Yale University has found itself embroiled in controversy over one of the most pressing issues of our time: Halloween costumes.
According to the New York Times, it all started when the Intercultural Affairs Committee of Yale sent an email to students making strong suggestions they should avoid certain Halloween costumes.
“The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…”
What has some Yale students upset is the fact a Yale faculty member and student residence administrator, Erika Christakis, offered her views on the matter through an email of her own after some of her students expressed their dismay at the email sent out by the Intercultural Affairs Committee of Yale.
“…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…. 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.”
“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.”
These sentiments did not go down well with some Yale students who saw it as Christakis essentially authorizing people to wear costumes that can be deemed offensive. However, another part of the email outlines an important point.
“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.”
Ah, yes — the novelty of talking to each other and discussing the situation with fellow classmates and school peers. Challenging ideas with thoughts, words, debate, and well thought-out arguments as opposed to having behaviors controlled and dictated. In other words, it appears that Christakis is saying students at Yale should act like adults and not rely on the school to police the activities of all students. She is inviting Yale students to engage with one another to understand the position of others. And this seems perfectly reasonable in a university setting. Universities are supposed to be places where ideas are exchanged, discussed, analyzed, and dissected. Unfortunately, some didn’t see it this way.
One student expressed her extreme anger at Nick Christakis (husband of Erika) when he was surrounded by a group of Yale students. The incident was caught on camera.
“You should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here! You are a poor steward of this community! You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting.”
But, wait. It’s a university, right? Yale University at that! Isn’t that what a university is: an intellectual space? It is an intellectual space above and beyond all, not a safe space where intellectual thought is to be squashed the second it becomes uncomfortable. Although a certain level of safety should be expected, the idea that someone should go to Yale and never have their views, and if they are, they should scream at employees of the school about how disgusting they are, seems ridiculous and raises the question as to why a student that feels that would be there in the first place?
The title of a Spectator opinion piece on the subject by Kate Maltby addresses the problem being created at Yale perfectly: “Yale Students Have Exercised Their Right To Be Treated Like Children.” That they have. She also bluntly chastises the student in the video who yells at Nick “Be Quiet!” as being a “shrieking girl” and most definitely not an adult. And while she laces into Christakis, the Yale student swears like a proverbial sailor. Apparently the home she wants includes plenty of swearing and verbal attacks, which seems a bit hypocritical in the quest to create a safe space.
This year, the issue of offensive Halloween costumes seemed to be an extremely hot-button issue across North America, as the email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee of Yale pointed out, and as Bill Maher tackled on HBO’s Real Time (starting at the 2:53 mark).
What is happening is a battle between free speech or free choice vs. censorship or policing of costumes. While some students would prefer bans or condemnation of offensive costumes, we have the alternative view pointed out by Erika Christakis that freedom of choice combined with critical thinking and open dialogue is a better way to handle it. Now, which way will Yale ultimately go?
[Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images]