Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy

Student dorms at Yale have resident faculty members, who live in the dorm with their families. (I should note for the record Yale’s view that these are “[f]ar more than dormitories” and “have been called ‘little paradises.'”) “The master is the chief administrative officer and the presiding faculty presence in each residential college,” “responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” “During the year, he or she hosts lectures, study breaks (especially during finals), and Master’s Teas — intimate gatherings during which students have the opportunity to engage with renowned guests from the academy, government, or popular culture.”

The master at Silliman College is Prof. Nicholas Christakis, and his wife, Erika Christakis, is an associate master. Erika Christakis (herself a Yale Child Study Center lecturer) wrote the following e-mail to students on Oct. 30:

Dear Sillimanders:

Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear [more on that below -EV]. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and 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.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.

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.

It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Which is my point. 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. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense — and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes — I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).

Nicholas says, 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.

But — again, speaking as a child development specialist — I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

Happy Halloween.

Yours sincerely,

Erika

(Later, after getting criticized for this, Erika Christakis also circulated “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Prof. Jonathan Haidt of NYU, which criticizes university attempts to shield students from supposedly offensive speech.)

Seems like a perfectly civil and sensible e-mail. One can agree or disagree with it, but — especially at a place of higher education — it seems like at most a cause for a civil explanation of why one thinks that the university should indeed get involved in student Halloween costume choices. (For some such responses, though I think quite misguided ones, and see here and here.)

At Yale, apparently, not so much. As Isaac Stanley-Becker, former editor of the Yale Daily News and a Yale senior, reported in the Washington Post Grade Point blog:

Students gathered Thursday outside Yale’s main library to draw in chalk their response to recent events they say have confirmed that Yale is inhospitable to black students, and to black women in particular. They pointed to an e-mail from an administrator last week who challenged those who take offense at culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and allegations days later that a fraternity discriminated against female party-goers on the basis of their race. . . .

They also condemned an e-mail from the associate master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential communities, to Silliman residents that argued that people should not be offended by insensitive Halloween costumes and should instead tolerate them and talk about them. That message came in response to a plea from Yale officials that the university community “take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have,” citing possible outfits including “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.” . . .

Several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore. “They can’t stay in the master’s house,” one student said. . . .

Thursday evening, students were drafting a formal letter calling for the removal of Christakis and his wife from their roles in Silliman. . . .

Rianna Johnson-Levy, a junior, said Christakis’ e-mail “put students in harm’s way” by making it the responsibility of minority students to make their discomfort known to students wearing offensive costumes. “Who are we trying to protect?” she asked. . . .

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has more details, and they’re not enheartening — check out the video, which shows some pretty appalling behavior by some of the students. It appears that there are many students at Yale who think that not just allegedly racist speech, but also speech that suggests that the university shouldn’t try to suppress such speech, is intolerable; a basis for outraged complaints to the speaker’s boss; and even a basis for dismissing the speaker from her post.

To be sure, Erika Christakis is acting as an administrator here, and the students apparently aren’t calling for her removal from her teaching position or her husband’s removal from his professorship. They are focusing on the Christakises’ roles as faculty-in-residence at the dorm, and the managerial responsibilities that go with it.

But faculty masters aren’t supposed to just be hotel managers, whose job is simply to make things pleasant for guests. Their job is to convey the values of the university — to help “foster[] and shap[e] the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” I would think that one of the values of the university is precisely to support both student and faculty member free speech, and to teach students to respond to civil arguments with civil arguments, not with outraged complaints to the dean or with calls for dismissal.

I suppose, though, we’ll soon see what Yale’s values really are. If the administration, including Dean Jonathan Holloway, to whom some of the student protesters were appealing, does push out the Christakises, or forces them into apologies or retractions, we’ll know what sort of speech is dangerous at Yale — and the message will of course go out not just to administrators, but also to students and faculty members (especially untenured ones).

Conversely, if the administration stands up to the student demands and makes clear that people are free to debate Halloween costume etiquette without risking loss of their positions (administrative or otherwise), that will show that Yale really is committed to academic freedom and substantive discourse.