Who's really demanding to be coddled on campus? Yale students aren't the spoiled brats for refusing to be racially trolled on Halloween

Defending free speech doesn't mean putting the burden on minority students to remain silent

Published November 11, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

 (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)
(Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

In December of 2012, many Harvard students woke to an unpleasant surprise that had been slid under their doors. A flyer, circulated by anonymous parties, was seemingly a parodic invitation to a final club. “Inclusion. Diversity. Love.” it read, with footnotes clarifying “Jews need not apply. Seriously, no fucking Jews. Coloreds okay. Rophynol.” (Final clubs are Harvard's version of fraternities: they are very wealthy, very old, and bear a long tradition of elitism and sexism.)

In response, the (now former) Dean of the College, Evelynn M. Hammonds issued a statement. “I find these flyers offensive,” it said. “Even if intended as satirical in nature, they are hurtful and offensive ... and do not demonstrate the level of thoughtfulness and respect we expect at Harvard when engaging difficult issues within our community.” That week, two Harvard House Masters, Nicholas A. and Erika Christakis, wrote a histrionic Time op-ed in which they described the school as a “a free-speech surveillance state.” Their sole evidence was the administration's response to the anonymous gesture: Hammonds's declaration that she, for one, did not care for it.

That the Christakises were again able to secure positions as House Masters at Silliman College, a residence at Yale, a few years after authoring the controversial piece only proves how hysterical their apocalyptic predictions were. But this past week, Erika Christakis took issue with yet another appeal to common decency, which she again interpreted as an existential threat to freedom of expression on campus. Yale's Dean of the College Office, in a note cosigned by several faculty members, had asked students to avoid Halloween costumes that catered to ugly, racist stereotypes. “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 note read.

This time, however, Christakis chose not to express her disapproval in an op-ed, and instead e-mailed her concerns to all the residents of her house. At the very least, this was an odd overreach. House Masters generally play an apolitical role in University affairs. On the rare occasions when they e-mail dorm rosters, it is almost always to offer solace and comfort after trauma (such as a student's unexpected passing) or to invite students to participate in social functions they are hosting. Generally, their job is to foster spaces wherein all students feel safe, comfortable, and at home.

Many students felt that Christakis's note constituted a failure of these duties, and are now calling for her resignation. These students are now being taken to task by commentators who've demanded that they, in so many words, buck up. Writing at The Atlantic, for example, Conor Friedersdorf first invokes pity for the Christakises. “A faction of students are now trying to get the couple removed from their residential positions, which is to say, censured and ousted from their home on campus,” he writes, referring to a significant perk of the job. House Masters live in the residential colleges they oversee in accommodations that are, to say the least, quite comfortable.

He then suggests that the initial e-mail from the Dean reflected misplaced priorities. Given a number of other, seemingly more pressing administrative duties, he writes, “it is ... remarkable that no fewer than 13 administrators took scarce time to compose, circulate, and co-sign a letter advising adult students on how to dress for Halloween.” The e-mail clocked in at less than five hundred words.

But Friedersdorf's main argument is a tonal contrast. He links to a video wherein an undergraduate shouts obscenities at Nicholas Christakis, demanding to know why he accepted the role of House Master at all, while her peers both cheer and jeer. The video is indeed jarring, and fails to meet the standards for civil discourse put forth by, say, Hammonds, for which she was condemned by the Christakises. The Yale students were perhaps emboldened by a culture that has begun to prize concrete reform over the feelings and reputations of those who misuse their power, and increasingly recognizes impoliteness as a means to achieve political visibility among the marginalized.

Regardless, despite Friedersdorf's insistence otherwise, the tone of Christakis's email was not always thoughtful, at times exhibiting an absurd lack of self awareness. She writes, for example:

I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents...When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

Um, ok? There are any number of forums over which Christakis is welcome to express her bizarre and unsolicited ramblings about what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation. She presumably has friends and confidantes who can help her figure out how to be a person. The students of Silliman College, en masse, do not fall into this category by virtue of having been randomly assigned to live in her dorm. It is her job to nurture those students so that they may mature into responsible, moral adults, not the other way around.

But Christakis went beyond personal musings, remarking instead on the social utility of trolling, and offering behavioral prescriptions to students who were offended by racially insensitive costumes, rather than those whose costumes are apt to cause offense. “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other.” However reasonable the advice, it came in the context of an e-mail, also sent from a position of authority, lambasting college administrators for using their authority to offer guidelines of their own, and suggesting that to do so creates an environment of “censure and prohibition.”

The only way this isn't morally inconsistent is if the feelings of minority students simply matter less to her than others', if the alienation and discomfort of her students of color is less meaningful and important than the fun to be had from their peers' provocations. One group deserves to be coddled, protected from the judgment of the ever-overreaching administration (of which she is a part). The other does not. Christakis's e-mail was no less about shielding students, but it was about shielding students who need protection the least: those who might perceive a request for baseline levels of courtesy and civility as overly burdensome. She values the delicate sensibilities of the offender over the offended.

The very idea that this polite plea for tolerance is tantamount to administrative trouncing upon rights is, in and of itself, an inherently political view. It is also one that displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the mechanisms of free speech. (A repeat of the Christakises' 2012 mistake.) Unchecked free speech does not result in better speech, as the Harvard incident illustrated, and can instead encourage language and behaviors that are inflammatory without being genuinely provocative. Yet the very reason why the government needn't police speech is because evolving social norms dictate what speech is acceptable. Universities are entitled, compelled, even, to develop whatever cultures they see fit, to play their part in establishing those norms.

In the creation of this culture, students play a crucial role as well. In this case, students took issue with the ideas expressed in Christakis's e-mail, and found those ideas prohibitively disrespectful for someone charged with promoting their well-being. They are not guilty of intolerance for suggesting that those who have used their positions of authority to advance their own offensive views are not fit to serve as House Masters. Nor are they spoiled brats who deserve to be scolded for having the gall to demand respect in their hard-earned home. They are entitled to express themselves, too. Shielding people from judgment based on their professed beliefs, and the means over and manner in which they choose to profess them, does not enhance the sanctity of free speech. It undermines it.

In Time, the Christakises accused Harvard of getting “bogged down in concerns about safeguarding people’s feelings.” Three years later, Erika Christakis lauded the good old days when college campuses were environments wherein people were free to be “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” They are, and she was. But she cannot now demand that Yale safeguard her from the social and professional consequences of that offense; she is entitled to protection from neither. Yale owes no continued obligation to the Christakises as House Masters. As Friedersdorf has painstakingly noted, it has far better things to do. Their luxurious housing and prestigious positions are offered in exchange for a job well done. They are no more entitled to it than a student who is expelled for failing to meet academic standards. That is, failing to fulfill the duties of his role.

“If our brightest and most capable young adults can’t be trusted to think for themselves,” the Christakises implored three years ago, “who can? And if our greatest American universities won’t protect words, who will?” Yale's responsibility is to the students who have, quite literally, bought into its promise. This does not include protection from discomfort, but does include a good faith effort to protect them from the very specific kind of discomfort that stems from having one's feelings discounted on the basis of race. And, at the very least, that those feelings are not diminished, as they so often are, by the very adults tasked with their protection. It also includes an obligation to teach all of its students the values of tolerance, empathy, and inclusivity. But if these values can't be imparted to our brightest and most capable young adults, then to whom can they be taught? And if not at our greatest universities, then where can they be learned?

By Silpa Kovvali

Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic, amongst others.

MORE FROM Silpa Kovvali