All Saints Day

Commenting on the debate over Halloween costumes seems freshly risky this week, but the subject has been on my mind since I read this New York Times article on the subject on October 30.

My first thought would be that calls for the resignation of the Silliman House masters at Yale are dangerously disproportionate to the email that they wrote in response to polite guidance from the Yale administration. I’ll come back to why that disproportionate response worries me so much later in this essay.

And yet I don’t entirely agree with the way that Erika Christakis chose to come at the issue. I wish everyone could back up a step so that the entire discussion is not about free expression vs. censorship or between safe spaces and stereotype threats. Once the discussion has locked into those terms, then the “free speech” advocates are stupidly complicit in defending people who show up at parties in blackface or are otherwise costumed or having themed parties with deliberately offensive stereotypes. Once the discussion has locked into those terms, people who want to say that such stereotypes have a real, powerful history of instrumental use in systems of racial domination are forced to understand that advocacy as censorship–and are also unable to leave space open to hear people like Erika and Nicolas Christakis as making any other kind of point.

The real issues we should be talking about are:

1) The concepts of appropriation and ownership. This is where moves are being made that are at least potentially reactionary and may in fact lead to the cultural and social confinement or restriction of everyone, including people of color, women, GLBQT people, and so on. In some forms, the argument against appropriation is closely aligned with dangerous kinds of ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism, with ideas about purity and exclusivity. It can serve as the platform for an attack on the sort of cosmopolitan and pluralistic society that many activists are demanding the right to live within. Appropriation in the wrong institutional hands is a two-edged sword: it might instruct an “appropriator” to stop wearing, using or enacting something that is “not of their culture”, but it might also require someone to wear, use and enact their own “proper culture”.

When I have had students read Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which was basically the operator’s manual for British colonial rule in the early 20th Century, one of the uncomfortable realizations many of them come to is that Lugard’s description of the idea of indirect rule sometimes comes close to some forms of more contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalism. Strong concepts of appropriation have often been allied with strong enforcement of stereotypes and boundaries. “Our culture is these customs, these clothing, this food, this social formation, this everyday practice: keep off” has often been quickly reconfigured by dominant powers to be “Fine: then if you want to claim membership in that culture, please constantly demonstrate those customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices–and if you don’t, you’re not allowed to claim membership”.

And then further, “And please don’t demonstrate other customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices: those are for other cultures. Stick to where you belong.” I recall a friend of mine early in our careers who was told on several occasions during her job searches that since she was of South Asian descent, she’d be expected to formally mentor students from South Asia as well as Asian-Americans, neither of which she particularly identified with. I can think of many friends and colleagues who have identified powerfully with a particular group or community but who do not dress as or practice some of what’s commonly associated with that group.

What’s being called appropriation in some of the current activist discourses is how culture works. It’s the engine of cultural history, it’s the driver of human creativity. No culture is a natural, bounded, intrinsic and unchanging thing. A strong prohibition against appropriation is death to every ideal of human community except for a rigidly purified and exclusionary vision of identity and membership.

Even a weak prohibition against appropriation risks constant misapplication and misunderstanding by people who are trying to systematically apply the concept as polite dogma. To see one example of that, look to the New York Times article, which describes at one point a University of Washington advice video that counsels people to avoid wearing a karate costume unless you’re part of the real culture of karate. But karate as an institutional culture of art and sport is already thoroughly appropriated from its origins in Okinawa, and it was in turn an appropriation of sorts from Chinese martial arts–and no martial arts form in the world today is anything even remotely like its antecedents in practice, form or purpose. Trying to forbid karate costuming to anyone but a truly authentic “owner” of the costume is a tragic misunderstanding of the history of the thing being regulated. It’s also a gesture that almost certainly forbids the wearing of a costume that has a referent that is not wholly imaginary. If a karate outfit is appropriation for anyone but a genuine Okinawan with a black belt, then so also are firefighters, police, soldiers, nurses, doctors, astronauts and so on. Even imaginary characters are usually appropriations of some kind of another, drawn out of history and memory.

It is precisely these kinds of discourses about appropriation that are used by reactionaries to protest Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall, or to assert that a tradition of a particular character or cultural type being white or male or straight means it must always be so. It might be possible to configure a critique so that appropriation from below is always ok and appropriation from above is never ok, but that kind of categorical distinction itself rests on the illusion of power being rigid, binary and fixed rather than fluid, performative and situational.

What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression.

2) But this leads to my second point: “appropriation” is being used for the convenience of custodial authority, for the use of institutions, for the empowerment of a kind of kindly quasi-parental control over communities.

Institutions–like college administrations and particularly the legal advisors they employ–don’t like situational judgments, they don’t like critiques that apply with strong force in some situations and don’t apply at all in others. So they often seek to rework demands for change into rules and guidelines that can be applied evenly to all subjects at all times. That’s one reason why appropriation as a concept at least has the potential to force people to perform the identities they claim according to a pre-existing sketch in the hands of institutional power.

Custodial authority in this respect and many others is a danger for other reasons. Here I can’t do much more than echo Fredrik deBoer’s warning against “University Inc.”: the custodial university quickly becomes the neoliberal corporate university. On some campuses, student activists are incidentally or accidentally strengthening the capacity and reach of custodial power over faculty, staff and students alike. Among other consequences, this change in academic institutions often puts faculty from underrepresented groups at much more intense risk: student activists are sometimes accidentally undercutting one of their most cherished objectives.

Even when the people in the crosshairs do not have that vulnerability, they have the basic vulnerability that all working professionals have in the disastrous political economy of early 21st Century America. In the Christakis’ case and many others, I feel as if simplistic ideas of asymmetrical power and “punching up” are being used to overlook the potentially disastrous consequences of introducing greater precariousness into the lives of middle-aged professionals. Sometimes the consequences of failed leadership is sufficient cause to warrant making an individual’s life precarious, and sometimes the asymmetry of power is enough that one can sleep easy about the consequences–say, with the resignation of the University of Missouri’s president, who I think we can say will in fact land on his feet. But often not. What’s being said to the Christakises in those videos is serious business, and I don’t know that those saying it seem to realize it is, even though many of them clearly feel with legitimate passion that what was said by Erika Christakis is also serious business that makes them feel unsafe in a place where they prize a sense of security. It’s a cliche, but here something of “two wrongs don’t make a right” is important.

This is also a concern about the future of academic institutions themselves. This is the other problem with some of these protests. I feel badly for everyone today in that everything they write on social media, every protest they attend, every response they give, has some chance of being seized upon by commenters all over the world. Nobody was looking at my college life with that kind of attention. But for anyone who aspires to political action,even action as intimate and simple as seeking personal safety and happiness, they have got to pay attention to the infrastructure surrounding that action, and to the consequences that will flow from it. Bit by bit, protests that seem to assert that yes, the university is indeed a world completely apart from the social and cultural realities around it, add fuel to the fires being set by reactionary politicians all around the United States. Bit by bit, protests where the rhetoric that is meant to be strictly local but is turned national or global end up looking tone-deaf or disproportionate. This could be a learning experience: liberal arts learning is supposed to increase the capacities of students to speak, think, write and act in the world around them. But for it to be a learning experience, in some cases students (and faculty) will have to treat the question of how a particular claim will sound or mean outside of the local context seriously. And they will need to think very carefully about matching critical demands to visions of proportionality that sound reasonable to more than just the group at hand.

3) This leads in turn to my third point. What is going on with struggles over Halloween costumes and much else besides within college and university culture has implications for the futures of liberal arts-educated students. And they are not the implications that are commonly drawn either by “free speech advocates” or by defenders of current campus activism.

“Free speech”, broadly speaking, is not what is at risk in most campus disputes. Occasionally it is to some extent: that’s how I interpret the seriously misconceived protests at Wesleyan recently against the student newspaper. Even in the case of Wesleyan, however, the initial impulse to inhibit or constrict what can be said gave way to something more managerial and neoliberal, this time not from administration but from student leadership itself. The student assembly proposed cutting the funding of the paper in the name of a drive for efficiency, having it “compete” for positions against others with an inbuilt incentive-based reward for incorporating diversity.

What I think that move suggests is that some of the drive for cultural transformation, with its constant turn towards custodial forms of managerial and institutional power, may be in danger of turning away from an ideal of creating safety and security for all towards an ideal of governance over others. That the struggles now underway have at least some danger of congealing into an intramural struggle for elite power in the political economy to come. On one side, the future economic elites: the students from selective institutions feeding into the finance industry and Silicon Valley. On the other side, the future cultural managers and bureaucrats: the students from selective institutions feeding into consultancies, non-profits, risk management administration, human resources, into the civic middlemen of a future capitalism.

Where that danger becomes clearest is precisely in the talk of guidance and guidelines, suggestions and “soft rules”. Not so much in the talk itself, but in who the talk is aimed at. Free speech advocacy tends to see every guideline from an institution as a law, and turn to a libertarian vocaculary to contest it. The issue is less the making of law and more the incipient character of class hierarchy in the political economy to come.

One of the things that I heard coming from a substantial wave of student activism here several years ago was that they held themselves to be already knowledgeable about all the things that they felt a good citizen and ethical person should know. It was the other students, the absent students, the students who don’t study such subjects, who worried them. And some of the activists had a touching faith in a way in the power of our faculty’s teaching to remake the great unwashed of the student body. If only they took the right classes, they’d do the right thinking. As one Swarthmore student in spring 2013 said in the group I was in, “I can’t believe there are students here who graduate without having heard the word intersectionality.”

This moment worried me, even though it is important as always to remember: this was a young person, and I said things under similar circumstances that I would be deeply embarrassed to hear quoted directly back to me. It worried me because I hear that same concern a lot across the entire space of cultural activism, both on and off-campuses.

It worries me first because that student and many similar activists are wrong when they assume that what they don’t like in the culture is a result of the absence of the ideas and knowledge that they hold dear. Far more students here have been in a course where concepts like “intersectionality” come up than this student thought. All political ideologies in the contemporary American public sphere, from the most radical to the most reactionary, have a troubling tendency to assume that agreement with their views is the natural state of the mass of people except for a thin sliver of genuinely bad actors, and therefore where a lack of agreement or acceptance holds, it must be because the requisite knowledge has been kept from the masses. This is a really dangerous proposition, because it blinds any political actor to the possibility that many people have have heard what you have to say and don’t agree for actual reasons–reasons that you’ll have to reckon with eventually.

It worries me second because I think some activists may be subconsciously thinking that if they can sufficiently command custodial or institutional power, they will not have to reckon with such disagreement. Not only does that mistake custodial power as permanently and inevitably friendly to their own interests, it is where the temptation to use class power against other social groups will enter in, has already entered in.

This is what worries me most. The thing that I wish that student had recognized is that some of the people that he wishes knew the word intersectionality already know the reality of it. They might not have the vocabulary he does, but they have the phenomenology right enough. Perhaps more right than the student did.

I worry, as in the case of Halloween costumes and much else, that at least some cultural activists are setting themselves up as future commissioners of culture over other social classes and their worlds, that this is as much about admonishing people “out there” for their failure to use the right terms, for their outre mannerisms and affect, for their expressive noncompliance. That this is all about kids who will become upper middle-class (or rich) through access to education judging and regulating kids who will not have that status or education, no matter where the educated kids started in life. That making blanket policies about Halloween costumes and much else might become a building block of class differentiation, part of a system of middle-class moral paternalism.

That’s what an earlier generation of cultural activism left me doing as a young graduate who wanted to be an “ally”: piously correcting people outside of my immediate social universe whenever life put me into close contact with them. Often when it was the most innocent and well-intended on my part, it gave the greatest offense, as when I once started talking about the importance of working-class unionism with my non-union working-class cousins that I was meeting for the first time at my paternal grandfather’s house.

At least in some cases, the entire infrastructure of current cultural activism is disabling the need for careful listening, for patience, for humility, at the moments where it is needed most, particularly within the ethical commitments that many activists themselves treasure and articulate. That’s why guidelines and rules and custodial dictates and finger-wagging about general concepts like appropriation are a problem: they take what is profoundly situational and circumstantial and turn it systematic. They interrupt rather than intensify attention. They make a spectrum of expressive practice into a right-wrong binary.

We need to tell someone thinking of wearing blackface to a party to absolutely stop right there and think again. We need to tell someone planning a fraternity party with a “gang theme” to cut that shit out or else. Neither of those moments is meaningful expression or harmless fun, and there needs to be no room for them. But we also need to not give ourselves permission to piously tell the kid in the karate uniform that they’re appropriating someone’s culture, or to inform the guy in the cowboy uniform that cowboys were nothing but agents of genocidal conquest.

We need to not self-nominate as authorities over culture, especially the speech and cultural activity of people whom we arrogantly judge don’t know as much about it as we do. We need to be in culture, in circulation, even acting through appropriation and imitation, a part of the crowd and not above it. We are all dancers, not choreographers; our only choreographer is the endless, ceaseless and sometimes abrasive motion of human thought and expression in a never-simple world.

This entry was posted in Academia, Popular Culture, Production of History, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to All Saints Day

  1. Max says:

    I am generally a huge fan of your writing, and I’m convinced (as, I think, are many other academics) that the neoliberalization of the university is a Bad Thing. As a part of that, I understand why you read the Yale administration’s initial e-mail – and all that followed it – as a series of steps down the road to corporatized university hell. That being said, I couldn’t disagree more with what you argue here about what this incident tells us about how students or faculty or the administration should behave going forward.

    While any enjoinder to stay within cultural boundaries might be a slippery slope on the road to the custodial institution, this frankly seems like an odd case with which to make that stand. Yale has a long history of not treating its students of color, its poor students, its female students and its workers particularly well. Yale exercises control over the people who live and work there in myriad ways. Racism, in particular, has long been part of the fabric of Yale society and of that control. I found the administration’s (to my mind, fairly gentle and suggestive rather than proscriptive) e-mail to be heartening, since it seemed to begin to chip away at that legacy of accepted racism. There are many other aspects of Yale’s behavior that let us make an argument about the rise of the custodial (and even imperial) institution. This just doesn’t seem like one of them. While Yale-qua-institution might well be using appropriation “for the convenience of custodial authority,” that same appropriation also has real meaning for these students. Dismissing their anxieties as merely the product of Yale’s nefarious attempts at custodial control seems to me to dangerously misread the history (and current state) of racism at Yale.

    I also think that it is worth pointing out that the students who are protesting are not (by and large) calling for the firing of the Christakises from their academic jobs. They are calling for them to resign from their jobs as college masters, which, while it would mean loosing a cushy gig, is not the same thing as introducing the precariousness of joblessness into their lives. However, even if the students were asking for these people to be fired, I still don’t think it is as dangerous as you make out here. First, because calling for someone to be fired or resign is not the same thing as actually ousting them. I don’t know when we, as a profession, bought into the idea that student protests are dangerous because they always bring about action. At Yale, there are not many forums in which to criticize those in power – sometimes protest is the only way to have any voice at all. Second, I know (because I am one) that life as a professor can often feel precarious, that we worry that one bad student evaluation, one complaint could ruin our entire lives. But as precarious as the lives of two people who teach (one with tenure) at Yale might seem, that is nothing compared to the ways that students – who are younger than us, who have (again, by and large) less cultural capital, and who, in this case, are people of color while the Christakises are white – feel precarious. I think that we need to be attentive to the relatively higher privilege of faculty and the relatively lower privilege of students before we start to tell students what they can and cannot protest.

    I absolutely agree that we need to push back against the ways in which neoliberalism and corporate governance have wormed their way into higher education, but it seems like that is happening here on the backs of students who are already marginalized, and who are simply looking for a way to push back at an institution that has historically not cared much for their pain.

  2. Sam Barrows says:

    I think that you are making a serious category error here by talking about the “marginalized” students. You are talking about students at one of the most prestigious, elite universities in the world.
    I want to zero in on something you said: “I think that we need to be attentive to the relatively higher privilege of faculty and the relatively lower privilege of students before we start to tell students what they can and cannot protest.”

    This is extremely dangerous. Privilege is not a meter by which actions are or are not justified. Lack of privilege does not excuse anything. This is a bad protest by any metric: it is a group of students protesting against a person whose crime was to (gently) admonish them not to try to wield institutional power to punish people they disagree with.

    I would also argue that “calling for someone to be fired or resign is not the same thing as actually ousting them. I don’t know when we, as a profession, bought into the idea that student protests are dangerous because they always bring about action” is a terrible argument. If protests are meaningless because they’re not going to accomplish their stated goals, then they’re a waste of everyone’s time and shouldn’t be defended. You can’t defend people’s actions by saying “they are going to fail anyways, so why get mad?” These are adults, at least ostensibly. Treating this like a temper tantrum, ignoring it because it’ll all blow over anyways, is infantilizing and paternalistic. We are supposed to be taking these students seriously, and as misguided as they are they deserve that courtesy.

    I agree that the “feeling of precariousness” is not a good metric by which to judge the worthiness of a protest. The students may feel precarious, but that’s good. They do not have a positive right not to feel precarious– in fact, all students in college should feel a little precarious. That’s what happens when your ideas are challenged, when you are forced to consider why you believe the things you do. That’s what we do in college.

    I graduated from Swarthmore in ’11. At that time I still saw a college where people with different ideas were willing to discuss them, but there were troubling early signs of epistemic closure: increasing self-selection into narrow groups that promoted only uniformity not only of deed but of thought. I was, and remain, extremely far to the political Left, and have made a professional career of progressive activism. I remain extremely worried about these developments on campus. These students at Yale are not engaging in a dialogue about racism, or really addressing it at all. They are demanding capitulation from a professor who did not bow to their will. Their outrage is not just about the email, but about the fact that Christakis did not defer immediately to them. That expectation of deference– an expectation constructed in a community where hierarchies of oppression determine who can speak and who has a right to what opinion– are politically ruinous, because they destroy the ability of these students to effect meaningful change in spheres where not everybody shares their values. Worse, they are illiberal, reactionary mob rule cloaked in the vocabulary of a progressive society.

  3. GSTally says:

    “The student assembly proposed cutting the funding of the paper in the name of a drive for efficiency, having it “compete” for positions against others with an inbuilt incentive-based reward for incorporating diversity.”

    I quit reading after this. You are reinterpreting these events to try to be contrarian. It was not about “diversity” it was about shutting down a paper that published ideas that they didn’t like. These kids then began claiming that said idea puts them at risk and does serious violence to their wellbeing. They are insane. They are attacking free speech. They are a cult. That’s what this is stop making excuses for their revolting and anti-intellectual behavior. They need to grow up and, apparently, so do you.

  4. Cliff says:

    The Christakises feel precarious in a way that is meaningful- they could lose their jobs and careers. The precarious feelings you posit for the students exist only in a Newspeak kind of way. They are not in any danger of anything other than having their feelings hurt.

    It is a mistake to conclude that because the Christakises check all the privilege boxes (wrong skin color, wrong SES) they deserve whatever they get. I won’t tell the students they CAN’T protest, scream at the Christakises and demand their firing or resignation, but I will say they SHOULD NOT.

    The email was innocuous and not racial at all. If they are hurt by it, they SHOULD look within themselves for the source of this hurt and seek counseling, as there is no hope of making the external world conform to their expectations and thereby avoid such hurt feelings in the future. It is hard to imagine an objectively more professional or less offensive communication.

  5. Max says:


    Yes, Yale is a prestigious school, but I think if you’re going to make the argument that because Yale is prestigious, all of its students are, you’re also going to have to contend with the fact that since Yale is prestigious, these faculty members are. Within the context of a university, faculty (generally speaking – and not including adjuncts here) have more access to structural power than students do. With few exceptions, faculty cannot be summarily ousted (and being summarily ousted from Yale is not exactly a career killer – they’re fairly well known for hiring TT faculty and failing to give them tenure. These faculty go on to get jobs at other institutions – including the one that I teach at), but students can be suspended or expelled with relatively less effort. It’s also worth noting that not all Yale students are the same, and there are additional racial contexts that put students of color who protest against white, tenured faculty at a disadvantage. We, as faculty, need to be more attentive to these power differentials. Students are not the enemy, they are not (by and large) out to get us, and even if they were, there is (again, by and large) relatively little that they can do.

    With respect to the efficacy of protests, what I am saying is that equating student protest with censure or firing allows means that we (as a community) skip talking about what is being protested, and focus only on the aim of that protest. In this case, emphasizing the possibility of faculty loosing their house means that we stop talking about the content of Christakis’s e-mail. It’s a neat rhetorical trick, and a great way for the people who are being criticized to claim to be victims.

  6. Leroy Baxter says:

    This is so spot on. Really great stuff!

  7. An says:

    Here’s a very simple takeaway but I may be misunderstanding you: There are cases of institutional injustice and social injustice that are perpetrated by some individuals upon others. Some of these are minor, some fairly horrific. This happens in many different social contexts. The organized response to these actions has usually been to call for different authorities to take over and to create a new regime of different rules. The hope is for a new social just social order. There will be greater oversight, there will be formal, enforceable rules. There will be penalties for violators–some of them severe. What’s often going to be regulated is often private speech and interpersonal action. (Sometimes it will also involve people’s sex lives.)

    We must do this to protect people from interpersonal harm.

    Some questions one can ask (1) can we trust this new regime? (2) who are they going to be? (3) are we sure this will lead to a more just outcome than before?

    (4) Are we trying to solve huge social inequalities with the policing of interpersonal social interaction? Why think this will work? And why does this strike us all as ‘the solution’? Is this a distraction?

    We can also ask (4) do people–even vulnerable people–need protection of this type and how far should the protection encroach? (5) is this ultimately a request for psychic protection in some cases? (6) what does happen socially, culturally, politically when people are always asking for protection from authorities? (7) is it civility we’re trying to enforce? (8) can you enforce civility through penalty and sanction?

    An interesting side effect of this movement is that it seems to cause trepidation in those ordinarily in authority. Now they are not so sure if they will cross the line and how. And they don’t know what the potential penalties will be.

    Culturally, I would say that you would expect this kind of thing to make sense to the children of 9/11. Terrorism is about psychic harm. We’ve been told we can’t tolerate the harm and we must transform all of society so we have no certainty, no discomfort, no fear. We must not spare life or coin to stamp out the thing we fear.

    That’s not to de-legitimate all of it. I mean that merely to observe a correlation and explain why certain expectations might arise.

  8. verywerry says:

    On the subject of elitism at Yale: the College Access Index reveals that beneath the surface racial diversity at places like Yale, there is very, very little economic diversity. I doubt that many of the minority students in the videos attended traditional public high schools. (There is quite a lot of racial and economic diversity in places like the University of California system, but not the ivies.) So I’m skeptical of your argument about the “marginality” of the protesting students. If the woman who penned the email is a lecturer her position may well in fact be extremely precarious. And the assistant professor who called for students to block a reporter’s access looks very likely to be fired. But screaming, cursing and ordering a professor to resign? I can’t imagine much will come of that from Yale (sadly, many bad things may come from other quarters).

    How is it wrong to connect the protest in the video with censure or calls for firing? That is explicitly what (some of) the students called for. I don’t see how noting this sidesteps talking about the content of Christakis’s email, which is…unbelievably tepid. That anyone could read it, and react the way the students in the video did, or claim the email caused people to have mental breakdowns or be unable to sleep is almost beyond belief.

    Quite apart from anything else, such controversies provide extraordinary ammunition – and will for much time to come – to right wing causes and interests. They confirm their narrative about the left generally, and the academic left in particular – that it is radically elitist, populated by”race hustlers” driving a “grievance industry,” and is radically authoritarian at its heart.

  9. Sam Barrows says:

    I am not saying that the students have more structural power than the professors, only that they have enough that their claims to be helpless are laughable. The reason the email itself is being ignored is that it is as innocuous as it comes. I am well aware that students claim otherwise. My point is that we do not need to lend credence to these claims merely because the students are (relatively) less privileged than Christakis. We can look at the email, look at their claims of offense, and then determine whether those complaints are valid. The fallacy that someone’s personal, subjective evaluation of the hurt they have experienced is always 100% valid and unquestionable has taken root here. In this case I believe that claims that students at Yale who claim to be so damaged by this email that it is impairing their ability to function in an academic context are either being disingenuous or, if they aren’t, are temperamentally unsuited to the demands of a Yale degree.

    If the email that Christakis sent genuinely caused unbearable harm to a student then that student does not belong at Yale, or any other institute of higher learning. I say this not out of malice or a desire to punish these kids- many of whom are undoubtedly well-meaning- but simply as an observation that earning a degree from a rigorous school like Yale or Swarthmore comes with the implicit requirement that the earner be willing to confront uncomfortable ideas as long as those ideas are presented in a respectful way. If they are unwilling to do that they should not get the degree. You don’t get it just for showing up (and, of course, tendering the attendent fee).

    A student saying that they need to be protected from the content of Christakis’s email is saying that they are not ready for college and do not belong there.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Just briefly, to GSTally:

    I think you misread me. I do think that the ongoing reaction at Wesleyan including the student government approach is about constricting and controlling speech with which the activists and student government leaders disagree. What I’m suggesting is that the move the student government made is even worse: it combines the worst features of neoliberal corporate policy with controls on speech. The rest of the essay from that point onward is intended to suggest that this is a dimension of this entire struggle–that at least some activists are wittingly or unwittingly moving towards a class-based infrastructure of control over the expressive lives of people below them on a class hierarchy, often through institutions or corporations.

  11. EK says:
    This video would be funny if it was not so scarily accurate.
    Students at Yale and Swarthmore should be capable of doing their due diligence before applying to a place that so manifestly makes them unhappy. If you did appropriate due diligence then you should have applied to colleges that met your requirements. If you end up at a college where you are unhappy, transfer and be happy.
    Both the Yale and Swat admissions offices rejected between 86 and 94 students for each student requiring a “safe space” . Most of those rejected students would be happy to be “sytematically discriminated” on either elite liberal arts college campus

  12. Del Paxton says:

    “Free speech”, broadly speaking, is not what is at risk in most campus disputes.

    This assertion does not survive to the end of your essay. For all your concerns about the spate of campus protests becoming “an intramural struggle for elite power in the political economy to come” and an effort to seize custodial management of the corporatized university (as opposed to a free-speech fight) what’s the ultimate outcome? The protesters take control and… wait for it… stifle speech.

    There are a lot of moving parts in these protests, and it’s worthwhile to disassemble and catalog them, as you have done here. But when the Rube Goldberg machine is assembled, what it produces are muzzles.

    So sure, this isn’t a free-speech conflict per se. It’s a power struggle. But the inevitable and first thing that the victors will do is shut down dissent.

  13. I’ve posted this in various spots on Facebook, and worked it into a blog post of mine about Mizzou.

    From Ken White (Popehat), this is a very good piece about distinguishing between safe places as “shield” (good) vs. safe places as “sword” (bad).

    As for the students? I seriously doubt any of them had “mental breakdowns.” If a flight of anger is being labeled a “mental breakdown” in seriousness, then they may be mentally at risk. If, as I suspect, the phrase and labeling, per White, is being brandished as a sword, not held up as a shield, they’re disgusting, with the disrespect for actual mental illness, the Yalies.

    As for the free speech issue at Mizzou? I know of recent graduates, now journalists themselves, who seem not to find it’s that big of a deal. (Note: I am a newspaper editor, and have seen this on Twitter, and it’s not confined to newspapers in liberal enclaves.)

  14. As for appropriation, should we tell a Japanese-American student not to wear a baseball uni as a Halloween costume because that’s the flip side of appropriation?

    While I certainly reject conservatives’ bashing of academia, the New New Left continues to hand them plenty of talking points, both students and faculty like Melissa Click. And, had she not done something idiotic, a Melissa Click would have remained quietly teaching, or “teaching” students whatever it is she teaches, or “teaches.”

  15. Finally, a semi-rhetorical question: How much will things like Mizzou and Yale boost the popularity of MOOCs among the right?

    “Hey, parents, Yale classes and Yale ‘credentialism’ for your kid without them ever having to attend Yale!”

  16. ASDL says:

    Sam –

    Your contention that a student who gains admission to Yale automatically forfeits a right to claim being marginalized reveals a woeful lack of imagination. As if attacks against Barack Obama’s citizenship cannot be attributed to his marginalization as a Black (biracial) man, just because he is literally the most powerful person in the world? The fact that he is so marginalized despite the status he has attained is exactly the problem.

    And your reframing the Yale students’ demands as unrelated to race but merely a form of gangster-ism simply shows that (like many White liberals in recent weeks) your traditional status of enlightened patron who can explain the world and bestow liberty is being challenged by people of color who might know more about social justice than you, and it just irks you. You find it irksome that you are being lectured. And since you’ve never felt the burden of your skin color (and your ancestors were not enslaved), this is the greatest injustice you’ve ever suffered – having the world explained to you.

  17. Nostroum says:

    Serious question, if some hicks in the sticks “marginalize” Obama, can you say Obama is “marginalized”? Can marginalized people marginalize more powerful people? Interesting if so.

Comments are closed.