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Political Correctness at Yale

This article contains content that some readers may find challenging or uncomfortable.  

It may make assertions readers disagree with or force readers to consider new ideas. Discretion is advised.

Recently, the Panel staff wrote a survey to gauge student opinion on the weight of various factors in college admissions. While the survey was eventually approved at Belmont Hill, the Winsor administration expressed some hesitation over the language and phrasing of the survey as well as the ultimate effect it might have. In particular, they were concerned that such a survey–in its original state–might not lead to a respectful and constructive dialogue. While such a reaction is understandable and well-intentioned, the question thus presents itself: at what cost do we protect students from being offended?

Political correctness is the effort to avoid action or expression that might marginalize or offend groups of people, especially those who are at a social or economic disadvantage. This model of political correctness is one we should all apply- courtesy and respect dictate that much. It would theoretically embrace plurality of thought and the freedom of expression, especially for underrepresented groups. This is valuable and commendable. Recently however, flaws in the aggressive application of political correctness have risen to the fore.

The first of these is the repression of expression, often oddly in the spirit of tolerance. This has been on striking display in the recent events at Yale. Before Halloween, their administration sent out an email advising students to avoid culturally insensitive costumes. This is a fine starting point – no one should willfully, hurtfully mock another culture. The issue began to receive national attention after a lecturer and Assistant Master of Silliman College named Erika Christakis sent out an email to her college in response to the advice. (The position of Master, based on the British term for teacher, places someone in charge of running a residential college at Yale.) One might assume (as I did) that Ms. Christakis had written something grossly offensive for the wrath she invoked. But in fact, her email was humble and thoughtful. It deferentially invited the community to discuss the role of the administration in students’ lives through an intellectual, civil, mature lens. As she wrote: “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community.” Her main point? She asks, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgement?” And she does not authoritatively answer this question. I invite you to find the original text online.

Firstly, the context in which this happened helps us frame and understand the student reaction to it in many ways, and I will discuss that at length. But regardless of what preceded it, the response by some of the Yale student body was intolerant and disproportionate. Hundreds of students rose in uproar, calling for the resignation of both Christakis and her husband, the Master of Silliman, in a campaign of public shaming and offensive epithets. The couple has been patient and respectful, hosting a brunch in their home and inviting furious students to converse. In one video clip, Mr. Christakis is confronted on campus and encircled by students. The clip beings with a student saying “Walk away. He doesn’t deserve to be listened to.” One student confronts Christakis, cuts him off, and asks “Why the f— did you accept the position?! Who the f— hired you?!” She finally concludes, screaming “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!” Nodding and listening all the while, Christakis later warned viewers not to judge the woman in the video on the basis of one incident.

The hypocrisy on display at Yale is unfortunate. Students who live by a creed of tolerance and sensitivity have shown neither to two thoughtful faculty members on campus. This is more than the absence of tolerance, however. Incredibly, students in an open letter have irresponsibly signed on to inaccurate representations of Christakis’s text. Her opinion has been twisted so that she is now a bigot, and students are off to the races in a parody of social activism that is no longer grounded in reality.

This itself is illiberal and anti-intellectual. But the lessons of Yale do not end at freedom of expression. What has become clear as well is that students feel they have a right not to be offended. This is the second, related result of a flawed application of political correctness. Keep in mind that these are students at Yale University. An education at Yale (like Belmont Hill and Winsor) is an enormous privilege. While the school should help distressed students who report losing sleep, skipping meals, and having breakdowns, we should ask if that’s a totally healthy response to a courteous email. Especially from students who are as fortunate as those at Yale, an institution whose endowment is greater than the GDP of most African nations. The students’ vicious rejection of the space around them seems at least a little unaware and ungrateful.

As I said, the context surrounding this event is critical. It helps us understand the reaction as a culmination rather than an isolated incident. On college campuses throughout the country there are recent examples of racism, systemic, explicit, and implicit. Harassment and hate speech, as on display recently at Missouri, should not be tolerated. And at Yale specifically, a Columbia student has made allegations of a “white girls only” fraternity party. Though centered around one man and based on the account of one woman, other students of color have spoken out against racism in Greek life, and such a widely held opinion is grounds for careful examination and action. Some students feel that minorities are not sufficiently represented in the faculty- another legitimate claim and conversation. Students at Yale have pointed out in fairness that the role of masters in the college system is to provide a home away from home-a safe space-and that the email contradicted that. However, they claim that the Christakis’s have condoned offensive costumes and refused support for student minorities, neither of which is true. We should take a step back and ask ourselves if this email truly made anyone unsafe. The idea that it (or an offensive costume) might invalidate someone’s existence, as students claim, is as disempowering as it is inaccurate. There are many acceptable and positive ways to voice dissent with the email, but what students have done is not an example of these. While the reaction makes more sense in the context of real injustices perpetrated on students at Yale, it remains unfair and intolerant.

I acknowledge that I’m speaking from a position of power, as a white male from an upper middle class background. But I’m still allowed an opinion. The likelihood that a reader of this article will accuse me of “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining” indicates hypocrisy in a worldview that claims to espouse tolerance and fairness, especially in dialogue. This incident and others should, if anything, inspire us to further conversation, not to dismiss what others have to say. My opinion has been very fluid as I’ve done research for this, and that’s the point. Opinions should change and dissent should be tolerated, even encouraged. The email controversy was about education, exposure, and discomfort – three things that belong, to varying degrees, on college campuses.

Which brings us to the third flaw in the systemic political correctness sometimes imposed at college. Some students at Yale apparently cling to a belief that if something makes them uncomfortable then they shouldn’t have to face it. This has been seen elsewhere. The proliferation of trigger warnings, for example, seems to indicate that we should consider avoiding things that make us uncomfortable. Can we not face ideas that are potentially threatening or contentious? How fragile are we? Earlier this year, students at Columbia protested against reading Ovid’s masterpiece, Metamorphoses. In their view, they deserved the right not to read the work because “like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts… can be difficult to read as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” These students are trying to lose an essential part of their education. To weigh uncomfortable, threatening ideas makes us better thinkers. We should seek out texts that make us uncomfortable or defensive. Rather than protesting Metamorphoses, students at Columbia should have called for greater discussion of the offensive and challenging nature of the work. Aristotle, foundational to the much-maligned Western canon, is right when he tells us that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The trigger warning – an advisory that lets us filter what we are exposed to before understanding it – closes our minds and narrows our experience.

Education consists of facing that which makes us uncomfortable. There’s a famous anecdote about Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty. A year later, a still distraught Emerson wrote that he visited her tomb and opened her coffin to look at her. In an odd way, this is what education is about. It’s about confronting what makes us uneasy, or even what causes us pain, so that we can understand it and learn from it. I’m not advocating the exhumation of dead relatives. Rather, I’m submitting that sometimes discomfort is how we grow, as learners, as citizens, as human beings. Political correctness is a positive and even necessary system, but clear problems have arisen in its execution. I believe this to be the most egregious: it deprives us of the opportunity to grow. It narrows our worldview until we only see what makes us comfortable, until we live in a world where everything is sanitized and inoffensive. That world, no matter how carefully constructed on college campuses, is not our world.

Juan Carlos Fernández del Castillo can be reached at castilloju@belmonthill.org.

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