Settling upon a concrete definition for hate speech, let alone finding a way to prevent it from occurring at Yale, proved difficult for dozens of students who attended an open forum about on-campus racism sponsored by seven campus groups Tuesday evening.
In response to recent incidents of alleged intolerance, the Yale Chaplain’s Office, the Muslim Student Association, the Yale College Council and other student cultural organizations met to discuss what constitutes racism and how to discourage prejudice. While many students at the forum said the administration should help Yalies understand when their speech or actions are hurtful to others, some said students are too quick to judge offensive acts as evidence of hatred. A number of attendees left the discussion frustrated by the lack of progress made towards developing a possible plan of action, they said.
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YCC representatives said the appearances this semester of anti-Muslim and anti-gay posters on campus bulletin boards have given new urgency to the need to reevaluate student culture. YCC President Emery Choi ’07 said it is important to maintain an atmosphere that encourages free speech, but intolerance abuses that right.
“These acts have no place on this campus,” Choi said.
University Chaplain Rev. Frederick Streets, who moderated the event, said that while he appreciates anything that encourages discussion about discrimination, he found the recent waves of intolerance that prompted the forum disturbing.
“I am not delighted to be here,” he said. “But I hope we can use this opportunity to talk about whether students who live in the shared space of the University really constitute a community.”
Before the discussion began, organizers projected an image of one of the anti-Muslim cartoons that appeared on campus on Nov. 15. They then asked audience members to consider whether the cartoon constituted hate speech and whether ignorance is an excuse for offensive actions. Several students called on the administration to take a more active role in promoting dialogue by instituting an orientation program to educate incoming freshmen about racial issues, a measure University administrators have previously said they are considering.
“So far, we’ve thought about addressing these issues through discussions within the residential colleges facilitated by the deans as well as programmatically such as in freshman orientation,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said in an e-mail to the News in late November.
Muslim Student Association President Altaf Saadi ’08 said the forum was a success because the large turnout included several students who have not attended any of the other planned student discussions about race this semester. She said she thinks it helped many previously uninformed students become more sensitive to these issues.
“The forum itself was not the most important part of this ongoing dialogue,” Saadi said. “It’s about meeting new people who will help us make long-term changes.”
While some students at the forum said they think any satire of race or sexuality in the media should be considered hate speech, a few students said acts that are not intentionally malicious are not evidence of prejudice.
Daniel Barron ’10 said he thinks a desire to appear politically correct compels many Yale students to call offensive acts racism.
“Political correctness can be a problem on this campus because it creates a willingness to see hatred where it actually does not exist,” he said.
While some students said they were glad to have the opportunity to openly address issues of discrimination on campus, others said they did not think the evening was productive because students did not focus on forming an action plan to make Yale a more minority-friendly place.
Gabriele Hayden GRD ’09 said she felt the large amount of time spent on discussion of the definition of hate speech hindered discussion that might lead to real change.
“This manner of debating and discussing all day curtailed any useful discussion we could have had about how to solve these problems,” she said.
YCC representatives and members of cultural organizations said they will meet with administrators regularly in an attempt to find more ways to promote open dialogue on issues of diversity and tolerance at Yale.