Halloween Costumes

[Facebook post from November 10, 2015]

The controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale appears to position those who advocate for freedom of expression against those who advocate for cultural sensitivity. The conflict is artificial.

The right to free speech may be honored and protected without being exercised at every opportunity.

Racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression may be fought without ascribing the worst possible intention to every careless or insensitive act.

Above all, we should be good neighbors to each other. That means we should avoid offending each other without a good reason; conversely, we should explore all avenues before taking offense. I should risk offending you, and you should risk offending me, if one of us has something important but uncomfortable to say. But I should not risk offending you, and you should not risk offending me, if the only gain is a fleeting thrill for one of us, while the loss is our relationship itself.

You might perceive a Halloween costume as offensive, while I might consider it silly and benign. To be a good neighbor to you, I should avoid wearing it. I should avoid it simply because I know it offends you, and because I value our relationship as neighbors above whatever fun the costume would afford me: I should make this choice even if I can’t fully understand the costume’s significance in your eyes. In respecting you, I should not fear that I have jeopardized my own freedom of expression, because that freedom is still available. At the same time, if I were to wear the costume, and if you were to see me wearing it, you should not condemn me without knowing my intent, and if my intent is frivolous, not malicious, you should treat me as someone ignorant, not malicious. If, in the end, you choose to look away from the costume, you should not feel that you have given up the important battle against the prejudice you see represented in the costume; the battle goes on.

Friend 1: Amen. To put it less eloquently and less delicately, trumpeting the constitutional right to be an asshole is not a coherent ethical position.

Friend 2: Rudi, I am in agreement with the sentiment of your overall argement but I think it’s worth noting that behaviors that, in this case, may seem frivolous and not malicious, are part of a much more complex issue that goes beyond a single racist act (i.e. an inappropriate costume). Should the stereotypes and misconceptions that are the root these “ignorant” behaviors manifest themselves in the workplace or other areas of society, then they have far more negative impacts on minorities and people of color. When we often look at single events, we can miss the systemic impact that these viewpoints have on our neighbors, friends and our own society as a whole. I’m very encouraged that students at Yale are speaking up about their concerns and that in our country we’re seeing more discussion of these issues in the media.

Me: Thanks so much for your words here. I take the point that some forms of oppression are systemic — what might appear as a single insensitive gesture is in fact part of a longstanding trend that disadvantages an entire group of people. Still, a person who commits a single insensitive gesture in a thoughtless way should be welcomed to become more thoughtful and better informed, rather than being swiftly branded as racist, vile, disgusting and essentially irredeemable, as if they bore responsibility for the full weight of that historical injustice.

I too am encouraged that Yale students are speaking up about their concerns; at the same time I am startled to see some students involved in the Christakis incident assume a mob mentality where they would shout down and demand the resignation of a college master who aired no racist views, but only argued that the students themselves and not the administration should police their behavior on Halloween. That’s not to say I agree with everything in the Christakis’s position — I don’t — but if the videos and reports of the students’ immediate reactions are to be believed, I see an unfortunate breakdown in civility there. No matter the depth of their outrage at historical injustice, I hope the students value civility as a virtue that is compatible with activism.

Friend 1: Rudi, while I admire the Kantian universality you endorse here, I think it glosses over the asymmetries that [Friend 2] raises. I’d agree that someone who thoughtlessly commits an insensitive gesture “should be welcomed to become more thoughtful and better informed,” but the passive voice does away with the question of who’s doing the welcoming and informing. My view from inside the higher ed machine is that students of color are called on too often to educate and humanize their white peers and forgive their hurtful stupidities. (Indeed, the very rhetoric of diversity is often couched in terms of illumination for the majority rather than inclusion and justice for minorities.) Christakis, as a figure of authority at the college, should be held to a different standard than an offensive-but-teachable college student. (Glad to discuss my objections to her email but I’ll spare you that here.) There are good reasons, too, to question the power asymmetries hidden in the assertion of “civility” as a standard for public discourse (see the recent Salaita kerfuffle at the U of Illinois). I think that students are learning something about the politics of solidarity and direct action, which is bound to look ugly in its internet close-up, but which is hardly reducible to mob rule.

