Yale had a rough week. A woman reported two Fridays ago that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity hosted a “white girls only” party. Hundreds of students confronted Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis last Thursday about race at Yale. And dozens protested outside the William F. Buckley Program’s conference on free speech this weekend. Hundreds of students of color and their allies exhorted Yale to improve. Yale should heed (much of) their message while deploring (some of) their methods.

ColeAronsonMany students on Cross Campus expressed anger about the alleged — since Yale is investigating, I won’t speculate on the truth of the claim — “white girls only” party and the treatment of minority students generally. A discussion about racism at Yale should include an acknowledgement that a university with so many students feeling so much pain is failing somehow. That said, the reaction to the alleged party is evidence that Yale has already developed some checks on flagrant bigotry. Hours after the initial allegation, hundreds took to social media to sympathize with the alleged victim, SAE’s president was in contact with the Yale administration and, days later, hundreds convened on Cross Campus in solidarity with Yale’s women of color.

While such blatant bigotry is heavily publicized when it occurs, subtler forms of discrimination appear to be much more common. Conservatives especially should admit this. Institutions and people develop behaviors over centuries. It’s not credible to suggest that racism will disappear from Yale’s community just because it’s now populated by liberal Democrats. The difficult question is what counts as racism.

One view of this question was aired to Holloway last Thursday. Students grieved about unsolved mental health problems, the lack of minority faculty in certain departments and callous freshman roommates. I was not in Silliman College later that day but I understand that similar things were said to Master Christakis, along with complaints about the email his wife, professor Erika Christakis, sent the Silliman community two weeks ago. The view of many students was, in effect, that the important thing about an action is how it is received, not the intention behind it.

This view’s main problem is its lack of charity. By divorcing action from actor, it gives a general warrant for people to judge what others say and mean on completely arbitrary and expansive grounds. Was Christakis authorizing students to wear offensive costumes, or making minority students unsafe? Or was she expressing that perhaps certain costumes are, even if in poor taste, meant in jest, rather than in harm? A plain reading of her email yields the latter interpretation. And we consider people’s intentions all the time in everyday life. When someone asks, “How was your day?,” one doesn’t think, “She wants to subject me to miserable reminiscences of the six things that went wrong before lunch.” One thinks, “She cares how I’m doing .”

The lack of charity inherent in judging actions independent of intentions is already having consequences. Many students’ behaved reprehensibly toward Holloway and Christakis, though neither man means students harm. We cannot have a university if students say, “What the f—k have you been doing?” and impute racial betrayal to the Yale College dean, or when a student commands a teacher to be quiet. Whatever conversation Yale has over the coming months, all Yalies should condemn this sort of abuse. And Yale administrators harm their students when it permits them to say such ugly things to authority figures without consequences. That’s simply not how adults behave.

I still think there is something to the view that racism is a matter of reception, rather than intent. Further, those who hold this view and are in pain now deserve acknowledgement. No good discussion can occur without their input. But people who hold that view cannot be permitted to shut down other people from expressing their views simply because they offend. Then, a debate becomes a shouting match, and justice becomes the advantage of those who feel the most strongly. If a difficult discussion leads to cursing and insults, then Yale has failed to instill its students with a respect for the pursuit of truth.

Yale has to proceed along two paths. Too many feel too much hurt. Many students’ wounds need binding. But a wound is not itself an argument. This doesn’t mean it isn’t important: it’s cruel and wrong to tell a suffering friend their feelings don’t matter. But Yale needs a vision for moving past ameliorating pain and toward developing a university based on inquiry and respect. That requires malice toward none, and charity for all.

The world is indeed watching Yale — to see whether it can elevate students past the plane of grief to the plane of discourse, which is the University’s plane par excellence.

Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at cole.aronson@yale.edu .

  • MPNavrozjee

    “This view’s main problem is its lack of charity.”

    Bingo.

    And for those who would say, it is not for the oppressed to initiate charity, remember the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is a deeply powerful insight.

    This is a superb column.

  • credo

    Kudos to the nuance of this argument

  • Jason Zhou

    If MLK were resurrected today and read about these “controversies” on Yale’s campus, he would laugh heartily and promptly forget about them. This is kindergarten stuff. Any minority growing up in the US has had to deal with more much threatening offenses and trauma.

    At the age of 8, I was violent assaulted every day at school because of my race while teachers looked the other way. All through high school, I was mocked for my race and excluded from social circles. When I came to Yale, more than 10 years ago, I was AMAZED at the tolerance and respect for minorities, both at the institutional level and on the individual level.

    I’m tempted to laugh at these “controversies” if not for the opportunity cost. This is Yale! The energies of its students and faculties should be focused on discovering a cure for cancer, or solving our energy crisis, or composing a that grapples with complex human emotions, NOT on nursing the perceived grievances of 18-22 year olds that an 8 year old would scoff at.

  • EG Proulx

    Admirable wisdom so obviously missing from the perspectives of numerous aggrieved complainers. Kudos!

  • Yale ’10

    As a Yale alum, it is so reassuring to read this op-ed. Even my most progressive friends were beginning to wonder if students at Yale had lost their sense of reason. Thank you.

