Free Speech and Calling for People to be Fired, Part 109,932

This is part 109,932 of my four bajillion part series on bad criticisms of social justice concepts. This time, we find ourselves at Yale University, but with significantly lower tuition costs. It is going to take a moment to go through the entirety of the kerfuffle, but stay with me.

As you should be aware, Halloween is the time of year when white folks dress up like stereotypes of people they have spent the last five centuries oppressing and then get petulant when it is suggested that might be in bad taste. Yale’s multicultural office sent out an email saying, basically, if your costume is made to belittle a group of people, don’t. They offered some resources.

Then, Erika Christakis sent out a response email that is being hailed as a truth bomb by the usual suspects. There is so much here to unpack. It is going to have to happen line-by-line.

Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

Okay, so far so good. Though, it is kind of weird this is about pre-schoolers when the real question is about college kids.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.

Are you implying anti-racist efforts are just mass hysteria? Because I think you are.

I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community.

Then don’t compare it to things that never happened? This is grade A concern trolling. 10 Points to Slytherin!

I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

This sets the theme for the rest of my response. The standard here for far-reaching control and impact is very low. It is set at offering suggestions and asking students to consider them. Or, as we call it in education, teaching.

It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

Because there is literally nothing derailing about making this about 3-year-olds. That is not literally infantalizing nor is it in any sense misdirection.

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.

I will actually grant Christakis the point, though with a caveat. While the child may not be aware of the racial dynamics, what better time than pre-school to have a conversation about them? Gentle, and broad. “You have to think about how people feel about your actions.” If they mention race, “Race is a sensitive topic for a lot of people and leads to hurt feelings, so we have to think about our impacts on people.” In the best spirit of Mr. Rogers, famous for giving simple advice about living to adults that was not so different from what he told kids, the Yale diversity office actually wrote the grown-up version of that in an email.

Almost as if they were providing guidance to young adults as their role at an educational institution.

I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

They are answerable. Dressing up as Tiana is fine, even as an adult. (At least as fine as the original work, and there are legitimate questions about The Frog Princess. The following discounts that for simplicity.) Dressing up as Tiana using blackface is always wrong.

If you go back to the original email, the multicultural office offered this litmus test for race: “Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?” The answer for a Tiana costume as a rule seems to be “no”. It is dressing up as a specific character. Frankly, if Christakis feels that it is hard to define and a slippery slope, then she is willfully misinterpreting the original email.

Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

Provided without further comment. (Emphasis added.)

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense, […] I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?

Is this a joke? Christakis is arguing, with no apparent irony, that kids will be kids. Yes, of course. But is there no room anymore for Universities to teach them to be adults? Kids will be kids is what teachers say over drinks when venting, not when setting policy. Kids will be kids is why I believe efforts like Yale’s multicultural office are necessary and why it has a shot at working. They might learn something. It is bad teachers who offer it as an excuse, rather than an explanation.

—and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes—

Today in conversations I’m tired of having: this is not solely about offense. It is also about power. Religious folks who oppose the baring of skin do not have a long history in our society of being killed and enslaved. Literally the opposite, actually. Also worth noting that Yale’s multicultural office mentions religions explicitly. “Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?” So, actually, it is like faith is in play, but in terms of power, not offense.

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.

No, it was a place of regressive censorship. The idea that university should be open to women, racial minorities, and even certain religious groups is new. We have never fully realized that vision, and this controversy is just the latest chapter in that saga.

And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Obviously?

But also, let me reiterate a theme here: Do we sincerely believe university institutions have no role in educating students about these issues?

We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).

Christakis should be made aware that this kind of guidance, rather than formal sanction, is also a new trend in the history of academia. Starting with the Post-War generation, there was more freedom on campus. The way this would have been handled (with today’s racial values) would be threatening fines, suspensions, or expulsion. This gentle exhortation that students exercise judgement is the new libertarian view of managing a campus.

Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

Sound advice. But the implication that asking educational institutions—have I said this enough?—to take measured steps to encourage their students to think and educate themselves is somehow controlling is ludicrous. This is the literally the least the university could do and still claim to have reached out to everyone. They gave advice about what might be hurtful and offered some pictures as guidance. Then they let the student body make up its mind.

But—again, speaking as a child development specialist—I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

It says that we think students have arrived at college with a poor understanding of race and poor judgement around costumes. It says we think some education at college—radical though that is—might be in order.

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

Right! So, when people use their free speech to call for your resignation or firing, it might just be because you don’t see the education of students as a priority. See why that might upset people at a college campus?

Or should I explain it in terms that compare you to a pre-schooler?

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