Making a Casualty of the Earnest Intent

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I graduated from Yale University less than a decade ago. I am writing this to nuance the conversation making headlines.[1][2][3][4][5]

When I went to Yale, I experienced an openness and dialogue about topics from a diversity of positions in a way I never had. I learned to think at Yale, picked up the astute criticalness the teaching and environment fosters. Topics were put out into the middle of the table and examined. Even a Christian group on campus allowed challenging conversations that never would have occurred back home. When I went to Yale, it was acceptable to have these conversations; they were welcomed. Post-Yale, I found the conversations among us Yalies change, from that no-real-life-responsibilities theoretical musings to functional talk. I mention this, because on college campuses like Yale, where people live, eat, and breathe the majority of their time in the campus bubble, there is an insularity.

The undergraduate experience may have changed in the intervening years between my time at Yale and now. From the language of the controversial emails, articles and video recording the situations, and in the responses of Yale administration and that of the residential college masters/faculty pair, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, that openness to dialogue and confronting the challenging or painful issues appears to still exist as a steady value. Tensions are reportedly high around race and diversity, from which the Intercultural Affairs Committee[6] and Erika Christakis[7] emails appear to have been a final straw for some students. If such carefully and thoughtfully written emails, obviously meant to be as inoffensively stimulating as possible, caused such an emotional response, this indicates a deeper issue and an unfair scapegoating of Erika and Nicholas Christakis. The long history of the complex culture and entity of Yale, which the students signed up for and paradoxically both simultaneously fight and perpetuate, cannot be satisfyingly shouted at in the way it is easy to shout at the Christakis’.

It was at Yale that I learned about Hegel’s sublation, about relativism in this postmodern world. From these and my sociology major courses, I took away an understanding of the world that looks like this: every perspective has some truth; a “side” would not exist without the existence of the “other side”; and that by insisting on one’s own experience as the experience instead of a experience – one is denying another’s experience.

Diversity and the experience of the minority fall along more than just across racial lines. The only racial discrimination I was made aware of while at Yale was a black male peer told me he was called a “satellite black” – by other black students – because he would hover around the table other black students would cluster at during mealtime in the dining hall, but he would also spend time with his non-black friends; his own in-group was creating discrimination and pressure amongst themselves. I had my own minority experience at Yale: I came from a very public high school, and felt behind academically. In another realm, I was a student representative in a group sponsored by Yale leadership, to create a safe space for students who did not find a home in similar groups elsewhere on campus. The liberalness and openness of the group shifted to the silent message, “If you are not liberal in the same way in which I am liberal, then you have no place here.” From these situations I understood, even before reading James Barker[8], that groups valuing freedom can create even tighter oppression or restrictions than the larger entity they exist within. I unconsciously understood, even before reading Robert Kegan[9], that sometimes people do not care that you and they have the same end goal, but instead want you reach that same end by the same means. These two phenomena appear to be currently occurring in New Haven. The students want diversity and Yale to be a safe space for minorities. From my read of Erika Christakis’ email introduction, she was voicing and taking further positions of “frustrated” students that had come to her and Nicholas, which ensured those students would not become a voiceless, isolated minority. Yet for this she and her husband were criticized harshly. The same students referencing an oppressive culture for minorities, are creating an oppressive culture for another group of minorities. In the end everyone wants the same goal – safe space, freedom – yet because the how to the same end is different, the students are making scapegoats out of the Christakis’. If it were not the Christakis’, it would be someone else.

At one point in my past, I was a substitute teacher. On one of these assignments, I had to observe and grade high school students’ debate presentation in their English class. The prompts were on high school type topics, such as ending the school day earlier. After the presentations, I asked the students if they understood the implications of such a decision. How many were athletes on school teams? Did they realize ending school early would affect practice times? Did they know that busses are coordinated among all of the schools throughout the district, and may not be available to take them home or to competitions if their school day ended earlier? None of these variables had crossed the students’ mind. With some frequency I go back to this story when I come across situations like the current one at Yale, when I observe positions being taken with passion that ignore or are blind to the larger context that the individual and situation is a part of, where I hear statement after statement when what really is needed is question after question. We are teaching our young people to take and speak from polarized positions; we are not teaching them how to come together with people, not modeling the dialogue skills that allow them to surface and see more broadly the variables and pressures that affect the situation and those involved, nor are we training them to have the integrative negotiation perspective that sees the potential outcomes as not either/or but as and. We are creating and allowing the culture of “micoagressions[10], the hypersensitive framing of the world that makes it politically incorrect to try and be politically correct. In this framing, every act is assumed an aggression; the innocence and even careful thoughtfulness of intentions mean nothing. As a colleague recently commented, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

To get people to think, there often needs to be a degree of provocation. Recently I have paid more attention to historical political cartoons, especially wartime political cartoons. With just an image and a few words, the commentary is brilliant. If viewed in a way that simplifies the drawing, the cartoon is offensive. But to the viewer looking at the cartoon with a desire to understand the complex situation and meaning the artist is attempting to convey, the nonmalicious, earnest intent behind the drawing is apparent.

Let us use our voice, express and address what we consider to be injustices, yet let us do so in a way that we do not enact injustice onto others.

 

[1] Stack, L. (November 8, 2015). Yale’s Halloween Advice Stokes a Racially Charged Debate. The New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/nyregion/yale-culturally-insensitive-halloween-costumes-free-speech.html?_r=0

[2] Kristof, N. (November 11, 2015). Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech. The New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/12/opinion/mizzou-yale-and-free-speech.html?_r=0

[3] Friedersdorf, C. (November 9, 2015). The New Intolerance of Student Activism. The Atlantic. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-new-intolerance-of-student-activism-at-yale/414810/

[4] Drezner, D. (November 9, 2015). A clash between administrators and students at Yale went viral. Why that is unfortunate for all concerned. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/11/09/a-clash-between-administrators-and-students-at-yale-went-viral-why-that-is-unfortunate-for-all-concerned/

[5] Lukianoff, G. (November 11, 2015). On the front lines of the fight for free speech at Yale. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/11/11/on-the-front-lines-of-the-fight-for-free-speech-at-yale/

[6] Intercultural Affairs Committee. (October 27, 2015). Email From The Intercultural Affairs Committee. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: https://www.thefire.org/email-from-intercultural-affairs/

[7] Christakis, E. (October 30, 2015). Email from Erika Christakis: “Dressing Yourselves,” email to Silliman College (Yale) Students on Halloween Costumes. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: https://www.thefire.org/email-from-erika-christakis-dressing-yourselves-email-to-silliman-college-yale-students-on-halloween-costumes/

[8] Barker, J.R. (1993). Tightening the iron cage: Concertive control in self-managing teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(3), 408-437.

[9] Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[10] Lukianoff, G. and Haidt, J. (September 2015 Issue). The Coddling of the American Mind. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/