This summer, the former dean of Pierson College was placed on indefinite leave after screenshots of her personal Yelp reviews began circulating among students. “I guess, if you were a white person who has no clue what mochi is, this would be fine for you,” read one. “If you are white trash, this is the perfect night out for you,” opined another. Charged with the high crime of cultural insensitivity, Dean June Chu — who identifies as Chinese American — eventually resigned from her post, much to the relief of Yale’s tender epicures.
In an email sent to all Pierson students, Stephen Davis, the head of Pierson college, called Chu’s posts “reprehensible” and assured students that he would be available to them “24/7.”
First, because it needs to be said: Nobody, least of all privileged Yale students, should need grief counseling to cope with a few unkind comments on the internet. Chu’s indelicacy certainly warranted an apology and perhaps a stern reprimand; it did not warrant suspension or the language of mortal tragedy. Anyone who worried that Yale’s capacity for histrionics would subside after the Halloween imbroglio of 2015 should rest easy — the University has not lost its touch.
Except that this time, instead of just leaving Chu out to dry a la Christakis, the administration actively sought to remove one of its own. And though Davis claimed the real reason for Chu’s dismissal was that she lied about the number of incriminating posts, that justification emerged only after mainstream media outlets picked up the story.
It’s bad enough that the fragile sensibilities of liberal arts students can now trigger disciplinary intervention for callous restaurant reviews. But even worse is how this particular ouster came about: social media screenshots.
We live in an age whose tone and tempo is increasingly defined by technological change. Tweets and Google Alerts transmit immense quantities of information in the blink of an eye; online comment threads have replaced bars and barbershops as the primary site of lay political debate. Most strikingly, the ability to instantaneously screenshot anything on the internet has immortalized our day-to-day interactions in ways unthinkable to previous generations. Political invective, crude jokes, unfortunate slip-ups — all of it attains colossal, imperishable life with a stroke of the enter key.
Much of what we are seeing on college campuses — including and especially Chu’s hapless deposition — is the logical conclusion of this digital renaissance. Traditionally, Americans turned to the TV for news and to the telephone for social contact. Now, however, life updates, newspaper articles and even restaurant reviews all occupy the same hyperpublic space, meaning there are fewer spatial and sociological boundaries between them. In one sense, then, hum-drum internet chatter has become its own kind of political speech, subject to mass scrutiny and contestation by anyone with a dial-up connection. Each gaffe is a potential witch hunt, each tweet a potential headline.
The result looks a lot like what the philosopher Michel Foucault called a panopticon — a power structure that uses mass surveillance to control behavior. When someone is subjected to a “field of visibility” — generated, in this case, by the digitization of daily life — he must act as if he is being watched at all times and by all people, especially powerful people. Combine that fear of being overheard with millennials’ infamously thin skins, and you have a recipe for self-censorship. Everyone must remain vigilant to avoid incurring the wrath of the ever-watchful crowd and, with it, career-ending consequences.
“As well it should be!” runs the typical reply. “Name-calling is wrong, and Chu should have known better.”
Yes, but so what? Why should the fact of wrongdoing negate reasoned critiques of how wrongdoers are dealt with in our society? Most who advocate for criminal justice reform agree that breaking the law demands some sort of remediation. Does that somehow oblige them to withhold judgment about this or that disciplinary system?
I hope not, because panopticism is as much a means of punishment as observation. We are more visible, more vulnerable to one another than ever before, and that vulnerability has made transgression more dangerous. To take just one example, several Yale students became the target of a vicious doxing campaign after they were caught on video yelling at Christakis. Nobody deserves such treatment for a momentary lapse in decorum. Yet in today’s internet age, that is the price of democratic surveillance, no matter your politics.
There’s no easy fix for this problem, unfortunately. Social norms take time to evolve, and ours have proven woefully inadequate to the task at hand. In the meantime, though, Yale would do us all a service by establishing a strong if overridable presumption against axing those who run afoul of PC etiquette online. America already has more than enough bureaucracies surveilling our every text and tweet. Let’s not add Ivy League mandarins to the list.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org | @aaronsibarium