  • Earl Wertheimer

    Nice thoughts, too late. The hurt has trumped the discussion. No answer other than complete abdication is possible. Get out while you can…

  • fignewton

    A very rational and thoughtful piece. Nice work!

  • Nick Layzer

    A thoughtful piece. I take issue, however, with your characterization of Prof. Christakis’ email. Her thesis could not have been clearer: students should be the ones who police students’ halloween costume choices. That so few students at Yale seem to be able to discern the thesis of a well reasoned argument is precisely the problem. The idea that nobody and nothing should ever be allowed to offend you and that protecting you from that offense is the responsibility of authority figures is the problem. Yale does seem to have an inordinate number of extraordinarily intellectually immature students.

    • Tim Steele

      could not have said it better myself!

    • mickmick100

      Beautiful statement

  • Ralphiec88

    It is ludicrous to claim that discourse is the University’s “plane par excellence” given recent events. Students surrounded and abused a professor over views expressed by his wife, and others spat on people leaving a presentation they disagreed with. Daily News looks on with vague protests that this is a lack of “charity”. No, this is a lack of basic respect and human decency. Abuse is acceptable as long as it’s directed at the “right” people. Important causes are being co-opted by those who seek personal aggrandizement and control. Throughout history, these have been the hallmarks of repression. The perpetrators cannot be appeased or wishfully ignored, they must be soundly rejected.

  • mickmick100

    Great article. Unfortunately the abusive behavior from many of the students has framed the issue into the irrationality of university “SJW’s” in the eyes of the world.

  • Ivy in Colorado

    While I appreciate the thoughtful tone of this op-ed writer, I’m still left with the question, “Do Yale students REALLY want to be treated like small children learning to play together in kindergarten?” Discourse? About what, exactly? How ultra-privileged students need to be protected from dissenting emails? From Halloween costumes? This is Yale??? A so-called “plane of discourse, which is the University’s plane par excellence”??? You must be joking, and I’m not saying that because I attended a rival school that begins with the letter H.

    A further thought is that these students must not be working all that hard, if they have so much time to debate and protest the most trivial of “offenses”. Too much affluence. Too little real struggle. Too much coddling. Too little experience with the real challenges that most people endure (i.e. billions of people whose great struggle is to simply feed, clothe, and house their families). So, trivial controversies must be invented to fill the time and conjure great self-importance.

  • A Wallman

    I am so relieved to see some reason prevail in this piece. I have rarely had anything disturb me like the recent filmed interchange between a school official and screaming student, cursing student. This was not discourse. It was abuse. This was not respectful. It was reprehensible. What a disconnect when one demands tolerance and diversity and has NO respect for the opinions of others. Rather, they call for the absolute ruination of those they disagree with both professionally and personally. I see their attacks on free speech as a complete lack of education regarding the state of the world where views like theirs prevail. They have clearly not studied the agonizing oppression and soul crushing lack of liberty that abounds in the world today where free speech is nonexistent. I hope an Ivy League education will include such before graduation.

  • Debbie

    The identity of the privileged rich child who subjected Christakis to workplace harassment by having a shrieking tantrum in his face is not an unsolved mystery.

    Yale can punish the brat, or it can send the wrong message (and possibly incur civil liability for allowing a hostile workplace environment) by allowing her to skate.

  • SonofaGlitch

    You’re a quisling, Aronson.

    All these half-measures and attempting to meet your oversensitive, underempathetic student body half-way is how they win and you end up out of a job if you think yourself a journalist.

    No one has been physically attacked, except people attending a conference (spitting on someone is technically assault, you know) on free speech. All that’s happened is that people have disagreed and called the hyper-emotional babies that attend your once prestigious university names – at worst. Worrying about emotional “wounds” over the actual rights of people should be met with derision by anyone with actual sense, yet you miss the point entirely.

    By trying to extend an olive branch and prioritze feelings over moral decency or facts, you’re going to be the first they run over. When they decide to line people up on the wall, these proto-fascists won’t spare you because you tried to empathise, they’ll laugh at you for being so weak.

    Toughen up and call these future “brownshirts for social justice” what they are, or don’t be surprised when they come for you.

  • Napier’s Gallows

    “A discussion about racism at Yale should include an
    acknowledgement that a university with so many students feeling so much
    pain is failing somehow.”
    “A discussion about racism at Yale should include an
    acknowledgement that a university with so many students feeling so much
    pain has an admissions committee that needs to get its act together.”
    FIFY.

  • elLobo

    Given the current atmosphere at Yale and other “university” campuses, Mr. Aronson is a brave man to put his name and photo to a column that will certainly be labeled “victim-blaming” by those of his “peers” who are unable or unwilling to exercise the reason or charity whose lack he bemoans. Lots of scare-quotes there, but it’s a scary situation.
    Cole, you’re a credit to your school, and it’s a shame there aren’t more like you willing to speak up (like commenter Ivy in CO, “I’m not saying that because I attended a rival school that begins with the letter” P!).

  • Kshitiz

    I am glad that there are alternative arguments being considered, after all. The outside world is watching Yale closely. http://liberalcolumns.com/free-speech-confusions/