We are frustrated and saddened by Dean Trachtenberg’s recent decision to ban the use of realistic stage weapons on campus. We believe that this decision, made in response to an incomprehensible tragedy, condemns our community for the discussions it is mature enough to handle. This act of petty censorship flies in the face of a long University tradition that we hold up as an example for universities across the globe.
“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. … Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed,” as the Woodward Report, Yale’s official policy on freedom of expression, indicates.
Dean Trachtenberg’s decision to ban stage weapons not only violates this principle, it also represents a puzzling conception of what is actually offensive and harmful. Forbidding the use of realistic swords while allowing massacre and the pointing of crossbows onstage creates inconsistency by applying a clumsy standard of acceptability to a dialogue that must be treated with the utmost sensitivity.
Surely, the administration must play a role in responding to the Virginia Tech shootings, but we fail to see how censoring art will help the healing of any college student, or the promotion of a national dialogue on the deep and poorly understood causes of violence in our country. Art deserves special protection because it removes us from the details of everyday life to present new perspectives. The artistic contributions of Yale students are a strength of our community and a source of our prestige. That long tradition of artistic and expressive freedom has taught the student body how best to respond to controversy. In recent debates about free speech, students themselves have judged what is inappropriate; though official help was appreciated, top-down solutions indicate a lack of trust in those the University is supposed to prepare to be adults, friends and leaders.
To be blunt, Dean Trachtenberg’s rationale is an insulting one. To suggest that there is no legitimate ground for opposition to her policy, and that anyone who opposes the decision is “selfish,” “feeling sorry for themselves” or “not using their own intelligence,” denies dialogue. If it’s true that using stage weapons could hurt those who were affected by the Virginia Tech attacks, why doesn’t Yale censor any sort of material in any play that could remind students of national or personal trauma, from domestic violence to the war in Iraq? If we are ridiculed for speaking up in response to this silly censorship, who will dare speak up in times of greater artistic risk? The freedom to use “a dull knife to cut a cabbage,” while surely inoffensive, sets a precedent that will affect Yale artists in ways we do not yet understand.
No one on campus seems happy with this decision, and it certainly isn’t receiving good press in the blogosphere or in traditional media like the Chicago Sun-Times. In a year when Yale’s good name has been trashed by cheap demagogues for a variety of partisan reasons — flag-burning, Hashemi, Calhoun’s showers — this is not the way to rehabilitate Yale’s reputation nationally. As this story gathers steam, most Americans will see this as the response of an administration that misunderstands what it means to be sensitive to tragedy and ignores the views of the University community in favor of blindly worshipping political correctness. Being called “out of touch with America” would be understandable if we were at least in touch with ourselves.
This decision has ramifications beyond Yale, because it provides the wrong answer to the question, “What is a university?” If it’s true, as President Levin recently wrote in Newsweek, that leading universities in China and elsewhere “have been carefully studying America’s top institutions for new ideas,” what message are we sending? If our university cannot handle this controversy, how will pro-democracy students at PKU ever find the capacity to deal with far more serious issues?
We understand that Dean Trachtenberg’s authority is built in part upon a reputation of toughness and decisiveness. It’s also built upon a reputation for sensitive decision-making, fostering student activity and defending the best of Yale. This policy is intended to heal, but only holds our voices hostage to the tragedy they seek to address.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. David Kasten is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. This column was written with the support of the Yale American Civil Liberties Union and the Yale College Libertarians.