Democracy Has Prevailed.

November 15, 2015

On Offensive Halloween Costumes, en at.

Let me frame, humbly and respectfully, my argument by quoting a writer far far more talented than I'll ever be - Stephen Fry.  In a debate in England about 10 years ago on the then-newly introduced Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill, Fry said this:
It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that", as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. "I'm offended by that." Well, so fucking what?
And with that, let's go to Yale.

Full disclosure: I grew up just outside of New Haven but I never went to Yale.  In my youth, my brother, father and I saw a number of football games at the Bowl and sometime before I graduated High School I decided I wanted, really really wanted, to go to Yale, if only to be a member of the Yale Precision Marching Band (Boola, Boola).  Alas, lack of tuition money and great (not just simply good) grades got in my way and I landed 58 minutes up two interstates at UConn.  A few years later in the late 80s, I had a Yale non-student library card (I remember it was $12 per month, discounted to $144 for an entire year) and I met a few Yale music professors - Claude Palisca and Leon Plantinga among them.  I was also able to sit in on a few Yale musicology lectures where, if memory serves, I saw a visiting and still relatively unknown musicologist named Susan McClary deliver a lecture on Gender Construction in the music of Claudio Monteverdi.  I seem to recall the room being cordial though less than impressed with her work, though my memory may be faulty about the latter.

This month a loud discussion erupted at this University I never attended.  From the NYTimes:
The debate over Halloween costumes began late last month when the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to the student body asking students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes that could offend minority students. It specifically advised them to steer clear of outfits that included elements like feathered headdresses, turbans or blackface.

In response, Erika Christakis, a faculty member and an administrator at a student residence, wrote an email to students living in her residence hall on behalf of those she described as “frustrated” by the official advice on Halloween costumes. Students should be able to wear whatever they want, she wrote, even if they end up offending people.
From the IAC letter (the first one) we read:
Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, 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.

The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
And from the response we get:
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.
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).
 And yet this is how Amy Goodman described the situation:
I want to go to Thursday, Lex [Barlowe, president of the Yale Black Student Alliance] when hundreds of students confronted Nicholas Christakis, the master of one of the college’s residential dorms, over the email that his wife sent in which she condoned offensive Halloween costumes. [Emphasis added.]
As much as I am usually on board with Amy Goodman, she's more or less completely wrong in her characterization here.  At no point in Christakis' letter does she condone offensive costumes.  Especially when she writes:
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.
She's agreeing, in general, with the idea of avoiding hurt and offense (she "lauded" those goals, in fact - as do I) but she was concerned with the notion of an institution imposing, or even suggesting, restrictions "from above."

And when she gets to this sentence near the end of her email:
Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
We know what she's defending and condoning.

I realize there's a lot more going on at Yale and New Haven than this.  Yale is a major academic institution nestled into a small-ish American city (by population it's a little under half the size of Pittsburgh) and so to deny that there's any reason for its various communities of color to be aggrieved  would be far going beyond simple naivete.  It would be an act of self-imposed ignorance.  There are obviously many valid reasons for many valid grievances (for example the story of a "white girls only" party on campus) but Christakis' email just shouldn't be one of them.  As she's defending free speech.  The fact that the price of free speech is offensive free speech doesn't change anything.

Note the dissonance between the open letter her email triggered:
In your email, you ask students to “look away” if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore. We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding. Giving “room” for students to be “obnoxious” or “offensive”, as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe.

These discussions are not new, and have been happening nationally. To ask marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday, in order to expend emotional, mental, and physical energy to explain why something is offensive, is — offensive.
With what's found on the Yale website regarding freedom of expression:
Yale’s commitment to freedom of expression means that when you agree to matriculate, you join a community where “the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox” must be tolerated. When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.
So screaming at someone defending free speech for not restricting it enough fits where, exactly, into the free flow of ideas necessary for intellectual growth on a college campus?

Free speech for everyone means that anyone has the right to say or believe what they want.  No where in that nugget of freedom, however, is the notion that anyone should be free from any criticism for what they say or believe.  Don't like the Halloween costume?  Speak up about it.  In a free society, shutting down someone else's right to be offensive isn't the answer, no matter how well-intentioned.

But let me ask another, more localized, question.

Anyone remember this woman?

This was a couple years ago at the CMU Anti-Gravity rally.  The P-G reported:
Photos of the female student showed her dressed in half of what appears to be a garment that resembles that worn by the pope and a large pointed hat with a cross on the front. The lower part of her body was naked and she had a cross shaved into her pubic area.

"It is offensive to me and the church that I represent. It crosses a line," Bishop David Zubik said.
Certainly offensive.  Just as it's certainly protected free speech.

If the she-Pope has the right to offend, so does everyone at Yale who wants to be stupid and insult his or her neighbors with an infantile costume.

In a free society everyone has the right to express themselves freely but since everyone else also has that right, no one should expect to be immune from criticism. Even while wearing a Halloween costume.

And this is not just about Halloween costumes.  You did know that, right?

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