Yuan: Silence Brings No Progress

by Ziqin Yuan | 11/10/15 8:46pm

Yale University has been in the news a lot lately. When I typed “Yale” into Google, the first four auto-fill results were “letter protest,” “Halloween,” “Halloween email” and “safe space.” All four make reference to the recent controversy at Yale over an email sent by Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis to Silliman residents. Her message commented on a campus-wide email from Yale’s intercultural affairs committee that urged students to be culturally sensitive with their Halloween costumes.

In her email, Christakis wrote that she and her husband had heard from students who were frustrated by the intercultural committee’s email. She wondered if there was “no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious...a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Christakis wrote that free speech and tolerance of offense are essential in an open society.

A group of students responded to Christakis’ email in an open letter published on Down Magazine, a publication “designed to amplify the voices of students of color at Yale,” according to its website. They wrote that Christakis’ email “equates harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people” with “preschoolers playing make believe.” The students criticized her for “[asking] marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday...to expend emotional, mental and physical energy to explain why something is offensive.” The students disagreeing with Christakis’ email wanted, understandably, to enjoy Halloween ---— and to do so in a safe space.

Encouraging students to dress mindfully for Halloween — without encouraging the debate and reflection that would help students to actually understand why dressing mindfully is good — will achieve nothing. The original email from the intercultural committee was on the right track. It emphasized thinking about cultural sensitivity by asking questions and examining why these issues matter. In some respects, the students’ open letter does that too. It explains why, for example, Christakis takes away from how much room marginalized students have to feel safe by asserting that students should be allowed to wear obnoxious, offensive costumes. Many of its complaints are understandable. Yet the students’ proposed solution, “that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” is not feasible.

The open letter states that “to be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you.” Yet it assumes that this space can become magically safe without discussion and argument. It assumes that most students will quietly stop marginalizing others without reacting violently in the opposite direction, as most young adults will do when told they have to act one way. And it undermines one of the most controversial but most important checks in America — free speech. Our society espouses the belief that free speech, even when it protects speech that offends, is valuable to freedom as a whole. That is what Christakis was suggesting in her email.

The student protests against Christakis’ letter also detract from their criticisms. Vox Media reported in a Nov. 7 article that some students had been “drafting a letter calling for both Christakises to resign as masters of Silliman College.” After arguing for their own rights and claiming that they felt unsafe and attacked by others, students were attacking people who had wanted to help. The Christakises were faculty who were genuinely interested in facilitating conversation, and students moved quickly not just to censure them for their remarks, but also to prevent them from speaking about it again.

The points made by the students in the open letter are valid. Their voices deserve to be heard, and they deserve the same respect and freedom of expression that other students do. Through their open letter and protests attacking individuals, they risk imposing limits on the freedom of expression of other groups in a way that recalls the same restrictions on rights that they cite. The way to equality is not a letter or protest demanding resignations. Attacking those who are trying to understand why they need to pay attention to protests will not change minds. Progress is achieved by engaging with those who express willingness to start a conversation, even if you do not completely agree with their views.