We’ve started the year with a fresh assault on our community values: there’s an e-mail that has been in circulation entitled Scouting Report, and it rates some women in the Class of 2013 based on characteristics I will not dignify with repetition here — nor is it my goal to discuss the e-mail. Any such document that categorizes one group in order to prey upon it is anathema to our life as a community.
But what do I mean, community values? Let me first turn to the language that the University uses to define threats, intimidation and harassment — and which considers the nuanced difference with acts of incivility that may not rise to this level. (It’s useful to read through the section on General Conduct and Discipline in the Undergraduate Regulations at http://www.yale.edu/yalecollege/publications/uregs/index.html.) Here insulting and offensive language may closely neighbor the direct threat — which indeed calls for action. On the other hand, insulting language may also be protected speech within Yale’s guidelines to free speech — guidelines which acknowledge that speech can be provocative, disturbing and hurtful. (For a review of Yale’s policies on speech, please see the Woodward Report, located at http://www.yale.edu/yale300/collectiblesandpublications/specialdocuments/Freedom_Expression/freedom1975.pdf.)
Yet simply because one is permitted to use vulgar, vile and deplorable language does not mean that the community must condone it or worse, seem to go along with it. What we seek in free speech is speech that seeks to push the boundaries of thought, not the boundaries of decency and civility. I especially hope that no one sees these boundaries of decency and civility as the best test of the freedom of speech at Yale. Since the circulation of this e-mail came to the attention of members of my office and others at Yale, many individuals have spoken out against it. Let me join those who do so, and in the strongest terms.
Once again — if we return to incidents of the recent past at Yale, with hateful slogans chalked on building exteriors, signs made in snow or initiations into one group at the cost of ridiculing another — this moment needs to be one that brings out the best in Yale students and that brings up the conversations that need to be held. “Oh, get over it,” one might hear in a dining hall. But I would urge you to ask questions, and to probe the nature of resentment that can underpin hateful or predatory statements. What these statements share is a perceived anonymity, in most cases, by their makers or actors: the e-mail, like chalk on a wall, seems to have no author. Would you say these same things to someone you know, a family member, a classmate, a teammate, a lab partner? Is there something to be learned here that will move us past the slurs casually thrown out at a party or on the walls of Facebook? The cloak of silence may set loose our darkest demons: to combat that silence, speak out, speak with one another and speak up. You can make a difference.
Mary Miller is the dean of Yale College.