, let’s give him a pass for that “typically” hedge.) But it’s still remarkable — jaw-droppingly so, even — that he’s comfortable making a comparison between people of color and people who grew up on the West Coast. And it helps explain why students at Yale blew up the way they did. It wasn’t because they like to yell; it was because too many well-meaning people, like Christakis and Friedersdorf, still aren’t listening.

*I originally described Lukianoff as a conservative, a description a FIRE employee has told me is incorrect. I apologize for the error.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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