As we filed into Woolsey Hall for the freshman address, I had a sneaking suspicion about what President Peter Salovey might say that day. I was ready for a long-overdue conversation on racist structures at Yale, yet a speech I naively thought might reach a “Black Lives Matter” crescendo instead stumbled into nothing more than a subtle attempt to rebrand preserving the status quo as an intellectual virtue.
Unfortunately, that deliberate framing went largely unnoticed. In the immediate aftermath of the address, I asked a few of my friends their thoughts. Though most agreed the name Calhoun should go, many praised Salovey for coming at the issue from a neutral standpoint and framing the debate in a productive way.
But, of course, he didn’t.
Viewing the speech as rational and impartial dangerously ignores a crucial paragraph near the end of his address that sought to undermine voices of dissent. In this section about how he wanted the conversation to take place, Salovey dismissed “competing petitions or protests, anonymous blogging or social media intimidation,” and encouraged us to engage only in “rational, open discourse that characterizes an intellectual community.”
Though such framing might have seemed reasonable to the freshmen in the room, the seniors knew he simply did not want students to speak up in the ways through which we have previously been successful.
Constraining the rules of debate is not, in fact, impartial, for the way in which we communicate is every bit as political as the words we speak. Students at Yale are angry. Anger is a valid emotion. And protest is a powerful expression of that emotion. Any attempt to delegitimize such anger silences the voices of those most affected by maintaining the status quo.
Petitions, protests and social media can leverage the collective power of the many against the entrenched power of the few. Restricting debate by taking away that power from us or even casting doubt about their legitimacy is itself a political decision on Salovey’s part and betrays his own bias.
Typically, in anything from financial aid to divesting from fossil fuels, students are forced to bring knives to a gun fight when going up against the Yale Corporation. But now we have been told that even our knives are no longer fair play.
The absurd irony of Salovey’s insistence on respectability politics is that without the very unpleasant tactics he dismissed, he would never have felt compelled to address the debate in the first place.
#BlackLivesMatter, which has empowered the voices of black people in spaces typically dominated by elites, gave an undeniable fuel to the recent felling of Confederate symbols across the South. And yet, what has now become a full-fledged social movement with concrete policy proposals did not start as an academic paper or as a well-polished speech on the Senate floor. Rather, it started as a trending hashtag on Twitter and spilled into the streets of cities across the country.
“Social media intimidation” and “protests” — two apparently illegitimate forms of expression according to Salovey’s “intellectual community” standards.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many of the students Salovey addressed on Saturday would have even been in that hall had activists been barred from leveraging the political power of protests, sit-ins and boycotts so many decades ago.
But Salovey knows this. He knows where the majority of students stand on the issue of Calhoun College, and he also knows the tactics that otherwise powerless students have previously had to deploy in order to make the Yale Corporation pay attention.
Salovey’s preemptive strike against what he considers unpleasant politics makes sense only if we view it as a deliberate decision to favor a certain outcome. By shaping the debate in such a way that encourages an implicit bias against protests, petitions and social media in the minds of the Yale community early on, he purposively undermines the voices of marginalized students who might otherwise finally be heard.
We cannot be fooled by such faux impartiality.
In calling for “an open conversation” about John Calhoun’s legacy at Yale, Salovey wanted to appear balanced. He claimed he was simply establishing rules of order and then letting the best arguments win. But, in fact, the game is rigged. And the decision to preserve the status quo — which administrators will deceptively tell our community was the result of an objective contest — has already been made.
I welcome Salovey’s overdue invitation to a conversation on Calhoun’s stain on this University, and I look forward to the debate. But we cannot accept his terms. We will protest. We will petition. And we will blog.
Because, as the writer Audre Lorde put it best, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Tyler Blackmon is a senior in Jonathan Edward College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .