Two summers ago, I shared many of my meals with two kids, five and eight. I was working in Boston, and my sublet search led me to a family of four who were somehow crazy and warmhearted enough to let me live in a spare room in their home.
Some of our meals were funny. Other times, there was teasing. The eight-year-old might say something insensitive to the five-year-old, and then the five-year-old would give it right back. Meals would sometimes end in tears or storming off. In these instances, the siblings’ father, Adam, would ask a simple question.
“Was that helpful?”
Now, I’m not an early childhood specialist by any means, but I found this technique ingenious. It allowed for reflection. Rather than delivering an outright reprimand, Adam placed the burden on his children to decide what was helpful. Teasing, it turned out, was not.
The “helpful” test, as I will call it, can help us work through the controversies and comments that have embroiled our campus conversations over the past week. I’ll start chronologically.
On Oct. 28, Dean Burgwell Howard and the Intercultural Affairs Committee wrote an email that expressed the “hope that people would actively avoid … circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”
Was that helpful?
Yes. The email itself employed the helpful test by allowing students to decide for themselves whether or not their costumes would be offensive in some way. There was no coercion, and no one’s freedom of expression was violated. It passed the muster of the helpful test. At a school where “being a decent human being” is not a distributional requirement, the email offered a crash course.
Not long after, Silliman Associate Master Erika Christakis offered her own views in an email to her college, claiming that Howard’s email was a potential threat to free thinking. “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society,” she claims.
Was that helpful?
Free speech is important to introducing new ideas, challenging norms or assumptions and cultivating leaders who can think for themselves. It should go without saying that everyone at an institution of higher learning is guaranteed the right to free speech. But Christakis’ email marginalized the very segments of our population who are, in fact, hurt by costumes based on racist tropes and stereotypes. In that sense, it was unhelpful — under the helpful test, she shouldn’t have pressed “send.”
Folks who don’t understand that racism and misogyny can operate in very small, often hard-to-see ways allege that trigger warnings and “safe spaces” threaten free speech. They act as though students claiming to feel “uncomfortable” at places like Yale are calling for the entire campus to be covered in foam, rather than for basic decency.
But a trigger warning for sexual assault doesn’t stop a movie from portraying violence. Being cognizant of microaggressions doesn’t mean that a productive and open discussion cannot take place. Sensitivity is not censorship.
These tools don’t keep people from saying whatever they want. They offer a better way to conduct oneself, one that recognizes how power and privilege operate through our everyday interactions with each other. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. The helpful test sets a higher bar.
We can apply this test across campus. Is it helpful that predominantly white, male spaces have a monopoly on the campus social scene? Is it helpful that Nicholas Christakis is tweeting about the controversy, and then retweeting those tweets from Silliman’s official Twitter, effectively preempting any conversation a student might want to pursue with the head of her residential college, her home? Is it helpful that faculty members of color in African American Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration have left over the past few years because it has taken Yale until just now to invest in faculty diversity initiatives?
As a white male, I had to ask myself when writing this column — is this helpful? I hope it will be. The helpfulness test can’t solve all our problems, but it can keep us from saying dumb stuff and make our conversations more productive. The right to say stupid stuff does not mean stupid stuff is right to say.
Even my eight-year-old dinner companion had the capacity to understand whether or not his words were helpful. “Was that helpful?” is a simple question. And that’s why it’s so brilliant.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .