Christakis at Thermopylae
In the end it is good to go back to the beginning.
We began with an introduction in which I invoked an outrage of the day, which was the assault on the spirit of Halloween for committing the sin of the day, which was “cultural appropriation.” I said at the time that I would stick to that outrage, just to get it done, despite my expectation that the next day would bring a new outrage begging to be incorporated and chronicled, which would be followed by a new one on the day after that, and so on. I was certainly right to cut that short.
In fact, the attack upon Halloween gave birth to a slew of absurdities, each one more weird than the one before, culminating in an event at Yale University that instantly became a classic. The associated drama manifested some of the dynamics we have discussed. I’ll go through it and bring these out.
The origin of this particular tempest was an email message sent out on October 27 to the Yale student body by the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, and signed by thirteen diversity officials (2015). It said, in part, that Halloween is a time when the normal sensitivity and thoughtfulness of Yale students can be forgotten, and in which choices of costume can be made that offend or denigrate members of various cultural groups. They offered feathered headdresses and turbans as examples. Therefore, while students definitely had the right to express themselves, it was hoped that they 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.” Even choices made with no intention to offend ” they said, “have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact.”
And so they recommended that before students put on a costume, they should take the time to consider what impact their choices might have by asking themselves questions like these:
• Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
• Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
• Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?
• Could someone take offense with your costume and why?
At the first instance, it is clear enough that program represents Rule Two of political correctness that we discussed regarding the Oberlin case: Love the oppressed, whom it lists. But it also brings in Rule One, which is hate the father, which means everyone else, and specifically the usual suspects: white, heterosexual males, and whoever would take the side of these others in an argument. But it is more interesting, perhaps, to see it as an expression of the Rule Three, which is to keep the political correctness drama going. As I pointed out above, the issues raised in these dramas are never the issues, except as pretexts for holding the dramas. It is impossible to believe that this program was developed as a response to real pain. As Erika Christakis put it in the next act of the drama, “no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes,” I suggest, rather, that nobody was ever in any real doubt that Halloween was Halloween, except until the Intercultural Affairs Committee wanted to use it to make a point. Their aim here was to display their power, and power is never really seen until it encounters opposition. It is only then that the drama of political correctness comes alive. It would go too far to say that this group of bureaucrats consciously made this an issue for the sake of picking a fight, but at some level they knew that it would serve their purpose if they got one .
At any rate, if they were looking for opposition, they got it in the person of Ms. Christakis, a professor of childhood development and Associate Master of Silliman Residential College, who on October 30 urged a bit of lightening up (2015). Mobilizing perhaps the only type of argument that she thought could have some appeal, she pointed to the transgressive quality of the holiday. Halloween, she said, has always been a time for children to subvert the established order. Yet it has also been a time for adults to exert their control, and that is what she saw in the IAC message. And she said it was a problem:
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 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?
And she quotes her husband, a professor of sociology and Master of Silliman, saying:
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
Well, evidently there is no such room, or even any room for raising the question. The purpose of political correctness, after all, is to brook no criticism of itself. The whole university took the occasion to be outraged by Christakis’s message. Many called for her resignation and that of her husband. A group called Concerned Yale Students, Alumni, Family, Faculty, and Staff (2015) wrote an open letter, which gathered more than a thousand signatures, mostly from undergraduates, that laid out the terms of their indictment. It said, among other things, that to compare a suggestion made by the IAC, which was created to challenge bias, to an exercise of institutional control erases the voices of those the committee was set up to protect. And that comparing the use of harmful stereotypes that degrade marginalized people to preschoolers playing make believe trivializes the harm that is done. “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.” And so on.
Dissecting its logic in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf (2015) pointed out that it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t have to; it employs Rule Four: invoke the love and power of mother.
But the most striking manifestation of this collective frenzy was on November 5, when a group of about 100 students gathered around Nicholas Christakis and demanded an apology for Erika’s email. I will turn now to an analysis of that encounter.
