Campus needs open, tolerant forum

Something strange is happening at the Yale Law School. Previously undiscovered conservatives are voicing their opinions. And, even in the exceptionally liberal atmosphere that characterizes the Law School, those opinions are being respected. We all have heard of the Wall — or have at least seen it on our hurried way to introductory economics when the security guards let us lowly undergraduates in the front door and through the sacred halls. It is that hallowed piece of stone on which law students are encouraged to post their political and ideological views. Since a recent inundation of the Wall by Republicans, the response has been vociferous. I am consistently astonished by the level of sophistication, wit, respect and thoughtfulness presented in the postings on the Wall, and am not surprised by the occasionally sarcastic but innocuous response to what hangs there. These are posts about abortion, George W. Bush, even diversity at the Law School itself — and nevertheless it remains tradition to respectfully sign postings with one’s initials and class year, and I have never seen a truly inconsiderate response or a personal attack.

There is something to be said — and hopefully this is not too trite — for thinking of Yale as a metaphorical Wall. Most of us learned last year that this is not always the case during the assault of Katherine Lo ’05 — the now-famous then-sophomore who courageously expressed her distaste for the Iraq war by hanging a flag upside down from her window — by pro-war thugs, Yale students themselves (I presume my rhetoric here indicates a bias as regards the war, and I admit to it fully). Lo’s open letter to Yale President Richard Levin circulated Wednesday by e-mail and the Wall at the Law School stand in sharp contrast to each other in evaluating the level of tolerance on one of our country’s best-known college campuses. Something of the collegial atmosphere of the Law School, clearly, is simply not to be found on the broader campus.

It is one thing to thoughtfully and openly clash when there is genuine interest in dialogue. This has been said so many times that it risks sounding hackneyed. I always thought lack of respect for other people’s values was confined to some other part of America, maybe the White House. Unfortunately, it has been consistently proven that Yale is not immune to irresponsible behavior, and most disturbingly as regards respect for others’ opinions.

I certainly do not claim to speak on behalf of Lo, or Concerned Black Students, and while I share their concerns, my point is not theirs. I agree that there is something about the structure of this University — or maybe higher education’s political correctness, or U.S. culture — that too often makes the airing of one’s opinions unreasonably traumatic. I can’t say that I necessarily agree that people suffer (and I certainly can’t say that I have personally experienced) “harassment, discrimination, and assault at the hands of Yale,” to quote Lo’s letter. But there is something intangible that fosters “the racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism [Yale] … neglects to address.”

Perhaps most offensive is when this intolerance creeps into otherwise civilized debate. That a place as forward thinking as Yale would harbor racists or homophobes is appalling to me. But that such people would drag these prejudices into discussions about unrelated issues is far too common. Students should feel at home expressing their opinions, without thinking they might be personally physically or verbally assaulted. There should be no place on this campus for hateful rhetoric and the administration — as Lo and others suggest — should take much more visible and harsher action against it.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like if a similar “Wall” (or, perhaps, some god-awful avant-garde structure) were erected on Cross Campus. The vast majority of the postings, of course, would be interesting, thoughtful and inspiring; but they would be all-too-quickly marred by the prejudice and personal targeting that is so easily injected into — particularly — anonymous dialogue.

I am one to avoid conspiracy theories, and would generally defend Yale’s administration. But even I can see that one must ask of Yale: why the internal disciplinary procedures? Perhaps it was in an attempt to protect Lo that the names of the perpetrators were not released. I doubt it, though, given that she wrote that she is appalled that said thugs “will go on to live lives of privilege … anonymous and unburdened by the consequences of their actions.” Whom is Yale protecting? This is not an old boys’ club; that is not the Yale I applied to.

I am not sure, however, that it is the institution that creates the inequalities that lead to this occasionally brutal atmosphere. Rather, it is students themselves who must take responsibility for their actions, words, and occasionally unyielding ideologies. Indeed, Lo herself was not immune to attacking Levin personally — and to use such rhetoric undermines her more powerful message. The Minority Advisory Committee will hopefully address the concerns of Lo, Concerned Black Students and others. It does not address, however, the general concern of intellectual openness and respect. Things will never be as they should unless we all — administrators, faculty and students — assume responsibility for our opinions and respect for the opinions of others, as I’m sure most Americans, unfortunately incorrectly, assume that all Yalies do.



Jessamyn Blau is a junior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

Comments