Yale students, faculty: We don't want to be coddled, but create a "safe space" from offense

Some staff and students at Yale University believe they have the right to not be offended. Jazz has written about this already, but the way this story is really starting to spiral more. It all started when the Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students right before Halloween telling them to express themselves, but please don’t be offensive (emphasis mine).

However, Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including 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.

Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, 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.

So express yourself, but please don’t be offensive because you might hurt someone’s feelings. Sure seems like Yale should have just said, “Wear your Generic Halloween Costume T-shirts and no one will be offended.” This didn’t go over well with some Yale students and faculty. Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis told students at Silliman residential college they should dress up however they want.

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.

Seems pretty logical right? If someone finds something offensive they should either ignore it or just talk to the offending party and let them decide what they’ll do. Unfortunately, logic appears to be in limited quantities at Yale. Some students, faculty, and alumni revolted. They sent an open letter to Christakis saying what she was doing, was just wrong (emphasis mine).

The contents of your email were jarring and disheartening…In your email, you ask students to “look away” if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore. We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding. Giving “room” for students to be “obnoxious” or “offensive”, as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe…

We are not asking to be coddled. The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear. We, however, simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus. This is us asking for basic respect of our cultures and our livelihoods.

The rank hypocrisy here is stunning. The students say allowing offensive costumes is just “inviting ridicule and violence,” but to say they don’t want to be coddled is just a plain lie.Then to suggest they weren’t given any real strategies to confront offending parties is just a cop out. The students DO want to be coddled and protected in a safe little bubble which won’t offend them. In fact, one student went a step further and demanded Christakis and her husband resign from Yale for the comments. This confrontation was actually caught on camera by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (language NSFW).

This entire situation goes against Yale’s Freedom of Expression policy which says “’the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox’ must be tolerated.” They also encourage civility in debate, which is sorely lacking in society today. It’s not just horrific, it’s downright dreadful and heinous that the Christakises are being treated this way by Yale students. It doesn’t matter what they’re politics are, the two are promoting free speech and civil discussion, which is pretty logical. If I see something which is offensive, I ignore it. People have the right to be offensive, just as they do to be offended. The problem is more people in the offended category want to take a hammer and scythe to the idea of free speech because it doesn’t caused a “safe space.” The fact Yale administrators seem hesitant to support Christakis is even more disturbing. They’d be welcome at any college I ran, especially if they wanted to talk free speech.

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