Fear and Loathing at Yale University
In May of last year, a series of student protests forced Yale professors Erika and Nicholas Christakis to step down from their roles as Faculty-in-Residence at Yale’s Silliman College.
The controversy that caused their resignations began in October of the previous year, when Erika Christakis sent a mass email to many Yale students.
The email was in response to a previous email from members of Yale’s Administration warning against Cultural insensitivity in students’ choice of Halloween costumes.
Reporters exacerbated the controversy surrounding the Christakis’, especially in regard to the protests calling for their immediate resignation, with many commentators from both sides of the political spectrum expressing outrage.
Particularly of note was a video of a young Yale student shouting and cursing at a somewhat frightened Nicholas Christakis, demanding he step down from his position at Yale.
But I am not interested in furthering that kind of political agenda here.
What I have found of interest more than the politics involved in this story, and in many stories like it, is the modern obsession with the dopamine rush of outrage.
Before the protests occurred in this instance, the tone of the discussion at Yale was very civil. Some points of both arguments were somewhat misguided, but there was no anger involved. No hatred from either party, only a quiet disagreement.
In fact, the tones of both emails, upon reading them without the media’s interpretation, were far from being assertive at all, much less aimed as an attack at anyone.
Which brings me to my point. Why do we insist on creating enemies out of thin air?
Mrs. Christakis, in her email, made no endorsement of cultural appropriation, nor did she mock anyone for being offended by said appropriation.
In her email, her main point of opposition was whether enforcement of such an idea should come from above, which means administration, or from citizens and students themselves having a discussion on the subject.
I see no reason to be offended by someone merely asking questions, such as Mrs. Christakis did. Going further, I think the question ought to have been met with an answer.
Mrs. Christakis got no answer. She got punishment. As an oppressor or an enemy might get.
But as for me, being of a troublesome mindset, I have to ask, is merely questioning a belief an act of oppression?
Erika Christakis’ question is actually pretty easily answered. Yale did not create a rule against people wearing offensive costumes, but rather advised against such an activity, appealing to basic decency.
They were not enforcing an agenda against students’ freedom, but rather addressing the students in the hopes that they, like reasonable human beings, wouldn’t set out to offend.
Mrs. Christakis does have a point, however, that those who do still opt for offending are not lost causes, and deserve to be addressed and taught what they have done wrong, rather than summarily punished.
I’m sure many people at the protests had similar points to make, and wished to express them directly, and without malice, but these people were drowned out by the media in favor of manufactured controversy.
This sets a dangerous precedent, and there are numerous examples of protests seemingly organized by people more out for the blood of the enemy than for any kind of real change.
Mrs. Christakis, however, is not the enemy. She is a citizen asking a question, and she did not deserve a forced resignation or a media frenzy, and she certainly did not deserve articles from CNN and The Atlantic implying that she was ignorant at best and racist at worst.
But that’s what she got.
Are we, as a society, meant to accept not only that we have enemies that must be destroyed, but also that anyone who opposes us ideologically, for any reason, is our enemy?
I understand that anger is addictive, and that anger feels righteous in the moment, but at some point, we must address whether we want to teach someone something, or whether we are out for blood.
This is the problem with the concept of an enemy. It’s great for unifying people through a common goal, but if it isn’t clearly defined who the enemy is, it creates an almost unlimited number of possible enemies, and then it becomes a tool for oppression.
A good argument shouldn’t reduce anyone to enemy status. By media standards, that concept might not be too glitzy, but it’s true. A good argument is two people, on common ground, trying to teach each other something.
A bad argument, the kind where everyone is yelling and trying really hard to be smarter or more moral than the other guy may make for some great TV, but it won’t teach anybody anything, and it won’t change anything either.
When Jon Stewart, former host of “The Daily Show,” famously appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004, he came with one key message: “You’re hurting America.” He wasn’t wrong then, and he isn’t wrong now.
Our modern politics have been more or less defined by networks such as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, and they are not concerned with what will change the country for the better. They are concerned with what makes good TV, and drama sells.
And so, someone has to be the scapegoat, and there must always be a villain, and we all stay tuned until next week for the latest manufactured controversy, and nothing ever changes.
So, why don’t we break away from this cycle?
Why don’t we stop allowing ourselves to be addicted to drama and outrage, and really face those who disagree with us, like human beings?
It’s not good TV, but it’ll get the job done.