Friend 2: Yes [Friend 1], that was the point I was getting at. Yes we should encourage individuals to grow in compassionate ways–but I think the more we discuss a single insensitive act, the more we can ignore that those individual acts are part of a larger system of bias, privilege and cultural ignorance. Ultimately, the Dean’s suggestion that student police themselves and tell someone if a costume is offensive misses the point—as did the entire premise of the Atlantic Friedersdorf article in my opinion. This is of course about more than costumes. It revealed a serious blind spot in understanding the experiences of minority, marginalized individuals. It is often difficult for a minority individual or group to feel comfortable enough to speak up in these types of situations and when a university (an institution of power) suggests to students they should pay attention to an issue, it does a service to everyone in helping open the discourse that might otherwise be difficult to do.

Me: I agree that Mrs. Christakis misused her position as associate master to question a message from the IAC which was not nearly as threatening to freedom of expression as she seemed to think; worse, her email completely ignored student concerns about racist Halloween attire and attributed those concerns entirely to some heavy-handed administrators. Her email was insensitive and poorly written. But I find it startling that this message resulted in Mr. Christakis being cursed at, told that he is disgusting, should resign, and should not sleep at night. Students report they simply cannot feel comfortable in Silliman knowing this email had been sent by an administrator? I acknowledge that minority groups are unfairly and disproportionately called upon to explain and defend themselves; furthermore, as you say, direct action is not always pretty. But, though it should have been said elsewhere and could have been said better, the Christakis email does raise a question about whether Yale should be a safe space where students don’t encounter offensive behavior, or where they encounter it and respond. It should be possible for people to be on different sides of that debate without condemning each other’s character. I hope that what comes next from the students shows more concern for civility than we’ve seen in the Christakis incident so far, and I expect it will. I use the word “civility” to mean mutual respect and a willingness to engage in discussion; I don’t use it to mean meekness, silence, or unwarranted deference, which would indeed turn it into an oppressive concept.

Friend 1: The “safe space” question is important and nuanced, I think, and a lot of what I’ve seen in the media reduces the issue to a caricature of coddling hypersensitive students. College is and should be a place to encounter unfamiliar and disturbing ideas and perspectives, to have one’s intellectual/emotional/political boat rocked. I don’t think that conflicts with colleges’ responsibility to provide a safe environment where that encounter with difference and danger can take place. I doubt that *anyone* thinks that Yale will protect them from offensive behavior. It has a responsibility to protect them if that offensive behavior crosses the line into harm or harassment–including a hostile environment. I’d agree that some students’ responses to Mr. Christakis were confrontational and rude, but that rudeness is not simply a refusal to be civil; it also suggests that, from the perspective of those angry students, the preconditions of civility (mutual respect and safety) have not been met. I think it’s possible to build a bridge between “civility” and “safe space” as norms for public discourse and behavior, but not if one of those norms is dismissed right off the bat.

Also–on civility. I am all for mutual respect and engagement! But I’m also wary of the long history of “civility” as a term of class and racial exclusion–and an insistence that marginalized groups can only express their grievances according to the dominant group’s standard of decorum. Plenty of oppression is carried out in terms that look civil, and plenty of legitimate political discourse has been excluded in its name. We as a culture have a pretty bad record of excusing the apparent incivility of dominant groups (e.g., “boys will be boys”).

Friend 2: This point really resonated with me: It also suggests that, from the perspective of those angry students, the preconditions of civility (mutual respect and safety) have not been met. As we strive for a time when we can all discuss issues openly and with compassion, we simply are not there yet as a society and the dominant culture can have huge gaps in understanding/compassion for those in other groups. But I am glad to have had this civil debate among us on this issue and thinking through the terms we use. And I’m interested to see how it is discussed further in the media–this is a dramatic shift away from just looking at racial and cultural tensions as a police issue, which the media has cycled through again and again for over a year.

Friend 3: I thought this piece from Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker was good:

Friend 4:

Friend 5: Finding fault with the other is always easy. Acknowledging one’s own is much more difficult. A healthy dose of introspection and gratitude for the presence of the other will sooner settle this conflict than a grandiose war of intellectual analysis.

Me: This article offers the perspective of someone who has both attended Yale and taught there. It suggests that the students have more leverage than they know, or are willing to exercise.

Friend 6:



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