The Yale Halloween Costume Email Debacle Is More Complicated Than It Looks

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If you’ve not been following the ongoing Yale Halloween costume “controversy” — and who could blame you? — it went something like this: A student committee sent a campus-wide email asking students dressing up for Halloween to consider whether their costumes might be offensive to minorities, and decide in this light whether wearing them was a great idea. The request drew the ire of early childhood studies lecturer Erika Christakis, who sent an email to her students, wondering, “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?” (She clearly hasn’t been to any frat parties lately.) This, in turn, drew the ire of students who felt Christakis was ridiculing legitimate concerns; an open letter from students to Christakis was duly published, and all hell broke loose.

There are two separate issues at play here, and Christakis’ email — and much of the subsequent controversy, such as it is — makes the mistake of conflating one with the other. The first, obviously, is Halloween costumes and the vexed question of cultural appropriation.

It’s worth reading the message that drew Christakis’ ire before rushing to form an opinion here, because the email in question is… well, it’s pretty reasonable, actually. It basically asks students to look at their costumes and make sure they’re not ridiculing an already oppressed minority. It’s not as if Yale was trying to ban such costumes, or otherwise dictate what its students could or couldn’t do; the email simply urged them to think carefully about what they wore.

This essentially amounts to making the suggestion, “Don’t be a dickhead” — a request that is, admittedly, apparently beyond the capacity of large swathes of today’s student bodies, but a reasonable one nonetheless. Sure, students, you have the right to dress as whatever you want. If you want to do blackface or wear a Native American headdress, no one’s going to stop you. But maybe think about why you feel it’s so important for you to be able to do so, and why you care so little about the feelings of people who might not find said costume as hilarious as you do.

It’s hard to take issue with this, and one suspects that Christakis jumped on it as a way of projecting broader views about student sensitivity onto a relatively innocuous issue, because the second issue that Christakis’ email touches on is the idea that universities aren’t the hotbeds of radical thought that they once were: “American universities,” she writes, “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.”

This is an entirely different issue, and one that has very little to do with Halloween costumes; no one’s intellectual growth has ever been fundamentally impacted by the answer to the question of whether or not they can make asses of themselves at a dress-up party. But Halloween costumes aside, the alleged straitjacketing of campus thought is a complaint that one tends to hear a lot these days.

The usual narrative is that free speech is being stifled by political correctness and liberal language policing: pieces like this and this have become increasingly frequent in the past few years, contributing to a view that universities — once places where student firebrands challenged each other’s ideas in free and frank exchanges that left everyone involved intellectually enriched — are now nanny states where spelling “women” without a “y” or using the wrong acronym in referring to the LBGT community will get you hung, drawn, and quartered by the forces of political correctness.

Whether you buy into this idea really depends on your point of view, but given that America is still a country that produces people like, y’know, the entire parade of clowns running for the Republican nomination, one can’t help but think the possibility of its higher education institutions being too left wing is the least of its problems. Equally, the question of exactly how radical campuses used to be in comparison to what they’re like today remains an open one: I wasn’t alive in the alleged glory days of student activism, and neither were most of Flavorwire’s readers, so we can only go by anecdotal evidence as to the veracity of boomers’ claims about what college was like back in their day.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because you’re comparing apples to oranges — universities today are not what they were even a generation ago. If diversity of thought is a problem on American campuses, it’s not because kids at Yale can’t dress up in naughty costumes for Halloween. It’s because if you’re putting yourself in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to attend university, your primary concern is getting a return on your investment. The idea of studying a subject out of interest, or for the love of knowledge, is a utopian fantasy in 2015. If everyone at your university is there to do whatever’s necessary to pass their exams, collect their degree, and get themselves a well-paid job with which to pay back those crushing loans, then you’re not exactly creating an environment conducive to intellectual growth.

If anything, the fact that one of America’s most respected institutions of higher learning is embroiled in an ongoing debate about free speech in regard to freaking Halloween costumes is more telling than anything else. Is this really the hill we’re going to die on? When Slate argues that Christakis and her husband are being “scapegoated for defending the crucial liberal tradition of free speech,” it’s hard not to despair of the whole sorry business. If the best Yale can offer its students in the way of provocative thought is institutional approval for wearing an obnoxious Halloween costume, the problem goes a lot deeper than “free speech.”