By Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker
Of the many concerns unearthed by the protests at two major universities this week, the velocity at which we now move from racial recrimination to self-righteous backlash is possibly the most revealing. The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus—important but largely separate subjects—is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point. Two weeks ago, we saw a school security officer in South Carolina violently subdue a teen-age girl for simple noncompliance, and we actually countenanced discussion of the student’s culpability for “being disruptive in class.” The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights. This is victim-blaming with a software update, with less interest in the kind of character assassination we saw deployed against Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown than in creating a seemingly right-minded position that serves the same effect.
Here is the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf on the free speech issues at play in the Yale protests:
In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that too many college students engage in “catastrophizing,” which is to say, turning common events into nightmarish trials or claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear. After citing examples, they concluded, “smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable.” What Yale students did next vividly illustrates that phenomenon.
David French strikes a similar note of democratic indignation about the Missouri protesters in the National Review:
The entire notion that these students need a “safe space” is a lie. They aren’t weak. They don’t need protection. They’re engaged in a classic struggle for power—for now against weak, ineffectual, and cowardly opposition. Why would they debate when they’ve proven they can dictate terms? Why would they answer tough questions when they have no satisfactory answers? So they simply push the press away, and the press meekly complies. Pathetic.
At issue are a black student’s angry denunciation of a Yale professor and the Missouri protesters’ daft media strategy of blockading reporters from a public demonstration. The conflict between the Yale student and Nicholas Christakis, the master of the university’s Silliman College—whose wife, Erika, the associate master of the college, wrote an e-mail encouraging students to treat Halloween costumes that they find racially offensive as a free-speech issue, in response to a campus-wide e-mail encouraging students to consider whether their costumes could offend—was recorded on a cell phone and posted on the Internet. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national campus free-speech organization, posted the video to their Web site. Since then, a young woman who argues with Christakis in the footage has been called the “shrieking woman” by the National Review and subjected to online harassment and death threats. Surely these threats constitute an infringement upon her free speech—a position that has scarcely been noted amid the outraged First Amendment fundamentalism. This rhetorical victory recalls the successful defense in the George Zimmerman trial, which relied upon the tacit presumption that the right to self-defense was afforded to only one party that night—coincidentally, the non-black one. The broader issue is that the student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not. The fault line here is between those who find intolerance objectionable and those who oppose intolerance of the intolerant.
The upheaval at Yale and the protests that forced the resignation of University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe and of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin are both a product of and distinct from the Black Lives Matter moment we currently inhabit. Students from the University of Missouri participated in protests in Ferguson last year; as the climate on campus became more fraught, activists from Ferguson visited and advised the students. Six weeks ago, I participated in a forum at Yale on the massacre in Charleston. When the historian Edward Ball pointed out that the shootings had occurred on Calhoun Street, named for the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy, students immediately pointed out that Calhoun was an alumnus and that a college is still named for him. One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun’s name from the college. (Holloway, who previously served as the master of Calhoun College, indicated that he had not yet decided how he would handle the matter.) To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors. That this issue has arisen on the rarified grounds of an Ivy League campus doesn’t diminish the example; it makes it a more pointed illustration that no amount of talent or resources or advantage can shield you entirely from the minimizing sentiments so pervasive in this country. (It’s a lesson that has been vividly illustrated in Barack Obama’s two terms.)
Faculty and students at both Yale and the University of Missouri who spoke to me about the protests were careful to point out that they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns. “It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” Holloway told me. “This is not about one or two things. It’s something systemic and we’re going to have to look at that.” The most severe recent incidents at both institutions—shouts of “nigger” directed at a black student at Missouri, a purported “white girls only” Yale fraternity party—will sound familiar to anyone who works at or even has substantial contact with an institution of higher education. Last month, women’s and civil-rights groups filed a Title IX complaint that campuses have not done enough to rein in Yik Yak, an anonymous forum that effectively serves as a clearinghouse of digital hostility. Last year, at the University of Connecticut, where I teach, white fraternity members harassed and purportedly shouted epithets at members of a black sorority; the incident generated an afterlife of hostility on Internet forums, where black female students were derided and ridiculed. Eight months ago, fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing an ode to lynching.
These are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.
During the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Senator J. Lister Hill, of Alabama, stood up and declared his opposition to the bill by arguing that the protection of black rights would necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites. This is the left-footed logic of a career Negrophobe, which should be immediately dismissed. Yet some variation of Hill’s thinking animates the contemporary political climate. Right-to-offend advocates are, willingly or not, trafficking in the same sort of argument for the right to maintain subordination. They are, however, correct in one key respect: there are no safe spaces. Nor, from the look of things, will there be any time soon.