Nicholas and the Barbarians
For the purposes of this analysis, I will rely upon three videos of this event, which have been posted at YouTube under the titles Yale University Students Protest Halloween Costume Email (VIDEO 1) (VIDEO 2) (VIDEO 3) by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE has also posted transcripts of Videos 2 and 3. All of this material is available through FIRE (2015).
There do not seem to be any videos that encompass the whole crowd, but Inspection of the videos at YouTube suggests that those in the first line of the confrontation are about half black, with the remainder being about equally white and Asian. Speakers A, B, and C, as denominated by FIRE, are black women.
I want to offer a close analysis of this series of transactions, and for that purpose transcriptions will be necessary. At various places in the transcripts, the term “(snaps)” is employed. This refers to students snapping their fingers, which is evidently a form of applause. I will use the FIRE transcriptions for Videos 2 and 3. There is no posted transcript for Video 1, probably because much of it is inaudible. My best estimate is this:
Student A: (inaudible) I live here. I eat in the dining halls for all three meals, and you should know my name. My name is Michaela, but people have called me other names. People have called me Jeralynn, people have called me Malika, people have called me Nina
Christakis: Now, I’ve learned Jeralynn, and I’ve learned Malika, and I’ve learned…
Christakis: (Raises his arms to accept applause) Thank you. (inaudible) 500 names. I have 500 names to learn, (inaudible) I have 500 names to learn. And if you’d like to see the personal effects my difficulty in learning names, you can.
Student A: I do see it. Okay. But I have a point, because…
NC: But Michaela, you have to understand it has nothing to do with your race, my difficulty learning names, (inaudble)
Student A: Well, but that’s how it seems, because I have been here …
It will escape no one’s notice that he has denied that his evident incapacity to remember her name was due to her race, whatever that may mean. And she says that it seemed that way, whatever that could mean. But, indeed, what could it mean? Her point, here, seems to be that since she has been here so long, he should know her name, and if he does not, it must be because of her race. But she does not base this claim on an observed connection between his behavior and anything in his mind. Her move is one that the Macpherson Commission would have seen as an inference, and they would have regarded it as valid. But, as in their case, we can see that it is not an inference at all. In the absence of anything else, it is a logical non sequitur.
Yet leaving it at that would miss the dynamics that are in operation here; the grounding of her claim is psychological, not logical. She is taking herself as the pristine self. As we saw above in the analysis of microaggression, he is required to take her as unique, in the way that she takes herself to be unique. Her race is the basis on which she asserts her claim. For her, that is a necessary and sufficient condition for an accusation of racism.
Christakis: I know but can you see, can you see, for example, can you play music?
Student A: Okay.
Christakis: I cannot play music, so when people try to talk to me about musical things, I don’t understand .
Crowd: (inaudible) How is this…
Christakis: (addressing the crowd, evidently trying to explain the form of his reasoning) I’m making an idea. I’m expressing that one of my limitations as a person, which I always had was I wasn’t very good at memorizing names , and it’s got nothing to do with race, Michaela. I think this conversation in its intensity, will really seal it. And I hope, in my primary interaction with you, I’ve never treated you with any disrespect.
Student A: And you haven’t. I was about to say, in the class that I took this Fall…
Video 2 continues with Student A, but at a somewhat later point. The focus has become Erika’s email.:
Student A: I give tours every day—not if every week—and have to stand here in the courtyard and say “This is my home. I live up there. My master’s there; my dean. I love my college.” And I can’t say that anymore because it’s not a home. It is no longer a safe space for me.
And she demands an apology.
… in your role as master and associate master, after sending that email and after not having an appropriate response, that our opinion has been dismissed. That you guys have not said “I hear you. I hear that you are hurting and I am sorry that I have caused you to feel pain.” I have not heard that from you and I have not heard that from your wife. And that is what I want to hear. I don’t want to hear anymore [inaudible] because it’s not fair [inaudible].
The opening of Christakis’ response is inaudible. Someone in the crowd says “speak up.” Then we hear him say:
Christakis: I don’t want to look away from her…
Student in crowd: Just talk louder and look at her!
Whereupon, with passion, he reveals to them the difficulty of his position. He cannot speak loudly enough for everyone to hear while continuing to look in her direction, since then he will appear to be yelling at her:
Christakis: (loudly, he is clearly frustrated) I’m doing my best, everyone. I’m doing my best. I’m doing my best. I’m trying to address her directly and as a human being, face to face, and I don’t want to turn my back to her. And I don’t want to yell at her, I’m this far, if I raise my voice so you can hear me.
Student in crowd: Thank you.
Christakis: So please stop misjudging anything I do, ok. Give me a little bit of talking room, alright?
So as I was telling you… I’ll speak up a little, but I won’t yell at her. That fair?
And they give him a break:
Student in crowd: Yes.
Student in crowd: That’s fair.
Now, it is the speech of Student C, to which we will turn below, that has given this interaction its notoriety, but I submit that this interchange between Christakis and the students is crucial to understanding what is going on. Christakis is fearful that what he is saying will be subject to misinterpretation; that he will be seen in ways that do not properly take account of his thoughts or feelings. He believes that he must anticipate these possible misinterpretations and preclude their application; if he gets it wrong, it will be interpreted as racism. But he is finding it impossible, in these circumstances, to get it right. In this environment, for example, to speak loudly while looking at Student A may seem to some to be reminiscent of the way that masters abused their slaves. On the other hand, to look away and speak loudly, so that the rest of the crowd can hear him, puts him in danger of seeming to dismiss Student A, silencing her voice, and so on, the way that white people have always dismissed black people and their concerns.
Christakis is doing the dance of political correctness, but the choreography is breaking down. There is no clearly defined safe move that he can make. So he metacommunicates. He talks about the difficulty of his position. And the students buy his explanation. But that has to mean that they understand the dance of political correctness to be a dance. They know that Christakis harbors no racist thoughts or feelings, and the danger that he faces is not that of being misinterpreted as such. What they are calling upon him to do has nothing to do with racism, except insofar as it is a gambit that can be played in a game whose meaning is domination. They are calling upon him to recognize who is boss. He is doing his best to retain some of his dignity, but by asking them for permission to speak, he acknowledges that they are running the show. Here again we have Rule Three.
At any rate, having been granted that permission. He continues speaking to Student A, Michaela, who has been in class with him, expressing amazement that she has not been able to form an opinion of him as a person and to see the extent to which he agrees with the content of her beliefs. She is not mollified. She says “I don’t see you as agreeing,” but it appears that the pursuit of this dialogue has exhausted the patience of some in the audience, who want to cut to the core of the issue. He needs to just submit and shut up.
Student B: Can I, can I say something? Can I, can I just interject really quickly? The moral of Michaela’s comments is not… The moral of the story is, she wants an apology, yet you respond not with an apology.
… Are you going to address the heart of her comment? That’s all I want. Are you gonna give an apology? Are you gonna say that you’re hearing us? Are you gonna, then, go to the lengths that she wants you to go to which, to me, don’t seem very far. But, still seem… We’re not making a judgment on like, Master Christakis is inherently b—like, we just want an acknowledgement of hurt, and we have yet to get that which Michaela just said.
Student B: So, my question is: are you going to say that? Or not? Cause then, I could just leave if you’re not gonna say that. Cause, I’ve heard from…I was at the discussion, I was here, I’m gonna be there on Sunday, and I’m gonna listen. But, like, what I’m listening for, I’ve not yet heard. So I’m just asking, are you gonna provide that or are you not gonna provide that.
He then goes through a Socratic routine, whose aim is to get them to see the complexities that would arise from his offering an apology in this case, but it again appears that he has lost the patience of his audience, because now comes the high point of the afternoon, if not the decade:.
Christakis: [Possibly to Student B] Other people have rights, too! Not just you.
Student in crowd: Walk away. Walk away. [inaudible] He doesn’t deserve to be listened to.
Student C: [Inaudible] create an unsafe space here for all [inaudible]
Christakis: I do not…
Student C: Be quiet! …
The rage in this student’s voice is jarring. He visibly recoils from it but immediately returns to his posture of humility. His hand are folded in front of his chest, in a gesture we associate with a supplicant. She continues:
Student C: For all Silliman students. Do you understand that? As your position as master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman.
Christakis: I hear you.
Student C: You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?
Christakis: No I don’t agree with that.
Student C: [Yelling.] Then why the fuck did you accept the position!
Christakis: Because I have a diff…
Student C: [Yelling.] Who the fuck hired you?
Christakis: I have a different vision than you.
Student C: [Yelling.] Then step down! If that is what you think about being a [inaudible] master, then you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here! You are not doing that. You’re going against that.
Student in crowd: You’re supposed to be our advocate!
Student C: You should [inaudible] be at the event last night when you hear [inaudible] say that she didn’t know how to create a safe space for her freshman at Silliman! How do you explain that? Because freshman come here and they think this is what Yale is? You hear that? They’re gonna leave! They’re gonna transfer because you are a poor steward of the community.
Student in crowd: Retweet!
Student C: You should not sleep at night!
Students in crowd: We out. We out.
Student C: You are disgusting.
I want to take a look at this remarkable ejaculation in the light of what we have seen. To begin with, consider her claim that
as master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman … . It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here! You are not doing that. You’re going against that.
This is as clear an invocation of the pristine self as we are likely to hear. And her clear belief that she, an undergraduate, has the authority to tell this man, the master of her residential college, a distinguished professor of sociology and a physician, what his job is, and to express her utter contempt for his thoughts about the matter, together with his near-submissiveness in the face of it, says as much about the normalization of the pristine self as one is likely to encounter.
But what grabs the attention here is the sheer rage of Student C and particularly the clear absence of any attempt to moderate it. What we see here is the pure hatred of the father, in a situation where that hatred is reinforced and validated. It is the tone that a superior takes toward an inferior, in which the superior has no fear of retaliation.
This is the voice of the primordial mother. It is powerful stuff, and who will stand in its way?
We need to consider what is at issue here. Students A, B, and C tell us that they feel unsafe, threatened. And the whole rageful protest that began with the reaction to Erika Christakis’ email is supposedly a drive intended to make them safe in the face of this threat. But what exactly is it that they are supposed to feel so afraid of?
Ostensibly, it is the racism of their fellow students, especially the white ones, as that may be manifest in their choice of Halloween costumes, it appears. But what could that racism come down to?
Let us be realistic. There is no more racism among the white students at Yale than there was among their counterparts at Oberlin. How could there be? If you suppose that racism is an ideology that might have been transmitted to them from an older generation, you will not be able to find a ground for it. These students did not grown up in an atmosphere of racism, but of political correctness. Few, if any, of them has ever encountered an expression of racism from anyone who meant it. Their experience with the kinds of symbols thought to convey racism has strictly been as items to be wary of that they found out about in learning to do the PC dance. These are upper-class students who are at this Ivy League university because of its function as a way station on the mobility track. What benefit could they possibly gain from adopting a racist perspective? Is their status so precarious that they need someone to look down upon? These are serious matters. We have to be serious about them. If they felt the need to look down upon someone, they could pick the students at Cornell, or one of the other lower ranked schools of the Ivy League.
The racism that students A, B, and C feel themselves subjected to at Yale is entirely in their minds, and by this point we know it well. We see what it comes down to most clearly in the case of Student A, Michaela, who, charges Christakis with racism on the basis of the fact that he did not remember her name. She is one, but for Christakis, she is 1 in 500. The intolerability of his dealing with her in accordance with that is what she calls racism.
But what does this have to do with Halloween? Nothing, except that once the Intercultural Affairs Committee recognized that seeing Halloween as a menace would provide a good venue to assert dominance, it was the responsibility of the whole Yale community to provide their assent. When Erika Christakis did not, as we know, hell broke loose; not because of what she said, but because she of what she did not say, which was, simply “Okay.”
