On October 28, Yale Dean Burgwell Howard sent out an email to the entire undergraduate body to encourage students to be cautious of their Halloween costumes. Two days later, Erika Christakis sent an email to the Silliman community to express concern over Howard’s email:
I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. 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.
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.
In response to her email, 740 Yale students signed an open letter to Christakis, telling her that what she said was offensive to minorities in the student body. Cristakis and her husband Nicholas responded with numerous efforts to begin a wider discussion of racism in the Yale community. Then this happened:
As a blogger, I’m fully aware of the fact that these blogs represent my opinions and my opinions only. I also appreciate that the reason I’m able to share these opinions is because of the ideal of free speech. If someone disagrees with the content of my opinions, they would have an equal right to voice that disagreement, and I would be more than happy to engage their argument in a civil and rational conversation. under the mutual understanding that no personal attack would be involved. Respect, logical arguments, mutual understanding, etc. would be considered as essential/necessary to engage even win any form of debate.
Yet, in this instance on the Yale campus, the normal forms of decorum for rational debate seem to have been forsaken. Rather than engaging the head of the Siliman community on the rationality of his ideas, the student in this video resorted to attacking his character with lines like: “WHY THE FUCK DID YOU ACCEPT THE POSITION”, “WHO THE FUCK HIRED YOU?” and “YOU ARE DISGUSTING!” Although these statements were the student’s right to make, her choice results in shifting the argument away from the ideas she wants to address.
This is not to say that every discussion we hear concerning social justice resorts to demeaning comments and personal attacks. I’m saying that movement of social justice has gathered enough social power that people are afraid to speak up their minds for fear of being labeled as racists, social outcasts. This fear could have the effect of preventing people who might not have full understandings of social injustice from engage in an honest conversation about the issue— because, who would want to be publicly accused of being a racist?
Nicholas Christakis, Master of Silliman College invited the students of his college to engage in a public debate around the issue, but he was publicly humiliated by a student who felt so strongly about her opinions that she didn’t want to engage him on his opinions. What a perfect way to voice minorities’ rights— shouting “BE QUIET” to her opponents?
I would say congratulations to advocates, supporters of the various social movements that have been sweeping all over the country. The movements have been so successful that we have shut up the opposing voices. We mark them as racist, ignorant, fox-news watchers, etc. We started the movement as movements that voice the historically silenced and now we are constantly on the look out to shut down the opposing voices.
Here is another example of an Asian woman raising a disturbing opposition:
Treating people equally regardless of their race, gender, and gender identity means that assessing people individually based on their behaviors not their skin color. It then brought up another interesting stance that minorities can be racists too. The Asian woman was shushed in the group of people who support voicing the opinions of the minorities because of her peculiar opinion that “black people can be racists, too.”
How should we engage in a more productive conversation? First of all, we need to acknowledge that when it comes to racism accusatory conversations, the question we should ask is not who are racists instead the question is how we are racists. Raised in an institutionally racist society, we have all been informed with racially biased information, e.g. black people are more likely to commit crimes; Asians are good at math, etc. Acknowledging those racially biased concepts is the first step to engage in a productive conversation. Second, engage the conversation with logic, persuasive arguments and avoid personal stacks. Keeping an open-mind and having the willingness to accept and tolerate different opinions are the most critical principles of productive debates. I understand the process of voicing the opinions of the silenced can be frustrating at times, but honest and open discussions are the most effective ways to educate general populations and move forward social change.