Free Speech and Intolerance at Yale

Two resident faculty members at Yale University, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, are currently facing aggressive denunciations and calls to resign after challenging their students to think critically on a controversial subject. The incident occurred in the run up to Halloween, that great holiday that allows college students to wear outfits that would be entirely too offensive or revealing if worn in any other setting. Students at Yale were admonished by administrators to avoid wearing costumes that might be offensive to others. And in response to this advice, Erika Christakis, wrote an email asking her students to think about this issue from a intellectual perspective. In particular, she questioned whether Yale administrators should be involved in preventing or judging offensive costumes on Halloween, or whether it might be better for the students to decide for themselves what is appropriate and engage with each other to figure that out. A few choice quotes from her email to give you a sense of the content:

Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity ­ to exercise self­censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?…

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.

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

The tone is thoughtful and nuanced throughout. And other than suggesting Yale administrators should not be so heavily involved, it really doesn’t take a position. It certainly doesn’t suggest that people should dress up in blackface, a member of the SS, a stylized version of a Native American, or any of the other various things that could obviously be offensive. It merely asks students to think about the issue intellectually and question their own assumptions–which, it seems to me, is exactly what college should do. This is what prompted a massive backlash.

To learn more about this story, two pieces are worth considering. The first is by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic and offers a comprehensive breakdown of this episode. Friedersdorf also provides an excellent analysis of the mindset of students who are protesting. Here’s the link to that piece:

The New Intolerance of Student Activism

The second piece strikes a slightly comic tone and is written by Bill Barlow at the Harvard Law Record. Barlow stresses the key difference between condemning someone for their views and wanting them to be punished for expressing them.

Fascism at Yale

Whether you agree with the “fascism” label or not, this episode highlights a common contradiction on the question of tolerance. Namely, many of the people that preach the virtues of tolerance are simultaneously very intolerant of ideas they dislike. Maybe the ideas they dislike are racist, anti-semitic, pro-life, homophobic, militarist, or conservative, or whatever. And we probably share their distaste for some of those things. But if tolerance means anything at all–it must include tolerating things you disagree with.

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