The issue here is who is going to be boss. At the most general level, it is which way of organizing society will prevail. On one side, we have the paternal function and objective self-consciousness. Its champion here was Nicholas Christakis, who spoke of the acceptance of universally binding rules of behavior. Others have rights, he said, not just you. A person has a wide range of obligations, which he must uphold, but of which we all should be cognizant. In order to maintain and develop social order we need to communicate with each other, which means we must have civility and grant others the right to disagree with us. His job is to work within and through these rules and create an intellectual space.
On the other side, we have student C, who says that his job to ensure that she can be her pristine self. He must understand how she sees herself and on what terms she appreciates herself, as an absolute, and validate that. She claims this right to his services on the basis of her membership in an oppressed and marginalized race. His job is to ensure that any threats to her preferred way of seeing herself are condemned and eliminated. That is what she calls making a home for herself. If he does not do that, that means he is a racist.
But in addition to the general issue there is the specific issue of the governance of Yale University. On one hand, we have the academic side, manifesting the central university function, as it has been defined since Plato’s Academy. On the other, we have the IAC, a group that would traditionally have been thought of as being within the distinctly secondary function of student services, but which has, it appears, adopted the ambition of redefining the university though control of the ways in which students interact with and talk to one another. Their Mission Statement defines their role in the terms of identity politics:
The Intercultural Affairs Council of Yale College strives to support an inclusive and diverse campus environment that: engages in community dialogue; promotes cultural awareness, respect and appreciation; and challenges bias on the basis of race and ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, social class, or other distinction. (Intercultural Affairs Committee, 2016)
When Student C says that Christakis function is to provide her with a home, it is their orientation to the university that she demands he accept.
But this home that she has in mind is a fantasy. It exists only in the mind and cannot be anyplace else. To turn the university into a home for her would make it unrecognizable in the terms with which we have thought of universities, redefining them in the way Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 redefined fire departments. They would eschew objectivity and become zones of imaginary combat between fantasies of goodness and fantasies of evil.
At the most general level, the truth is that her way, given its profoundly narcissistic assumptions, makes social order impossible. We need not go farther than Hobbes to recognize this. Even if we forget about the dimension of fantasy, treating everyone’s subjectivity as an absolute, even if we only limit ourselves to the oppressed and marginalized, and of course anyone can find a way in which they have been oppressed and marginalized, can only lead to the State of Nature and the war of each against each and all against all.
And indeed that can hardly be the end of it, either, since in these circumstances some, ultimately one, will rise to dominance. Her way leads inevitably and ineluctably to tyranny.
So where are we then? I say we are at Thermopylae. But Christakis, with all his virtues, is a doubtful Leonidas.
“I have disappointed you and I’m really sorry,” Nicholas Christakis told about 100 students gathered in his living room on Sunday for a meeting also attended by Jonathan Holloway, the dean of Yale College, and other university administrators. Christakis said his encounter on Thursday with students in the college’s courtyard, in which numerous black women upbraided him for being inattentive to them, broke his heart, according to a voice recording of the conversation provided to The Washington Post.
“I mean it just broke my heart,” Christakis said. “I thought that I had some credibility with you, you know? I care so much about the same issues you care about. I’ve spent my life taking care of these issues of injustice, of poverty, of racism. I have the same beliefs that you do … I’m genuinely sorry, and to have disappointed you. I’ve disappointed myself.” (Stanley-Becker, 2015 b)
And his faculty colleagues at Yale are no Spartans. An open letter supporting the Christakises was written by Douglas Stone, a professor of physics, calling for signatures among the active and emeritus faculty. Ultimately, about ninety signed it, out of over four thousand.
On November 6, in a closed door meeting with minority students, Peter Salovey, president of Yale, apologized for the school’s failure to make them feel safe. “We failed you,” he said. (Stanley-Becker, 2015a)
On December 3, it was reported that Erika Christakis had decided not to teach at Yale University anymore. (Jackson, 2015)