December 4, 2020

OPINION: Yale University, the Salem witch trials, and political correctness

Have you ever wondered how the Salem witch trials resulted in the deaths of nineteen people before the public intervened?  How could a spell of collective delusion reign unopposed for so long?  There were many motives, and none more apparent than the community’s condemnation of those who criticized a widely-held belief.  Today, that same inability to tolerate the “offensive,” denying the very essence of what constitutes a free society, is alive and well. Only this time, the focal point of the controversy has shifted to a new location: Yale University.

Prior to Halloween, Yale administrators sent out an email discouraging students from wearing culturally insensitive costumes (black face or feathered head dresses, for example).  Students, frustrated that the university felt the need to advise adult college students what they could and could not wear, complained about this advice to Erika Christakis, a Yale staff member whose husband also worked at the university.  In her response, Mrs. Christakis expressed concern for the “coddling” of college students, as President Obama put it earlier this year, and questioned whether the school had overstepped its boundaries.  Since then, protests have sprung up across the campus. This includes a 200 student demonstration at President Salovey’s house at midnight, in which the so-called “Next Yale” movement then read a list to the President, detailing their six principal demands.   And so the stage was set.  

The setting: Yale, a hallmark of higher education in America, an intellectual battleground for the youth to deliberate ideas and shape the world of tomorrow.  The subject: the compatibility of political correctness and freedom of expression.  What could possibly spoil such a picturesque opportunity for meaningful discussion?  

Enter hundreds of students eager to pave the road to a diverse and inclusive society by annihilating every  opinion that contradicts their own.  Enter belligerent factions of students gathering to publicly shame Mrs. and Mr. Christakis, formally demanding their resignation and catching the eyes of the national press in the process.  

Enter those who foolishly believe that the Bill of Rights is merely a suggestion, and can be overlooked when applied to an associate master of Silliman College because, as one shrieking student so elegantly put it, freedom of speech isn’t protected “if it offends [her]!”  The same type of collective delusion, enforced by intimidation and a complete disregard for the opinions of others, has arisen once again at Yale.  Commence the witch hunt.

I don’t want to appear insensitive to all forms of political correctness. In most cases, I believe “politically correct” is a fancy way of saying morally decent or appropriate.  When Donald Trump suggests that Muslims register with the government, he’s not just failing to be “politically correct,” he’s failing to be a decent human being.  Oftentimes, there is no difference between the two classifications.   I acknowledge the issue of unequal personal representation inside and outside college campuses.  I understand that minority students, particularly women, endure many disadvantages which the schools and communities must work together to address.  

If only Mrs. Christakis had clarified in her email that she, too, felt this way.  That would have abated the outrage and allowed the occurrence of productive discussion, right?  Wrong. Her original email did exactly that.

“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” she wrote. “Many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense.  I laud these goals.”

Mrs. Christakis has since resigned, issuing a statement that properly decried Yale as a place not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

The time has come to stop injecting offense where there need only be discussion, to stop preventing discussion for fear of offending, and to stop celebrating intolerance under the guise of political correctness.

 

(Alex Doe ’16, News Editor)

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