The public outcry over Aliza Shvarts’ senior project focused initially on what her “art” said about abortion. Predictably, anti-choice advocates all over the country (and on this page) tripped over themselves in a scramble to portray Shvarts as representative of the pro-choice movement. Perhaps just as predictably, they ignored the fact that nearly every mainstream pro-choice group has a policy like NARAL’s: “It’s critical to promote policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies and make abortion less necessary.” Repeated induced miscarriages following artificial insemination (if that is, in fact, what happened) hardly seems in line with the desire of pro-choice advocates to reduce demand for abortions by promoting contraception, education and better healthcare. In short, Shvarts’ project trivializes the serious issues surrounding abortion.
Just when the nonsensical abortion hullabaloo was dying down, the Shvarts saga became a tale of free speech horribly and oh-so-unfairly infringed. There is, however, one significant problem with Chase Olivarius-McAllister’s and others’ fanciful yarns: Yale University’s acts do not deny Shvarts’ right to free expression. Yale has denied her the privilege of displaying her artwork (hardly an inalienable right — artists everywhere are denied gallery space on a daily basis) pending, in part, a declaration from her that no human blood will be present in Green Hall. In doing so, Yale has expressed its opposition to her acts — endangering her own life and placing a biohazard in a public place — and not to her speech. The National Basketball League, another organization that has a policy prohibiting blood in its public spaces, enforces official timeouts whenever any player gets even a small cut. The league would never allow a bleeding player to remain on the court merely because he claimed that dunking while dripping blood constitutes “performance art” meant to — in Shvarts’ words — “destabilize the locus of that authorial act” of violently slamming a dimpled ball through a metal hoop.
Yale, of course, is quite a distinct entity from the NBA. Olivarius-McAllister points to the Woodward Report and its defense of “the University’s overriding commitment to free expression” as a reason that Yale should unconditionally and fully support the installation of Shvarts’ work. But her vision of Yale as an institution that values free expression above literally everything else hardly represents the only conception of Yale’s function as an institution. Shvarts’ exhibit and the University’s response have raised an extremely important and undiscussed question: What is the proper role of the university in our society?
I agree with the Woodward Report’s assessment that colleges should expose students to ideas that they may find foreign, wrong, even abhorrent. I will not join fellow columnist Brian C. Thompson in decrying Shvarts for “limit[ing] [his] ability to eat [his] lunch while reading the News last Thursday.” Each of us should expect to be confronted with viscerally unappealing notions once in a while. We should expect to engage with ideas that we truly despise.
But as college students, each of us should also expect to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable” in an environment that courageously and unwaveringly protects our physical and emotional safety. Why does Yale provide psychiatric support and counseling? Why does Yale maintain a police force? Why, for that matter, does Yale require overly inebriated undergraduates to spend a night in DUH? The University does these things because it recognizes that it must balance its mission of providing an unfettered intellectual environment with its duty to us as human beings. When we put ourselves in danger by drinking too much, Yale steps in. If we do so repeatedly, Yale steps in more forcefully.
If Shvarts did in fact repeatedly inseminate herself and take the still-mysterious abortifacient, then she put herself in significant physical danger, according to the doctors interviewed by the News yesterday. That she did so for the sake of “art” should not sway an institution that views us as human beings rather than mere vesicles for “free expression” at any cost. Yale’s current approach to this issue, while far from perfect, reflects a commendable desire to channel our avenues for unfettered free expression away from activities involving self-inflicted injury.
Yale’s response to Shvarts represents a denial of free speech only if we construe any human action labeled “art” as protected expression. To some, undoubtedly, this is an attractive definition despite its unpleasant implications. But to others — including a significant number of parents who sign big checks and send us here to learn and grow — the fact that Yale is willing to set a precedent valuing our physical health over an impossibly limitless definition of “rights” should offer some comfort.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.