Understanding in the wake of Yale and Mizzou
A few careful considerations may be in order in the wake of recent protests at Yale and the University of Missouri (Mizzou).
To sum up the events at Yale: The administrators sent out a pre-Halloween message warning students to be mindful of costumes that could be offensive. Two professors, the Christakis couple that live on campus as “masters” of a residential college—similar to our Faculty Fellows—sent out a follow-up email to the administrators. Their email was not a backlash but a simple statement claiming students should consider themselves powerful enough to address this issue in the student community. If a student found a costume offensive, he/she could address the issue directly to the offending student and avoid administrative inclusion.
The email has led to some significant outrage among Yale students, who claim that Christakis’ email is insensitive to minorities. Some read the email as a pressure to submit to offensive costumes, to not speak out. A video online shows a group of students confronting Mr. Christakis and walking away before the master could respond. There was an obvious break in belief, and students refused to talk.
Actions will always have unforeseen consequences. People do not always mean to offend, yet it happens—for everyone and to everyone. The most disturbing part of the video is when the student yells: “You should step down!”
As students of an exceptionally expensive university, we are now more than ever consumers of our college experiences. Since we pay more, we can demand more, and that has led to great progress—just last week the College of Arts & Sciences granted departmental status to the former Women and Gender Studies Program, something that students had wanted for a while. As we’ve seen at the University of Missouri, assembled students have the power to oust even the presidents of our schools. This is an unprecedented amount of power we now hold.
There is also a definite strategy among certain social activists that works on a harsh reactionary basis. Someone in power says something offensive, the cry goes out for that person to pay, and pay dearly.
In a time when students have so much influence, it is paramount to always consider the option of forgiveness. Immediate condemnation and scapegoating are not productive policies for social change.
People make mistakes all the time—especially us college students. If we consider these disagreements first from the stance of: “Can I forgive this person?” we can begin addressing these issues with a dialogue. If a Halloween costume is offensive, don’t immediately judge the person wearing it as malicious; perhaps they are only uninformed, as we all are to some degree. If you get an email that irks you, the first step should always be to talk, to discuss and to consider the opposing side.
To conclude, we must remember that forgiveness carries over to these protestors. For instance, there is the Mizzou professor who was caught on video bullying a journalist, calling “muscle” to remove him from behind the line of protestors. She has since submitted an apology. In my mind, she has made up for her mistakes and should not be fired. For all we know, that accusatory Yale student feels the same. Humans have the unfortunate tendency to perform regrettable actions. Yet, we will never be able to truly grow from these issues if our first actions are to dismiss or fire or slander. If we fail to start with forgiveness and an open conversation, there will be nothing to learn.
In this modern age when technology allows such readable attention on the Internet and in our schools, we must recognize the importance of restraint. Washington University will doubtless experience rifts in the coming years. Students, parents and professors will all be offended at some time, and we never have the authority to say whether someone’s feelings are valid or not, whether they need to “suck it up.” The only way we can address these issues is to talk.
Sometimes, forgiveness fails, and students must consider other options. Some matters demand swift, prompt and severe action against those who fail to act inclusively. Yet we hope that is seldom the case. A conversation can almost always get us a little bit closer to understanding. And understanding, we can all agree, is exactly what college students pay for.