Fire is catching in the Ivy League. This past week, Yale, Dartmouth and Brown seethed with protests and demonstrations against racial discrimination. At Yale, what began as a backlash against a heavy-handed Halloween email from Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis has escalated into a campuswide movement agitating for policies to dismantle Yale’s institutional racism and calling all undergraduates to do the same. This new movement is determined to be heard — and to be heard now.
As thrilled as I am to see solidarity of such great magnitude among people of color at my college, I cannot help but feel unsettled by certain demonstrations by activists at Yale thus far. The altercation in Silliman courtyard, the harassment of minority attendees at a Buckley conference, the fact that several of my friends have been called “race traitors” — all of these have contributed to my feeling of unease about this movement. The genuine outpouring of love displayed by the March of Resilience last week moved me deeply, but I was disturbed to hear about the hateful, abusive anti-racist protest recently staged at Dartmouth “in solidarity with Missouri and Yale.”
There can be no doubt that other schools are looking to the protestors at Yale, who have been so visible as of late, and others are to some extent following their lead. My desire to see this new movement grow and create productive change is mitigated by my fear that the rage that fueled its birth might obscure its message, as it has already. Although I want to contribute my voice to this new effort, I worry that the entire movement has already been characterized as nothing but pointless, unreasonable fury.
In the midst of this turmoil, I turned to words that my parents always told me growing up whenever I was embroiled in some argument: “No matter how right you are, your point is meaningless if you deliver it badly.”
I am aware that these words may come off to some as tone policing, and to others as a deliberate method to silence. However, they are neither; they simply express a reality that many are unaware of. Both sides of the original Christakis controversy are of course “objectively correct”: it is important to consider the degree to which we should categorize and impugn certain performative acts as “culturally appropriative;” and it is important to expose Yale’s racist faults and criticize those who marginalize people of color. But both sides should be considering not just the legitimacy of an argument’s content, but also how that argument is expressed. Arguments will be perceived as invalid or unfair if they are delivered in bad form. This applies to both discourse and activism and should influence the way we decide to engage in them.
The outrage of both sides of the free speech vs. racism dispute at Yale can be understood through this principle. Christakis’ email was delivered badly in that it responded inappropriately to a completely nonconfrontational administrative reminder about student conduct. It also disingenuously passed off an individual’s opinion as an invitation for intellectual discourse; there are far more thoughtful and inclusive ways to initiate a conversation about free speech than an email sent only to Silliman College. The protestors’ message, too, has been badly delivered in a series of disproportionate and disrespectful reactions, not least of which include verbally abusing administrators and calling the “race loyalty” of their peers into question. All of these constitute substantial flaws in the way that either side has engaged with the serious issue of racism at Yale.
It is little wonder that neither side has been able to take the other seriously, since each perceives the other as having committed the crime of disrespect. The public can’t take us seriously either. The media, happy as ever to criticize “privileged” college students, has largely taken its tone from the free-speech camp and belittled the activists. Of course it is unfair and insulting to call the protestors “babies,” but what are we to expect when we ignore the rules of appropriate engagement and direct openly contemptuous behavior toward our opponents?
There is a way we can powerfully and effectively convey our intolerance toward things we find offensive at Yale, but we do both our arguments and ourselves an extreme disservice when we deliver our views poorly. Indeed, Yale has failed its students if it has failed both to demonstrate proper conduct for discourse and to educate on how political demands should be made. Especially at a campus where activism is thriving, the Yale community should be mindful of how to convey its conversations and complaints going forward.
Our fight is serious. We must treat our methods just as seriously.
Sherry Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .