Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

What’s the name of the college at Yale currently embroiled in a freedom of expression battle over Halloween costumes? Silliman. Sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? Silliman: someone who uses their ‘lived’ privilege to offend others through inappropriate party dress. Sillimandering: sculpting a Tolkienian-sounding ‘safe space’, where enforced empathy rates higher than good old free speech.

On 28th October, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) sent a mass email to students, calling for sensitivity regarding Hallowe’en attire. It said that, whilst they ‘definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.’ Five questions were then posed that students should ask themselves before picking what to wear.

Two days later, Erika Christakis, the associate master of Silliman, pinged a late-night email round her college, describing the IAC’s statement as an ‘exercise of implied control over college students.’ Using her experience as an ‘educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood’, her conclusion was that ‘there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech… What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?’

Her response provoked initial unrest from those feeling that ‘her “offensive” email invalidate(d) the voices of minority students on campus’. Subsequently, there have been demands for the resignation of Christakis, and that of her husband – who happens to be the master (expect the usual arguments over the ‘gendered’ title of this position) of the college. Various discussions have ensued, not least a viral YouTube hit.

This all seems frustratingly familiar. There have been endless recent debates in universities (usually ignited by the restriction of such debates) on the topic of free speech. Does the Silliman scandal amount to more than this?

It is hard to think of anything for which we should fight as strongly as freedom. But Christakis’s email seemed confused – and a bit silly. Neither in the importance it placed upon freedom of expression, nor in its excellent point about it being wrong for an institution to enforce ‘implied control’ over student choice. (And these are the elements on which her current rebuttal focuses.)

However, the prism of ‘child development’ meant that her argument was underpinned by something aside from a laudable belief in freedom. Children and adults have different societal obligations, and make choices on differing levels of rational ability. Responsible adults understand the need for freedom of expression, yet want to be sensitive to those around them, too (making individual behavioural decisions not simply because they can, if they are fortunate to live in a free society, but also to be good to others).

Christakis patronised her students – adults attending one of the best higher education establishments in the world – by comparing them with children, whilst criticising the IAC for not allowing them to think for themselves. Moreover, she implied that freedom of expression is essential, not for its intrinsic value, but because it is impossible to justify preaching to others: ‘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.’ This sounds rather relativistic.

Yes, as long as we don’t incite violence, we should be free to express ourselves however we want. But we don’t have to want to do so all of the time. The IAC email refers to ‘blackface’ – an uncomfortable term in itself: ‘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… modifying skin tone or wearing blackface.’

It’s easy to assume that students at Yale might have an awareness of American history. And – following the Ferguson riots, and the silent racism that has dogged Obama’s presidencies – of their country’s ongoing struggle with racial equality. This would suggest that they’d consider offensive face-painting to be a bad idea, and therefore, not want to choose to do it.

However, there are several reasons to think there might be an underlying problem at the university: the need for the IAC to mention ‘blackface’; a concurrent row about a recent fraternity party; and campus calls for a newly-appointed black dean to investigate racial tension.

Fashionable obsession with ‘ownership’ does not help. At its extreme, this means that if you have a provable link to ‘an issue’, then whatever you say about it will be valuable, regardless of objective merit. And, that if you don’t, the opposite will apply. This is unhelpful not only because it precludes support for people who cannot speak for themselves, but also because it entrenches the division that free discussion about these issues hopes to reconcile. If racial discrimination is real at Yale, it should not just be black staff members and students who feel (or are asked to feel) compelled to act.

This is why the IAC’s original email was also flawed. Its initial point regarding cultural sensitivity may not have aimed to restrain students’ freedom of expression. But its extension (including links to websites featuring ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ costumes) does not simply imply a desire for control, it may have been a conscious attempt to gloss over a more unsettling truth about life at Yale. Did it do this by infantilising the student body? Is Christakis guilty of this, too?

Any worthy fight is vulnerable to hijack. Claiming that a complex issue is solely one of freedom of expression does not necessarily make it so.

3 comments for: Rebecca Coulson: The Yale row is more than simply a question of free speech

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