In light of the horrendous attacks in Paris on Friday November 13, 2015, let us send prayers and healing meditations to all those affected in our oldest ally, France, as well as to all victims of terrorism and all violence all over the world. In the discussion below, this is one of the very real evils that the college generation will be facing.
Last Week, a controversy at my Residential College at Yale, Silliman College, boiled over into National Media and Social Media. A group of my Yale friends talked about it over Facebook this week. It was a sane, deliberate and careful discussion, as I expected it would be, my friends being who they are, really great people and thoughtful. We didn’t all agree on every point, and that’s just fine. Good and smart people can disagree about things, respectfully.
My purpose here is not to reproduce or summarize that private conversation. I wanted to share my own reflections with the rest of you because I think that what happened at Silliman College at Yale brings up some vital issues for our nation, and our families.
A bit of background for non-Yalies:
In the 1930s Yale created Residential Colleges and Harvard created its residential Houses for their Undergraduates. Some other American Universities have also done this. The move was inspired by Oxford and Cambridge’s Colleges, although the parallel is not exact. The Residential Colleges break up a large University into smaller, more manageable social and familiar groups for the students. At Yale, the Colleges are at the heart of the undergraduate experience.
Yale’s Residential Colleges are led by a “Master,” one of Yale’s faculty, whose family is really “in loco parentis,” the local parents of their Colleges. Each College also has a Dean, who humanizes the academic process for the undergrads. While most classes take place elsewhere on Campus, Colleges can and do hold seminars in the College. I was in a wonderful Seminar on William Blake’s poetry with Dewey Faulkner, a relative of the famed author William Faulkner, at Silliman. One of my friends organized a Silliman Seminar with Howard Cosell.
For most Yale Undergrads, their identity as Sillimanders, Davenporters, etc. is lasting. I am part of Silliman for life. Those four year in Silliman, just as my four years at Brophy Prep, are largely responsible for who I am today. The Master of Silliman then, Elias Clark, and his wife welcomed this kid from Phoenix and made me feel completely at home. Before arriving, they communicated with every incoming student, making plans for our arrival, etc. I worked for the Master’s Office for three years, served as the College Librarian, and for a term, chaired the Silliman Council.
Today, there are also Assistant or Associate Masters in the Colleges apparently.
What occurred recently concerned Hallowe’en Costumes at Yale. The University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out a pre-Hallowe’en email recommending that students carefully consider their costume choices so as to not offend other students on cultural bases. From what I understand, this is standard operating procedure on many U.S. Campuses today.
The Silliman Assistant Master, the wife of the Master, sent an email to the committee and to Silliman students. Her email was extremely nuanced, very supportive of respecting one another, but gently decried the University Committee’s email, saying that this was something the students should work out for themselves. She was partly motivated by complaints from some students, and partly by her academic training in child and youth development.
What resulted last week was an uproar by students in Silliman and across Yale, screaming at the Master and Assistant Master for their alleged insensitivity and insult. One student yelled at the Master who willing came and tried to dialogue with the students, “I don’t want to debate, I want to talk about my pain!” There were calls for the couple’s resignation.
Now, as the shouting is dying down, some students are saying that academically the Assistant Master was right, but that being a Master and Assistant Master isn’t about academics, it’s about making a safe home for the students.
I’m not taking sides on this issue. However, this reaction has me seriously worried on several bases. From my detached viewpoint, I agree with the Assistant Master’s email. These are young adults and should be able to work things out on their own. Nevertheless, something has gone seriously wrong in our culture, even among the best and brightest among our youth. In retrospect, I suspect that the Assistant Master may wish she had only sent her reply to the Committee members. I don’t know.
Before listing my concerns, I have a few remarks.
There is real evil in America, and in the world. Yesterday’s terrorist attack in Paris is a stark reminder of that. Racism is at a decades-long high in America. Women are still not treated fully equally. The gap between the 1% and the rest of us is growing at an alarming rate. Homophobia has not been eliminated. White Supremacy groups abound and are armed to the teeth. Frustrated, alienated young men shoot up schools, churches, theaters on a regular basis. Young people are being seduced into terrorism. The leading Republican Presidential candidates are buffoons, and the rest of the GOP pack are despicable slaves of the 1%. Politics is ruled by money. The world is full of poverty, war and disease. ISIL, Putin, and North Korea threaten the world.
The list could go on. We are a fundamentally good nation, and still these evils abound. There are places on Earth that are living hells, such as Somalia, South Sudan, parts of Central America, and North Korea.
I am opposed to all racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, economic disparity, oppression, etc. Actively opposed. I am a liberal gay, Christian-Pagan-Esotericist democratic socialist. Yet I have concerns about what happened.
Daniel Drezner contributed excellent reflections on the Silliman Hallowe’en controversy in the Washington post, as pointed out by one of my Yale interlocutors. I urge you to read it. Many of his concerns mirror mine, and he points to the role of social media in inflaming what is essentially a local controversy requiring local knowledge to understand.
Another Yale friend just sent this very revealing commentary from Salon. It does cast the situation in a different light, as the Master and Assistant Master, the Christakises, were involved in a similar free speech vs hate speech dust-up at Harvard in 2012. While I don’t fully agree with the author’s take on free speech, this does suggest to me that Mrs. Christakis should have had a better idea of the reaction her email might receive. The author characterizes the Time Op-Ed they wrote at the time of the Harvard Free Speech Controversy as “histrionic.” Read it for yourself. I don’t find it histrionic. It correctly calls out the Harvard Administration for not recognizing a satire, and ignoring the racist and sexists behaviors of Harvard’s Final Clubs.
Before this controversy, I had thought that “Political Correctness” consisted of making sure to call groups what they want to be called, and using inclusive language. I’m a big proponent of inclusive language for people and for God.
In solidarity with my fellow Sillimanders, I fully know that the Rosicrucian teaching that thoughts and words manifest reality. I want a fully equal world for all genders, and so I do not use male words as representing all humanity or God, to help bring this about.
However, I now learn that PC has acquired another meaning, apparently. From what I read, it now means some or all of the following:
- My opinion trumps your facts and you cannot comment on that.
- My emotions and feelings are all that matters, and you cannot comment or disagree, only accept.
- I and all others must be protected from any and all slights, real or imagined.
- I need to be warned if anything that might offend me is about to be said/read.
The rise of the perceptions of microagressions, and the demand for trigger warnings at Universities is a sign of this. To be fair, the Yale students are making a distinction between the classroom and the Residential College. If they are anything like we were in the mid 70s, they like to debate in class, and have vigorous and healthy challenges to ideas in classes.
They are saying that it is the job of the Master and other administrators to make the Residential College a “Safe Space,” a Home, for all the students, and that the Assistant Master’s email made them feel unsafe.
It seems to me that at an academic institution, even your residence is part of the learning process. And ideas can be safely discussed at home. Parents can challenge their children’s thinking
Real and Imagined or Hurt Feelings Threats
There is a distinction that is being missed by some students between real threats (as at the University of Missouri where administrators truly sat on their hands ignoring a serious racism problem) and the danger of hurt feelings. As stated above, the world, including college campuses, have plenty of real threats.
Many years ago when I was studying Theology in Cambridge Massachusetts, we went to the school Mass on Our Lady of Guadalupe day, December 12. One of the professors preached the homily, and in honoring the disappeareds and others in Latin America who suffered oppression, she proclaimed, “I can identify with their suffering, because I too an oppressed person, a Woman in Cambridge.”
The Hispanic students (including me) and others inwardly groaned and rolled our eyes at one another. Yes, women are not yet fully equal in employment, etc. But to compare the life of a white, Graduate school Professor, in Cambridge with the hell that Latin Americas suffered (and still do in some places due to the Cartels) is truly insulting and ignorant.
Many of us have been discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, orientation, etc. When I was very young, one of the little girls in my neighborhood let forth with “My mommy says that Catholic kids aren’t fit to play with human kids.” Did we quiver in fear? No. My Mother went over to Mrs. Long and had a talk with her, and that stopped. So I still remember this some 55 years later? Yes. Does it saddle me with being a victim? No. The problem got fixed and I learned a lesson: don’t let them get you–fight back.
I used that lesson soon after I moved into the USF Jesuit Community in 1987. USF was known as having a number of “Dinos,” older priests who were nasty and harsh. As I sat down for a community meeting, one of the Dinos looked at me and said “How much do you weigh?” (I am quite stout.)
I just turned to him and said, “Well, Father, it’s certainly higher than your IQ.” He turned back without a word, and no Dino gave me any more trouble. I had demonstrated that I too had claws and fangs, and could and would give as good as I got. Thank you Mom for teaching me to defend myself verbally, and with wit.
Now I am very much aware that if a group of people are harassing a person, it is a difficult situation. And cyber bullying is real, and can have devastating consequences for High School students whose egos are in formation. Bullying of all kinds is a real problem. Putin is a bully on a world scale.
Why Are the Students at Yale not Able to Deal With Hallowe’en Costumes?
I don’t have a complete answer to this, however I have some thoughts that worry me.
The Politics of Powerlessness vs. Not Staying a Victim
From what I am reading, it appears that some minority students, some LGBT students, and some female students have picked up somewhere a “politics of powerlessness.” Taking the truth of their group’s history of repression, they seem to bear the entire burden of that oppression. Put that together with real oppression they themselves might have experienced in their lives, and they seem to be stuck at the “I am a victim” stage of development.
There is no denying that people victimize one another. One of the most egregious cases is that of rape. Minority and LGBT students do sometimes get beaten up or psychologically victimized. As I have written elsewhere about trigger warnings, as far as I know, the goal of good therapy is to assist the person who has been traumatized take control and get over their fears.
For example, if I have been trapped in an elevator accident, and as a result am so fearful that I cannot step into an elevator, my therapist will not say, “Ah, well then, just take the stairs for the rest of your life.” No, she will work with me in behavioral therapy to allow me to control my fear and use elevators again.
As my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Lonnie Edwards, FRC, the Vice-President of the English Grand Lodge of AMORC for the Americas is fond of teaching, one cannot healthily stay in the state of victimhood. As a veteran pioneer in the African-American community, he knows what he is talking about. He fought the very real odds and rose as an Army Surgeon to Deputy Commissioner of Health in Cook County (Chicago) at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. A straight man himself, he was instrumental in AIDS education there in the LGBT community with loving care for all.
One should be honest about being victimized, and then move forward in an empowered way to work with others to positively change society to prevent that victimizing others from continuing. Staying a victim harms only me, not my victimizer. This is not easy. But it is necessary.
Achieving Mastery of Life
As children, we naturally look to our parents and authority figures to protect us, as my Mother did in our neighborhood. By the time one matriculates to any college, not to mention, Yale, one should be able to defend oneself against verbal slights. Naturally we depend on the University authorities and Law Enforcement to protect us against real dangers. That’s part of society. But if someone yells “Faggot” at me on the street, the appropriate response is “(Expletive Deleted) Off!” If it is someone in an official position, have them written up.
Now, if it is a crowd throwing epithets at you and waving baseball bats, run! In other words, use common sense and react appropriately.
One of the Yale undergrads met the Assistant Master’s suggestions that students should work these things out among themselves with something like, “Where would we even have a forum to do that?”
This seems to me to be another facet of too much reliance on “the authorities” to provide for us. Ordinary discussion and conversation is a forum. If I am Native American and someone comes dressed as “Squanto,” (actually Tisquantum, a Patuxet man in 1600s New England) in a loin cloth, engage him in conversation. Explain the real, fascinating story of the man we my wrongly mythologized in the Pilgrim Mythos. He was important in our history, important and tragic, with flaws and strong points, an actual human being. And if you think Native peoples wore loin cloths in New England Winters, think again! The European invaders quickly learned how to dress comfortably and warmly from the Peoples they met. In the end, you might find out that he chose that costume to show off his physique to the ladies (or to the guys, who knows!). Your conversation might change both of you for the positive, all over beers at the party.
Beyond simple conversations, in pairs or groups, I felt empowered at Yale to get groups together to talk, as did many of us. I remember on one occasion, we ourselves arranged for Father Peter Fagan (my Confessor), and Sister Ramona Pena (a dear friend), both on the staff of St. Thomas More House, Yale’s Catholic Chaplaincy, to meet with a group of students who had questions about life as a priest and a Religious (Nun) in the Silliman Common Room one evening. The memorable comment I remember was from one student, who after asking Sister Ramona about her vow of chastity, the student said, “Your celibacy accuses me!”
Wow! But we had a conversation like civilized adults.
I say this, not because the Sillimanders of the past were any more civilized than the Sillimanders of today. I say this to make the point that students, especially at Yale are empowered to begin to take control of their own lives, what we in the Rosicrucians we call “Mastery of Life.” There is a precedent!
My fear is that after so many years of being treated like the “Boy in the Bubble” with well-meaning Helicopter parents, students think that they need to protection of authority to do anything. I’m here to tell you: you CAN do it.
I also fear that students have been convinced that they are victims, and are filled with rage about that, causing them to act irrationally. You can certainly do stupid things in College. I sure did as my friends and roommates will be happy to tell you! But I also learned from my mistakes, as I hope the Yale students are learning.
Joining a Nation of Fighters
In New York City, where I happily spent Pride 2014, I was able to visit Julius Restaurant and Bar, where in 1966, members of the Mattachine Society successfully held a sip-in to challenge the New York State Law forbidding serving “deviants.” The law was later stuck down. I also had a drink at the Stonewall Inn with a fellow Yalie, where on June 28, 1969 a police raid sparked the Stonewall Riots for LGBT rights. Only 49 years after the Sip-In, we have marriage equality.
