It is possible, though not likely, that Yale will have taken decisive action to resolve the “YALE SLUTS” dispute by the time this column goes to press. National blogs have picked up the story, and Yale as an institution never moves more rapidly than when its reputation is under threat (see also: last year’s stage weapons ban; Harvard’s financial-aid-reform proposal). Even if the whole thing has been forgotten by tomorrow, however, the administration’s refusal to intervene thus far in a threatened lawsuit between two groups of Yale undergraduates is disturbing.
Conventional wisdom has been that the Women’s Center should be seeking disciplinary action from the University rather than the courts. But the center’s response — that it doesn’t trust the University to take effective action — isn’t just the complaint of a few cranky feminists. Yale deliberately crafts its policies on speech issues to avoid direct engagement and arbitration between student groups. This week has shown how thoroughly these tactics have failed, exacerbating conflicts they hoped to resolve.
Most consider this incident another volley in the ongoing match between free-speech advocates and “hate speech” detractors — a dangerous characterization, as it is potentially more severe. Zeta Psi’s offense, in my opinion, was less the creation of the sign than the decision to have a dozen physically imposing and intoxicated pledges pose and chant with that sign outside the Women’s Center during a likely time for rape victims to visit the center seeking a “safe space.” The line between offense and intimidation — a line ardent defenders of free expression need to draw — requires understanding that the behavior that accompanies words is equally important.
But making judgments on intimidation that involves speech requires an ability to make judgments on speech-related issues as a whole. While Yale’s Web site contains statements both defending speech (the 1975 Woodward Report) and restricting it (its harassment policy), the University’s official actions have scrupulously avoided active enforcement of either. This seems to be a deliberate choice on the part of the administration, and indeed, letting students define acceptable speech among themselves rather than conforming to administrative dictate is a laudable goal.
But (as many libertarians on campus need to learn) nonintervention is itself a policy insofar as it allows certain factors to prevail over others. In this case, Yale’s nonpolicy assumes that debate among individuals will create a collective consensus that will be strong enough to dissuade offensive speech acts. In fact, individuals gravitate toward groups of like-minded individuals, often represented by undergraduate organizatiwons such as fraternities or the Women’s Center (or cultural houses or publications).
It is these groups, rather than the individuals who comprise them, that engage in public action. In cases of controversy, they become antagonistic rather than collaborative, preventing productive discussion from occurring without Yale’s intervention. Yale refuses to make the necessary waves, hoping instead that students will “learn their lesson” without having anyone actually do the teaching.
Yale can discipline individuals for these infractions without causing a stir, and occasionally it does — the lone ExComm appearance incurred for being offensive was related to the 2006 NOGAYS e-mail, traced to an individual rather than a group. (Even then, the official ExComm charge was one of technical violation of e-mail policy, though it seemed to be a case of selective enforcement.) If individuals lose liability when their actions are group actions, they also lose responsibility. Yale’s attempts to avoid interfering in students’ lives actually impede their moral development.
And as much as the phrase “moral development” may smack of Puritanism or the Christian right, it’s also an important component of creating global leaders — a goal Yale isn’t shy about proclaiming for its students. Professionally, Yale puts a lot of effort into grooming us for elite leadership. Ethically, it falls short.
This reflects an impoverished vision of what the “global leader” actually is. By pushing us to think of leadership by looking to a future outside of campus, rather than to our current environment, the University doesn’t just stunt our moral growth but makes it less likely that we will put in the necessary energy to resolve the conflicts we currently face — after all, doing so won’t pad our resumes. Joining an organization and leading protest efforts will.
Yale may hope that its inaction will cause students to sit down with each other and sort out their differences, but its efforts in other arenas incentivize anything but conflict resolution. Just because Yale doesn’t take institutional action doesn’t mean it can claim neutrality or respond to students’ anger by claiming it is not to blame.
Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.