Recently, there has been an ongoing debate at Yale University as to whether the administration was sensitive enough, or overly sensitive, regarding permissible Halloween costumes for the students.
A couple months ago, the Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email to all Yale Students saying, “Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.”
The email gave students questions to ask themselves in terms of whether what they were planning on wearing is offensive toward other cultures, races or ethnicities.
After reading the email, Erika Christakis, a member of the faculty and an administrator at a student residence hall, wrote another email in which she questioned the control the administration was exerting over the student body. She went onto write, “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? ... Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Following the email, Nicholas Christakis, a faculty member and Erika Christakis’ husband, was videotaped by students in a conversation turned confrontation with a group of Yale students upset about Erika Christakis’s email.
One student, of the many who expressed their disagreement with both the Christakis’ viewpoints of not restricting what could be worn by students, yelled that, “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting.”
This conflict goes to the heart of the hyper-modern debate regarding to what degree of sensitivity is potentially too much? In a world where there is growing, yet many times not enough, tolerance towards other people of race, ethnicity, gender, etc., it’s an ironic and new idea of being too sensitive towards issues. Both sides make valid arguments. Do we risk potentially censuring ourselves by being too sensitive, or is it the institution’s responsibility to limit freedom of expression in certain circumstances to curtail hurtful and discriminatory actions?
Here’s the angle of the debate Yale is dealing with: When is it the appropriate time and place to dictate someone’s free speech in America, even if it’s offensive? Do young adults have the responsibility to correct themselves and their peers, or is it still the responsibility of adults running the institutions they attend? Is college a place in which we should be exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly of the real world, or should universities, in order to make it a place more inviting, try to limit some of the harsh realities students might face post-graduations?
There is also the issue of striking a balance between making sure there is justice in a small and isolated situation while not setting a precedent that could have larger negative impacts on everyone else’s rights of free speech and expression. This is an issue that is familiar to our country, but a question drenched in ambiguity when looking into specific scenarios, like the one at Yale.
One modern example is the tolerated speech and behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose speech is found very offensive by many. Due to our country’s freedom of speech laws, even speech as hateful as the Westboro Baptist Church’s against the LGBT community cannot be completely censured in a public forum, because that would set a precedent that could backlash on other free speech.
When laws are bent, subjectivity risks positive speech or expression to be limited based on a prior precedent with originally good intentions.
For instance, according to the Memphis Flyer, at CBHS-Memphis, a Christian Brothers High School, administrators posted on their website that, “CBHS students may attend the dance by themselves, with other CBHS students, or with a girl from another school. For logistical reasons, boys from other schools may not attend.” There have been other recent examples of discrimination towards gay people around the country, which limits their freedom of expression.
This is all to show that although the reasoning for limiting or censuring the culturally offensive Halloween costumes at Yale has good intentions, does the precedent of a school dictating how its students dress or act have the reach of then allowing other schools to restrict a gay couple from attending a class? No matter how terribly offensive one’s speech or expression is, the wider implications of limiting that freedom is worth a discussion.
The entire issue of tolerance and sensitivity to the point of censorship is a multi-layered and ambiguous issue. Both sides have solid evidence to support why it’s important we either take action to prevent discriminatory behavior or why it’s important to ease back on our control of freedom of speech over young adults.
With an issue that has multiple angles, the most important thing to do is to create civil and logical dialogue between both sides to come to an understanding of the issues they both present.
If one side is unwilling to listen and understand the other’s plight and concerns, the complex nature of such an issue will overshadow the common ground that can be found.