It took two weeks and a lot of persuasion, but Yale has finally managed to take the right side of the student-driven 1st Amendment madness that has lately gripped its campus, along with dozens of other campuses nationwide.
Sort of, that is. Out of 4,410 people on its current faculty, 49 Yale faculty members — some of them emeriti — have signed an open letter supporting the 1st Amendment rights of husband-and-wife professors Erika and Nicholas Christakis.
If you don’t know who they are, here’s some context, along with a video you may recall having recently seen. Nicholas Christakis is the poor guy in the blue shirt, getting cussed at by Jerelyn Luther, a social justice warrior-student who became agitated after his wife suggested people shouldn’t get so offended by socially transgressive Halloween costumes.
As an aside, when Luther screeched “Who the **** hired you!?” Christakis could have simply said, “Well, you did. Remember?” But after repeatedly trying and failing to reason with the protesters, he finally gave up and just stood there and took the abuse.
Back to the letter. It’s phrased in a way that makes clear that defending the Christakises shouldn’t be a tough call. That’s another way of saying that its author might have had a hard time indeed convincing even 49 faculty to sign, if the letter had taken the stronger (and correct) stance that even discriminatory language is protected by the 1st Amendment and should be defended, on principle, on a university campus.
But it’s not as though either Christakis said anything racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory, so the faculty felt intrepid enough to put a brave face on things:
As faculty colleagues we wish to express our strong support of the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intellectual expression. Free speech of course includes the right to express opinions that are opposed to what may generally be termed liberal or progressive values, but that is not the issue in the current situation. The email that Erika Christakis sent to the Silliman [one of Yale’s residential colleges, where Nicholas is “master”] community did not express support for racist expressions, but rather focused primarily on the question of whether monitoring and criticizing such expression should be done in a top-down manner, when in fact the community involved is a group of college students. One can differ with her suggestion that administrative bodies should not play such an oversight role at Yale, but the suggestion itself clearly does not constitute support for racist expressions. We are deeply troubled that this modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision has been misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech; and hence as justification for demanding the resignation of our colleagues from their posts at Silliman.
While this perpetuates the illusion that racist language is a bridge too far for the 1st Amendment to cover, it nevertheless represents a modicum of civility and sanity that, until recently, had been absent. As student protesters cried out for censorship, many faculty retreated, hesitant to subject their opinions — and, potentially, their careers — to ignorant mob rule.
Yale physics professor Douglas Stone, who penned the letter, told the Yale Daily News there are still faculty members who want to sign the letter — but don’t want to put themselves out there:
Stone told the News that the Halloween email was a useful contribution to campus discourse and that the Christakises are model faculty members who deserve admiration rather than criticism for their efforts to promote intellectual debate on campus.
Stone added that dozens of his colleagues agreed with the content of the letter but declined to sign it for fear of provoking more controversy.
“We have an obligation to say something reasonable about this,” Stone said. “The silence of so many people in terms of really defending the Christakises has solidified the narrative that they did something wrong.”
Good for Stone and good for the Christakises, but you still have to wonder what Stone has in mind when he envisions the kind of free expression that fits his placeholder-transgression of “something wrong.”
For now, though, a common-sense response from faculty at one of America’s most prestigious liberal universities — however tempered and belated — is better than chaos.
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