Everyday Feminism. Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And people/publications like you. You have a responsibility. I'm all for banning bullies and spammers from commenting on your social media. But it's cowardly to block everyone who disagrees with you because they disagree with you.
Maybe instead of doing that... you should only post articles that you can support with data. Or, at the very least, agree to disagree. Stand up for what you believe in -- and encourage your readers to do the same! Just please, stop fostering narrow-mindedness and victimhood culture.
I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We've seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to "offensive" texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn't the only one who made adjustments, either.
I am frightened by the thought that a student would complain, accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.
Yet schools across the nation are increasingly becoming slaves to students' emotions. It's not empowering -- it's enabling! Law students are asking their schools not to teach rape law, lest it upset students. In one case, students petitioned against the use of the word "violate" (as in, "it violates the law"), because the word could be "triggering." Questions such as, "Where are you from?" have been banned -- as well as opinions like, "I believe the most qualified person should get the job."
Which is why I felt like it was almost my responsibility to dress as microaggressions for Halloween.
- "I believe that anyone can succeed."
- "Where are you from?"
- "America is a melting pot."
- "I believe that the most qualified person should get the job."
- 18-inch airplane seats
- Looking at a woman's ring finger
- Opinions that disagree with mine
My date, in case it wasn't clear from the photo, was a trigger warning. We were both inspired by the Atlantic piece, and are both appalled by the anti-science movement. So we tried to get a group together, in which one person would dress as censorship (they'd look naked, but with either black or pixelated boxes over their junk), and another, more abstract pair would dress as BDSM, with the sub wearing a sign that said "Logic and Reason" and the dom wearing one that said "EMOTIONS!"
But no one wanted to dress up with us, because they, like so many college professors, were afraid their lives would be ruined by social justice warriors -- which, as Jon Ronson demonstrates in his bestselling book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, is traumatizing and terrifying and definitely not something I would wish on someone whose only crime was a stupid tweet or Halloween costume.
Justin and I got off easy -- whether due to low public awareness (I think our peer group might be just a little older than the one that's invested so heavily in victimhood culture), or poor execution of our costumes (I never said I was an artist...), about 99% of people did not know what victimhood culture, microaggressions and trigger warnings were, and no one got offended at us.
I'd've thought more people would get it... and I thought it might trigger (pun intended) some interesting conversations.
Kind of like what Yale Professor Erika Christakis thought would happen when she sent the following email to students in her college:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 offense 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.
But instead of being like, "Oh, that is an interesting perspective -- I disagree, though. Here's what I see as the difference between an 8-year-old and an 18-year-old blonde girl dressing as Mulan," students at Yale are just kind of like:
It is clear from the above video that students do, in fact, feel a lot of pain. But it's hard to understand why Christakis's email made anyone feel unsafe. After all, she explicitly said,
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.
I would have loved to see a conversation about how students from certain religions might feel uncomfortable around students who are showing a lot of skin -- but, for some reason, we don't care about that. We care that our peers not wear headdresses, because it might make Native American students uncomfortable... but we don't worry that, in some students' culture, it is highly inappropriate or offensive to see a woman's skin.
Because I'm all about feminism and girl power and stuff. And, one time, I got an email from an admin in a building I worked in saying that, "due to one man's religion," women should make sure their shorts are knee-length, or something ridiculous. And my response was resoundingly, "Fuck that guy. If he can't look at the skin above my knee without having perverted thoughts, that's his problem. He should take it up with God." And obviously, I wore the shortest dress possible the next morning. How dare some anonymous religious dude try to control how I dress?
Yet last year, when I dressed as Sexy Allen Iverson for Halloween:
This year, when I dressed as Bethany Hamilton, I worried that people would attack me for being an ableist or something. But why can't I admire a badass surfer chick who only has one arm? Why can't I admire someone who has taught us so much about psychology?
Even if either of these costumes were slightly subjectively offensive... is that really enough to make someone feel unsafe? According to The Washington Post, yes. Yes it is. As per The New Intolerance of Student Activism,
According to the Washington Post, “several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore.” These are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?
Another Silliman resident declared in a campus publication, “This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted [our] lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns.” One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain...
As students saw it, their pain ought to have been the decisive factor in determining the acceptability of the Halloween email. They thought their request for an apology ought to have been sufficient to secure one. Who taught them that it is righteous to pillory faculty for failing to validate their feelings, as if disagreement is tantamount to disrespect? Their mindset is anti-diversity, anti-pluralism, and anti-tolerance, a seeming data-point in favor of April Kelly-Woessner’s provocative argument that “young people today are less politically tolerant than their parents’ generation.”
The most recent incident occurred over the weekend. During a conference on freedom of speech, Greg Lukianoff reportedly said, “Looking at the reaction to Erika Christakis’s email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.” An attendee posted that quote to Facebook. “The online Facebook post led a group of Native American women, other students of color and their supporters to protest the conference in an impromptu gathering outside of LC 102, where the Buckley event was taking place,” the Yale Daily News reported.
A bit later the protesters disgraced themselves (emphasis added):
Around 5:45 p.m., as attendees began to leave the conference, students outside chanted the phrase “Genocide is not a joke” and held up written signs of the same words. Taking Howard’s reminder into account, protesters formed a clear path through which attendants could leave. A large group of students eventually gathered outside of the building on High Street. According to Buckley fellows present during the conference, several attendees were spat on as they left. One Buckley fellow said he was spat on and called a racist. Another, who is a minority himself, said he has been labeled a “traitor” by several fellow minority students. Both asked to remain anonymous because they were afraid of attracting backlash.
I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either -- that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.
Related to empowerment is autonomy. Our desire to make our own choices and solve our own problems is hardwired. When employees feel they don't have control over their work schedule or job, they hate their job. When people feel like they don't have control over their lives, they hate their lives. When old people in nursing homes feel like they have more control over their lives, they don't die. Autonomy is that important to our health and happiness.
Victimhood culture is characterized by helplessness, and people would almost certainly be better off if they found ways to empower themselves and establish autonomy, rather than feeling victimized and offended. Instead of trying to strip others of their autonomy, forcing apologies and resignations whenever you're offended... reframe your thinking. And maybe engage with ideas that are different from yours. I do -- and, as a result, my thoughts and ideas are changing all the time.
I leave you with this: