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.
A subway turnstile running Microsoft Visual C++ would not let me pass this evening. The screen says “Assertion Failed!”, a common software error which basically means “Something turned out not to be true.” Now I can relate to the anguish of discovering that, because much of what I believe at any point in time turns out not to be true. But please, my train was coming! Luckily, there was another turnstile next to this one, still convinced of its assertions, and in that blissful state of self-trust, quite ready to accept my $2.