The Problems with Erika Christakis' Email : A Close Reading

I have been alternately excited and a little troubled about what's been happening this week on college campuses -- especially Yale and Missouri -- this past week.

From where I stand, what happened at the University of Missouri was pretty exhilarating. University presidents who come into the job straight from the corporate world (Tim Wolfe had a background in the software industry) may be good fundraisers, but they typically can't handle crises or criticisms the way long-term academic veterans typically can. Universities cannot be run like corporations; you can't just fire a troublesome department chair or disgruntled student group the way you can if you are the CEO of Novell. I'm pretty sure the students there will be better off in the long term with someone who really knows the university culture and is therefore better positioned to help build a better and more inclusive campus community down the road.

My own university had a crisis following an incident of racial hate speech in recent years (I wrote about it here), and responded carefully by engaging with student demands and making real changes to address ongoing problems of campus climate. Faced with a similar situation, I believe Lehigh did better -- and had a better outcome as a result.

What's been happening at Yale is a little more complex. I read Professor Erika Christakis' email when this story broke last week and immediately found it problematic, with serious issues of tone and rhetorical positioning. It's a hot mess that poses as thoughtful provocation. 

But I also don't quite understand why students can't express their legitimate anger through proportional response. Free speech advocates have been circulating a video of a student engaged in a kind of bullying and one-sided exchange with Nicholas Christakis that made me cringe, and think, "we can do better than this."

So here is my attempt to model what I wish that student would have done: a critique of Erika Christakis' email to students in Silliman college at Yale in her capacity as Associate Master. My source for the email is this website
Erika Christakis: Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.
Not starting off too promisingly. Professor Christakis wants to bring her own research and teaching interests into the conversation, but there's a disconnect between her example of the "specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics" and the question about what kinds of costumes might be appropriate for college students in a diverse academic community to wear. These are two different things. 

The flawed premise here is going to be the source of much of the more serious trouble to come in later paragraphs.
Erika Christakis: I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
What's weird about this is the presumption she makes -- as part of the university administration -- to criticize the "bureaucratic and administrative" exercise of authority over college students. If students she had been speaking with disagreed with the restrictions the upper administration was requesting, why not let them make that critique? Why is she presuming to do it for them?

There is a deep rhetorical awkwardness inherent in telling students that they should want to be more rebellious in the face of these rather sensible restrictions (don't dress in black face! don't wear a mohawk and dress up as a "sexy Pocahontas"!) than they in fact are.
Erika Christakis: It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
"Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18?" This is simple: the answer is, it's not okay if you are eighteen. Why isn't that obvious?  

College students are adults who have to take responsibility for their actions and statements. Yes, there is an old idea of college as a somewhat protected space, where students should be allowed to make mistakes and figure out the best ways to make their points felt. I probably benefited from that when I was in college and made some mistakes of my own. 

But that space doesn't exist any longer in the social media era, and it's high time we recognized that. The prospect of cameras everywhere recording everything does put more pressure on students to learn quickly how to negotiate the line between playful expression and hurtful speech or insulting appropriation. But by the time they reach college, most students have already had some experience dealing with that; people had cellphones in high school too. Growing up along these lines is now a central part of learning how to be a responsible adult in a diverse and complex society.

On with the email: 
Erika Christakis: Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.
Here I really threw up my hands. "But I really, really like them too." Really? This is just a very embarrassing thing for her to have put in this email. "Is the trade in blood diamonds wrong? Probably. But I really, really like having shiny things." 

Now let's wrap up:
Erika Christakis: Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: 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? American universities 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. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity – in your capacity - to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?
In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?
It's not mine, I know that.

Amidst the ongoing awkwardness ("guys, why don't you want to be more offensive?") and tone-deafness there are actually a couple of good points here. I do think there is a role for students to engage in self-censure and social norming. If a student wears something that another student finds offensive, the first recourse should probably be person-to-person conversation. People who make mistakes and who attempt to redress complaints about their behavior in good faith ought, in general, to be given a little leeway. But there is also a role that can be played by administrators engaged in student life when that doesn't work the way it should. To me, it just seems really odd for an administrator to say, "why can't you guys just police yourselves?"

That forgiveness we might extend to students who make mistakes might have held true for Professor Erika Christakis, by the way. The best response to this type of awful email under ideal conditions would have been to publish a sharp refutation in the student newspaper. In this case, the letter is such a mess that a witty Yalie could probably generate an on-point parody in her sleep (i.e., "American universities were once a safe space for racist and homophobic secret societies where young men routinely got naked and whipped each other with wooden paddles as initiation rites. Have we lost faith in young people's capacity to decide whether they want to continue those hallowed traditions?").

(Update: A group of students did post a letter responding on the internet here. It makes many of the points I do above, but also has some rhetorical problems of its own.)

But of course the conditions are not ideal and we're now past the point where any of that could happen. Professor Christakis thought she was writing a note to young people to authorize them to resist what the authorities were telling them to do, but what she and her husband (Nicholas Christakis, who appears in the video linked to above) have found is a form of resistance against authority they could never have anticipated. The authority being resisted is their own.