My Halloween email led to a campus firestorm — and a troubling lesson about self-censorship

By Erika Christakis October 28 at 12:35 PM

Erika Christakis is an early-childhood educator and the author of “The Importance of Being Little.” 

The right to speak freely may be enshrined in some of our nation’s great universities, but the culture of listening needs repair. That is the lesson I learned a year ago, when I sent an email urging Yale University students to think critically about an official set of guidelines on costumes to avoid at Halloween. 

I had hoped to generate a reflective conversation among students: What happens when one person’s offense is another person’s pride? Should a costume-wearer’s intent or context matter? Can we always tell the difference between a mocking costume and one that satirizes ignorance? In what circumstances should we allow — or punish — youthful transgression?

“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” I wrote, in part. “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.”

Some called my email tone-deaf or even racist, but it came from a conviction that young people are more capable than we realize and that the growing tendency to cultivate vulnerability in students carries unacknowledged costs.

Many at Yale maintain that my email prompted widespread and civil conversation, and that the ensuing controversy was just a matter of competing expressions of free speech. I aired an unpopular opinion, which was answered by an equally legitimate response.

But these sanguine claims crumble on examination. The community’s response seemed, to many outside the Yale bubble, a baffling overreaction. Nearly a thousand students, faculty and deans called for my and my husband’s immediate removal from our jobs and campus home. Some demanded not only apologies for any unintended racial insensitivity (which we gladly offered) but also a complete disavowal of my ideas (which we did not) — as well as advance warning of my appearances in the dining hall so that students accusing me of fostering violence wouldn’t be disturbed by the sight of me.

Not everyone bought this narrative, but few spoke up. And who can blame them? Numerous professors, including those at Yale’s top-rated law school, contacted us personally to say that it was too risky to speak their minds. Others who generously supported us publicly were admonished by colleagues for vouching for our characters. Many students met with us confidentially to describe intimidation and accusations of being a “race traitor” when they deviated from the ascendant campus account that I had grievously injured the community. The Yale Daily News evidently felt obliged to play down key facts in its reporting, including about the two-hour-plus confrontation with a crowd of more than 100 students in which several made verbal and physical threats to my husband while four Yale deans and administrators looked on.

One professor I admire claimed my lone email was so threatening that it unraveled decades of her work supporting students of color. One email. In this unhealthy climate, of which I’ve detailed only a fraction of the episodes, it’s unsurprising that our own attempts at emotional repair fell flat.

Yale students confront administrator over Halloween e-mail response:

Play Video1:21-- https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/my-halloween-email-led-to-a-campus-firestorm--and-a-troubling-lesson-about-self-censorship/2016/10/28/70e55732-9b97-11e6-a0ed-ab0774c1eaa5_story.html?utm_term=.5908c9fc5fb1

But none of these examples captures the more worrying trend of self-censorship on campuses. For seven years I lived and worked on two college campuses, and a growing number of students report avoiding controversial topics — such as the limits of religious tolerance or transgender rights — for fear of uttering “unacceptable” language or otherwise stepping out of line. As a student observed in the YaleDaily News, the concept of campus civility now requires adherence to specific ideology — not only commitment to respectful dialogue.

The irony is that this culture of protection may ultimately harm those it purports to protect. The Yale imbroglio became a merciless punchline, leaving no one unscathed, because the lack of a candid internal reckoning emboldened partisan outsiders to hijack the story. In reality, these debates don’t fit neat ideological categories. I am a registered Democrat, and I applaud Yale’s mission to better support underrepresented students. But I also recognize the dizzying irrationality of some supposedly liberal discourse in academia these days.

I didn’t leave a rewarding job and campus home on a whim. But I lost confidence that I could continue to teach about vulnerable children in an environment where full discussion of certain topics — such as absent fathers — has become almost taboo. It’s never easy to foster dialogue about race, class, gender and culture, but it will only become more difficult for faculty in disciplines concerned with the human condition if universities won’t declare that ideas and feelings aren’t interchangeable. Without more explicit commitment to this principle, students are denied an essential condition for intellectual and moral growth: the ability to practice, and sometimes fail at, the art of thinking out loud.

Certain members of the community used me and my family as tinder for a mass emotional conflagration by refusing to state the obvious: that the content of my albeit imperfect message fell squarely within the parameters of normal discourse and might even have been worth considering on its merits as an adjunct to prevailing campus orthodoxy. There was no official recognition that the calls to have us fired could be seen as illiberal or censorious. By affirming only the narrow right to air my views, rather than helping the community to grapple with its intense response, an unfortunate message was made plain: Certain ideas are too dangerous to be heard at Yale.

The collective denial of responsibility risks shortchanging students’ intellectual maturation and gradual assumption of autonomy. Moreover, the university’s careless conflation of talking (of which we had plenty) with listening (not so much) has the unintended effect of creating an inhospitable learning environment for the entire community, not just those who had no problem with my Halloween advice.

It takes more than Yale’s admirable free speech code to ensure a healthy habitat for learning. My fear is that students will eventually give up trying to engage with each other, a development that will echo in our wider culture for decades. My critics have reminded me that there are consequences to my exercise of free speech. Now it’s Yale’s turn to examine the consequences of its own stance: the shadow on its magnificent motto, “Light and truth.”