Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Sunday, November 8, 2015

God, Country And Yale

Here is an interesting run-down of a controversy at Yale over Halloween costumes.

No, seriously.

The issue can roughly be boiled down thusly: Halloween is a transgressive holiday in a lot of ways. Masks, pranks and so on.  And college students are at the age where they are both mature enough to know better and immature enough to inflict real cruelty on each other.  And kids at Yale are often ridiculously self-confident, especially those fifth generation legacy assholes.

So, someone sends out an email urging people to be sensitive when coming up with costumes, enough with the blackface.  A professor responds that we shouldn't require bans on behavior: students should feel free to make bad choices, but then be held socially responsible for those choices.  And also that students of color should take responsibility for pointing out to their peers why their costume might be offensive.  Students responded in ways typified by the line, "I don't want a debate, I want to talk about my pain."

I am broadly sympathetic to both sides of the debate.  Students need to confront things, not hide from them.  But minority students can often feel marginalized, especially at a place like Yale.  How would you like to be a black student in Calhoun College?  Why do we ask minority students to speak out against things they find insensitive?

But why shouldn't people be assholes if they want to be?  And if they are being assholes, isn't that the proper context for everyone to explore these issues?  If your friend comes downstairs in his OJ Simpson costume, isn't that an opportunity to point out that he's being a huge dick?  Of course, in many ways, he probably is actively trying to be a dick.  So, how do we deal with that?

It is critically important that young people learn emotional resilience and also empathetic sensitivity.  Bans on certain speech or behavior doesn't accomplish either of those things.  The minority student is expecting a level of insulation that the world simply doesn't provide.  And the frat boy asshole isn't learning why his costume isn't "just a joke."  But neither do you want a campus that pulls itself apart over freaking Halloween costumes.

I was at Dartmouth when the Review assholes attacked the shanties protesting apartheid (the night before MLK Day, no less).  It was tense and ugly.  At the time, I was aware of feeling that divestment was a waste of time and the Review guys were assholes.  No one really liked the shanties or the sanctimoniousness of those that lived in them.  But once the Review people attacked the shanties, I become a lot more sympathetic to them.  Not enough.  I can't say I understood apartheid well enough at the time to have a strong opinion against it.  Nor could I see into the future to a time when international sanctions and condemnations ultimately led to the end of the apartheid state.

But there was something profoundly educational about that ugliness, and certainly not just for me.  I worry that an effort to keep people safe will restrict those educational opportunities.

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