Every week it’s a new adventure. This time I would like to break my historic silence on “Things Happening at Places I Don’t Care About” to discuss the Halloween hang-ups that have been occurring at Yale – namely, a ruckus that is somehow ensuing because the administration sent a politely-worded email asking students not to dress up in racist Halloween costumes, and then a professor replied all with a politely-worded email saying that they could have racist Halloween costumes if they wanted.
For some reason, kids got mad about this and started yelling, and internet commentators have gathered like a parliament of dyspeptic hens to cluck with disapproval at kids today and their lack of respect for the intellectual traditions of Yale.
It’s typical in discussions of this sort to start off with something like, “at Yale, we believe in [x]”, with [x] usually having some value like “free speech” or “rigorous debate” or “intellectual freedom” et cetera, and then taking a look at who falls outside the lines we’ve circumscribed and excoriate them for it. But as an intellectual exercise, I want to – and I know this is unorthodox, but bear with me – I want to try to imagine what the experience for some of these Yale students is like and then see maybe how and where the things that Yale believes in miss the mark.
Follow me, if you will, while I construct an analogy.
Imagine, for a second, that your mom was brutally murdered when you were ten.*
(Don’t imagine too hard, it’s very sad; also, if your mom was murdered, I am very sorry about that, no one should have to suffer that and I hope you find the solace that you need.)
It was in all the newspapers, and everyone knows about it, and every year at Halloween one or two or three people dress up like your dead mom as a costume. Sometimes it’s a serious costume, sometimes it’s a joke costume, where your dead mom is a pun on, like, Hot Pockets or something so she’s bleeding from a gaping wound in her chest but also there are Hot Pockets.
Every year this happens, and every year someone says, “Well, why don’t you just look away?” As though the problem with the costume consists solely of your looking directly at it – as though, like a baby, anything that you are not presently looking at simply disappears from your mind. Every year, your school or your town or what have you shrugs and says, “Yeah, that’s Halloween, people are going do stuff! Halloween! What can you do.”
So, ten years later you go to Yale, and after year after year of seeing your murdered mom paraded around every October, throwing candy and getting drunk and puking in the bushes and whatever else people do at Halloween – after a DECADE of this, you go to school at Yale and you say to the school administrators:
“Look, it’s real stressful for me to see my murdered mom every Halloween, is there something you can do?”
And finally someone thinks about it and says, “Oh, yeah, that probably IS awful!” And they send an email around to everyone that says something to the effect of, “Guys, there are literally infinite other costumes you could wear, please don’t wear this particular one. I mean, you won’t get in trouble if you do, we’re just saying that it’s mean.”
That’s it! A nice thing! After a decade of this, one person has done a nice thing, the literal bare minimum nice thing that you can do in a circumstance like this, which is to say, they have acknowledged that your feelings are hurt and politely asked people to stop hurting them.
Imagine, if you will – and I know this is tricky, but hang on – imagine that this is something like the first time anyone has acknowledged that this is even wrong. You’ve been going around, tormented by asshole fratbros slathered in red corn syrup making fun of your murdered parent for ten years and this is the first time you have even been able to convince a person that it IS mean, much less get them to do anything about it.
So, then immediately after that email gets sent out, the Master of your House (lol, Yale) sends an email out saying:
“Hold on, though. No one really knows WHAT the deal is with Halloween! Also, babies(?) like to be Mulan, so maybe no one should say anything about ANYTHING! Dress like your friend’s dead mom if you want to, no one should judge you for that!”
Right? This is a person whose specific job is to shape the cultural and intellectual life of the place you are going to live for the next four years – they’re going to be an integral and inescapable part of your experience, and immediately after you have finally secured the basic validation that yes, it is, in fact, bad to dress up like someone’s murdered mom for Halloween, your House Master (lol) tells everyone, “No, I think it’s fine, go nuts.”
And THEN they have a campus forum where you can talk about it, but the way that the forum is constructed, this isn’t about you saying, “this is a really terrible thing that I have experienced, please DON’T tell people that it’s okay” – this is about you PROVING that it’s a terrible experience. The House Master isn’t there to understand your position; the House Master is there to DEBATE your position. Sure, maybe you’re right that this is awful, but maybe not! Maybe your experience is just imaginary bullshit! Maybe it’s just you being too sensitive! Let’s get a Yale professor sitting down in front of you, carefully, calmly, deliberately considering why you might be right, and then explaining why you’re wrong.
Then – and this is I think just insult to injury – Conor Friedersdorf is going to write something in the Atlantic where he scoffs at the very idea that you might come to a forum like this and not be open to compromise on this subject.
You tell me how you’d feel, if a guy scoffs at you for being an oversensitive entitled prat because the question of whether or not it’s okay for someone to dress like your murdered mother at Halloween is non-negotiable.
The Intellectual Climate and Modes of Discourse
Where I went to school (Hampshire College, it’s in Massachusetts, it’s fine), this kind of thing happened all the time. I mean, student protests happened all the time, and a lot of us (me included) complained about POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, that ancient scourge of the most noble and perfect of human values: FREE SPEECH.
I thought a lot about the letter I’d have written in response to that Yale professor (I think her letter is exceptionally dopey, but that’s tangential to this point, so let’s consider for the moment that it actually presents a cogent argument with a well-articulated thesis, instead of the sort of mealy-mouthed, “but what IS Halloween? idk, lol” letter that it actually was), but the fact of the matter is that when I was in undergrad, I’d have been on the anti-PC side of this argument. “Free Speech,” I’d have squawked, like a parrot that’s been trained to respond to moral or political conundrums with platitudes.
“Why CAN’T we discuss this rationally and dispassionately?” That’s another thing I’d have asked, probably before making some puffed-chest announcement about how no one would ever keep ME silent, “I have a RIGHT to be offensive!” Blah blah, et cetera.
That’s not the point though, the point is this “Discussing things dispassionately” idea. This is usually the kind of thing that you find at the heart of descriptions of the intellectual climate, i.e.: “At Yale we value rational discourse and the ability to calmly consider all sides of an argument.” The notion here is that the highest order of intellectual consideration is when we’ve taken two points of view and stripped them of passion so that we can consider their merit wholly in terms of sort of semiotic value and formal logical constructions.
And the problem with that is that it’s not “discourse” it’s one of many modes of discourse, and this particular mode of discourse is predicated on the idea that the best way to talk about things is as if they don’t matter. It’s real popular at places like Yale, that sort of historically bill themselves as these purely intellectual playgrounds where the concerns of the real world stop at the walls and we’re able to live solely in a land of ideas, man, why are you always talking about your feelings?
From the standpoint of, “we can only talk about things as if they don’t matter”, of course it’s a pretty gauche violation of the rules to not calmly sit back and let a college professor explain why you’re wrong to be upset; getting upset about something implies that it matters outside the realm of ideas, and that’s an offense to the mode of discourse that we’ve all tacitly agreed is best.
Let’s consider, though, that this mode is not the best in the sense that it’s intrinsically superior for finding answers to questions or solutions to problems or codifying the most rational and objectively perfect way to be; let’s consider instead that what makes it best is that it preserves itself. When the mode of discourse is one that necessarily requires you to discuss things only as if they don’t matter, advantage is automatically given to the person for whom things already do not matter. That is to say, the people who have no vested interest in changing the environment have the home field advantage in arguments about whether or not that environment should be changed – and since that environment includes this basic mode of discourse, the mode of discourse persists indefinitely.
(It’s charitable to think this is simply an accident of intellectual evolution; a status quo that includes an implicit advantage for the status quo is going to last longer in the Marketplace of Ideas than a status quo that is always questioning itself, regardless of other power structures that the status quo includes; and I am being charitable about it, because there is a strong argument to be made that an oppressive power structure would prefer a mode of discourse that implicitly protects the oppressive power structure, such that it would encourage people who would not otherwise think of themselves as racist or classist or sexist to at the very least idolize the dispassionate discourse as the ideal mode, because that way even when we aren’t actively trying to oppress black people, we’re still supporting a status quo that gives advantage to white supremacy. But. Let’s let that slide for now.)
So, what am I saying? That the ideal mode of discourse is people yelling at each other?
That’s obviously a disingenuous reading of my argument; what I’m saying instead is that the dispassionate discourse exists specifically for the purpose of resisting change, and is therefore less than ideal when change is actually necessary, and I am further saying that there are multiple modes of valid discourse and rather than crying about the fact that my preferred one doesn’t seem to be working, maybe it’d behoove us to consider a couple other ones. Sheesh, man.
A Chilling Effect
Students are calling on these professors to be fired, and I don’t think they should probably be fired, that seems excessive to me, primarily because of economic drivers – it’s not the Yale students’ fault that people need jobs in order to live, but it’s nevertheless a reality we have to consider, and while I can definitely imagine myself at a forum being utterly unwilling to negotiate in a conversation about my murdered mother, I’m not necessarily going to get someone fired over it.
HOWEVER, I don’t think that the calls for someone getting fired are necessarily out of order, either. The kids are mad and (according to the terms of my analogy, anyway) rightly so; they’ve got pretty reasonable concerns about a person who is going to have a profound and inescapable influence on their undergraduate life; furthermore, hitting “reply all” on a campus-wide email is a monstrous offense while we’re trying to have a fucking society here. Yeah man, get mad, demand that someone get fired. The administration I think should probably say “No, we’ll effect a different compromise,” but you’re not wrong to ask for it.
A question, though, is whether the calls for someone to get fired – indeed, whether the entire ruckus itself – is going to have what they’re calling “a chilling effect on free speech.”
The phrase “a chilling effect on free speech” has entered the public conversation recently in a lot of places, spreading like that weird jingle that Mark Twain was freaking out about, and I got to admit that I don’t really care for it. I think that for the most part it’s a stand-in for an actual position – i.e., we’re worried about something bad happening, but we don’t know precisely what, and so we say “a chilling effect on free speech” as something that’s self-evidently bad and doesn’t require further elaboration.
Because what DOES it mean, exactly? It sounds like the fear is that when there are negative consequences for saying something, people are going to feel hesitant to say some things. But that makes it sound like the opposite of “chilled” free speech would be a scenario in which people were just saying everything they think of, all the time.
Is that right? Is the ideal scenario one in which there is never any hesitancy to say whatever you happen to think? It’s certainly novel, but I’m not sure it really represents a world in which I want to live in. Someone just yelling at me that they hate my haircut from across the street whenever I go outside? People shitting on me whenever I make a mistake? And that’s me as a white guy, I’m not sure I’d at all be in favor of a world where black people have to hear every racist comment that every racist person thinks of, or where women would have to hear…I mean, I guess they already do experience that to some degree, but I think we can all imagine it getting a lot worse if there were no “chilling effects on free speech.”
All right, well, let’s say that we don’t mean that, exactly – that there should never be anything, ever, that causes any single person a moment’s hesitation before they say something (particularly there should never be anything like “considering the consequences of what I’m about to say”).
Let’s consider instead: is there a particular kind of public speech that is so essential that this kind of speech should never suffer anything that causes a person to hesitate and/or reconsider what they’re about to say? Is it, in other words, absolutely vital, even at a place like Yale, that a professor is going to be able to just knock out whatever dumb ideas she has about Halloween and see them immediately distributed to thousands of students who at least feel some minor obligation to read them? Is it so vital that we should consider anything that “chills” the feeling of, “I can say any dumb thing I want, whenever, let me just hit Reply All’ to be utter anathema?
Actually, I am breaking my promise, I promised I would consider that the Yale letter was actually a cogent and reasonably well-argued point. So, let’s consider that. Is it an offense to God and man that a person might have a cogent, reasonably well-argued point about why it IS okay to do racist or asinine things and then think, “on the other hand, what if I’m the asshole?” and decide not to send it out after all?
*I know there are some smart guys who are going to read this and say, “actually, I wouldn’t be bothered by that,” and the thing is, that’s not really in keeping with the experiment. The point of a thought experiment isn’t that I give you terms and then you see how you can do a backflip around them in order to keep believing the thing that you already believe; the point is that I give you terms and then you use them to see how they might cause you to think differently.
So, “your murdered mother” can be exchanged with anything sufficiently awful. The point of this is not to illustrate how you feel about your mother; the point is to find something that you would be unwilling to enter into negotiations about whether or not it was actually bad.
Maybe for you that’s nothing. Maybe the only thing you’re unwilling to negotiate is Free Speech itself. Ooooh, smart guy. Very clever. You’re smarter than I am, anyway, maybe you should go be a professor at Yale.