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Sowing the wind, reaping the whirlwind at Yale

“They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”  I thought about that cheery reminder from the Book of Hosea (8:7) as I watched the now-viral video of a pathetically unhinged student at Yale screaming at the Master of Silliman College, Nicholas Christakis. Here’s the clip:

(Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for posting this clip along with a couple others from the same event.)

I had arrived in New Haven the day after this charming exchange to participate in a conference (irony, thy name is Yale) on free speech sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. As I wrote yesterday, we had our own crazies at that event, though none quite  so unhinged as the skirling, teary black girl hurling obscenities at Nicholas Christakis (but this chap gets honorable mention). As it happens, Professor Christakis, a sociologist and medical doctor, provided the introductory remarks for the conference. He stressed early and often that he disagreed categorically with the conservative philosophy of William F. Buckley Jr., under whose epistemic dispensation the program that bears his name conducts its business. And yet Professor Christakis also underscored  his support for free speech.  He alluded mournfully to the events of the previous day, and one or two people who had heard accounts of the confrontation described to me what had happened. I did not, however, appreciate the raw virulence of the episode until I saw and heard the video clips.

“Be quiet,” the girl screams to the Master of her college.  “As your position as master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman.” But wait: Is it? Is that the job of the administrative head of a college dormitory at Yale?  Is Yale an institution for the emotionally broken? Well, this girl appears to think so. When Christakis ventured to disagree with her, the student exploded: “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?” she screamed.  “Who the fuck hired you?” She then demanded that he “step down” because being a master is “not about creating an intellectual space” but rather “creating a home.” In loco parentis? “You should not sleep at night,” she sobbed. “You’re disgusting.” She then turns and stomps off. End of tirade. Curtain.

Let’s step back and remember what prompted all this anger, not just on the part of the pathetic specimen who attacked Nicholas Christakis, but also the several hundred other students who confronted him and other university officials over the last week or so.

Deep background: Just before Halloween, Burgwell Howard, associate vice president for student engagement and the senior associate dean of Yale College, sent round an email urging caution in the matter of Halloween costumes. It was an extraordinary document, disseminated by the “Intercultural Affairs Office” and signed by the Dean, representatives of Yale’s “LBGTQ Resources” office, the “Native American Cultural Center,” etc., etc. Although allowing that “students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves,” the email asked that they “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.” Only that?

The preachy little document continues (original punctuation, diction, and grammar preserved):

The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. [Et Cetera!] In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact...

There is growing national concern on campuses everywhere about these issues, and we encourage Yale students to take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have.

Let me pause to agree with the authors of this document about one thing: that “There is growing national concern on campuses everywhere about these issues.” And how!  But what does that “growing national concern” tell us about the health of campus life at American colleges?

Hold that thought. For the Dean, the representative of Yale “LBGTQ resources” office (what sort of “resources" do they provide?), et al. have some particular recommendations and prohibitions. We wouldn't want “poor decisions,” they caution, so avoid wearing “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.”

There’s more:

• Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?

• Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies? [It would be even worse, of course, if the information were true and the stereotypes were accurate.]

• Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?

• Wearing a ‘religious’ costume? Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?

• Could someone take offense with your costume and why?

I submit that this list, especially the last item, effectively precludes any Halloween costume, for what costume could you choose that can be guaranteed not to offend anyone?

Personally, I think people, and Yale students, ought to be able to wear any costume they want.  Doubtless some costumes are in bad taste, but frankly none of the items listed above bother me at all. I don’t care if kids, or others, dress up as injuns — dot or feather, either is just fine with me — minstrel singers, pasty-faced accountants, or slatternly suburban housewives in tattered dressing gowns.

We now move on to step two, the corpus delicti. The body in question was another email, this one written by Erika Christakis, wife of Nicholas, and  associate master of Silliman College at Yale. As I noted yesterday, EC’s email was full of liberal handwringing, expressions of concern about trivializing “genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” etc. (what “genuine concerns”?). But la Christakis also expressed support for free expression (“increasingly,” she mused, American campuses “have become places of censure and prohibition”) and concluded with this little air-clearing expostulation:

Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.  . . .

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

Quite right, too, Erika! But it was just this admission, coupled with the observation that “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society” that “triggered” that pampered hysteric into shouting obscenities at the Master of her college. (Actually, she wasn't “triggered” into anything. Appearances to the contrary, she is not one of Pavlov’s experimental canines. She is a young adult possessed of free will who happens to have the enormous privilege of attending one of the best universities in the world. She chose to indulge in that shameful outburst.)

It’s here that we return to Hosea 8:7. American campuses have for many years been treating their charges as childish ATMs: delicate creatures who, though they dispense a small fortune over the course of four years through the proxy of their parents or, thanks to the redistributionist mechanism of financial aid, through the parents of other students, nonetheless must be treated as irresponsible toddlers, protected at every turn from ideas they might find challenging or — the king of words these days — “offensive.” Colleges have set themselves up as multicultural, sexually and racially exotic hothouses to breed these noxious, neurasthenic but politically correct creatures who are capable of emotional hysteria but not reasoned argument. They know less and less of the past, because the past is such a dangerous place, full of things to offend the racially sensitive, the sexual confused, the politically ignorant, and morally obtuse.  Colleges and universities have thus sown the wind. Is it surprising that they are now reaping the whirlwind? What just happened at Yale is an early pustule appearing on the body of American academia. But the bacillus is systemic: I predict more and more, and more and more violent, outbreaks. The question is whether the patient is robust enough to weather the fevers and pustules that are on their way.  One thing is certain, the condition will get worse before it gets better — assuming, that is, that it does get better.

[UPDATE: An earlier version of this column identified Burgwell Howard as the Dean of Yale College; his correct title is associate vice president for student engagement and the senior associate dean.]