I mention this because we are a Nation of fighters. Women, Ethnic Minorities, and LGBT people have all constructively fought for their rights, and made progress. Join us, get tough, don’t worry about micro-agressions, and change the world positively.
I should end this section with a disclaimer. Of course we should be conscious of others in our language, and our choice of Hallowe’en costumes. I wouldn’t wear a Hitler costume (on this, see my last section on the meaning of Hallowe’en Costumes). Hitler isn’t funny, except in The Producers and other Mel Brooks shows.
Brooks has said that one of the goals of his career is to make people laugh at Hitler. Some people didn’t get the importance of that and protested at the Broadway production of The Producers a couple of years ago, saying he was taking Hitler lightly. There’s a light-year’s difference between “taking lightly” and “laughing at.” Charlie Chaplin did this in The Great Dictator (1940).
So, be good to one another!
Free Speech vs. My Rights and Feelings
Another concern here is the seeming ease with while my right to feel safe (I suppose that is part of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Maybe?) and my feelings trump the right to Free Speech. Free Speech is so easily discarded.
Free Speech is the cornerstone of a Democracy such as ours. While you can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, or encourage the overthrow of the Country (although people do both, the first symbolically by using free speech to cause riots in inflamed situations, and the second literally), you can say a great deal.
White Supremacists and the Hillsboro “Baptist” Church (prime time haters) have the right to spout their hateful speech. The way to combat Hate Speech, and even more so, Hurt Speech, is by more Free Speech, not by banning words (or costumes).
This concerns me.
The Right-Wing Piles On
This whole affair has been a bonanza for the Right-Wing. They point to political correctness gone mad as an excuse for denigrating movements for Racial Justice, LGBT rights, Women’s Equality, etc.
I know that the Yale students didn’t intend this, but it is an unintended consequence. We have to oppose those Right Wing efforts, and this post is an attempt to correct this. Just now, a right-wing columnist at the Breitbart site misrepresented a Salon article, claiming that a liberal Salon columnist said that the Paris attacks were caused by U.S. Conservatives harsh language for activists. Poppycock! Read the original and the Breitbart attack piece and judge for yourself.
The Meaning of Hallowe’en Costumes
I wanted to end with an aspect of this question that I don’t think has been noticed.
Halloween’s lineage stretches back to the three day Celtic Fire Festival of Samhain (or Samhuinn) (pronounced SOW-un) (Sow as in female pig). It is the beginning of Winter, and the time that the Veil between the Worlds is the thinnest. All the accoutrements of Samhuinn and Hallowe’en were originally meant to image the scary things that might cross that Veil, in order to scare them away, similar to putting Gargoyles on Cathedrals.
Traditionally, we wore Skeleton or other monster costumes in this vein. In the 70s we wore Nixon masks because he was the scariest thing anyone could think of.
Under this rubric, the costume you wore indicates what you thought was scary. Wearing a Hitler costume would confirm how horrible he was.
Things changed, however, and now Hallowe’en has taken on the aspects of a Costume Party, as people forget its ancient origins. I’m not suggesting we try to change it back, that would be totalitarian and impossible. Things evolve. But we should understand it.
Today, people wear Hallowe’en Costumes for many reasons:
- It’s someone they admire
- It’s someone from Movies or Literature, or Hollywood, or other Celebrities
- It’s a scary costume
- They look good in the costume
- It’s a funny costume
- It’s a costume about a current event or happening
- They are celebrating some part of their heritage
- Catholics and other Christians sometimes have “Saint Costumes” Hallowe’en parties. We did at the Murray-Weigel Hall Jesuit Community in the Bronx during Philosophy. Three Scholastics came as very convincing Nuns from history! So much so that when we went over to visit the Dad’s Community (Fordham’s Faculty community), that some were fooled! I think I came as St. John Chrysostom.
- …and probably other reasons as well
This is why dialoguing about costume choice is the only rational way to proceed.
My Bottom Line
Freedom of Speech does not include freedom from the consequences of my speaking freely. I have no problem that students disagreed with Assistant Master Christakis’s email. I am worried, however, about the fury with which they expressed themselves, as I have discussed above. I’m not angry with them. I see this as a symptom that something is wrong. Our young people deserve to be better prepared for the real world they will encounter upon graduation.
As for the Assistant Master, I am not imputing malicious motives to her email, which I as a 61 year old man, found thoughtful and balanced. I think it should have gone only to the Committee that issued the cautionary Hallowe’en email, administrator to administrator. Perhaps a wiser move would have been to invite the students who complained to her about the original email to dialogue with those who agreed with the Committee without taking sides herself.
Thank you everyone for reading. Here is a good recent article about l’affaire Silliman, as well.
Steven A. Armstrong, Silliman College ’76
Tutor, Editor, Consultant