My first exposure to discourse at Yale was at Bulldog Days last spring when I attended a debate between CNN host Fareed Zakaria ’86 and members of the Yale Political Union about the merits of U.S. hegemony. The majority of the debate was riveting, but unfortunately, I could not hear much of it over the hissing of YPU members with dissenting views. I distinctly remember Zakaria getting frustrated with the hostility of the debate. As a former YPU president, he commented on how polarized the YPU had become. Today, our politics are as divisive as ever — it would be a shame for this lack of civility to find its way onto our campus too.
This concern of mine took root in the beginning of my senior year of high school, when my U.S. Government and Politics class began discussing free speech at Yale. Two years prior, Yale students had accused the wife of their then-master of failing to create a “safe space” for them when she criticized a recommendation that barred students from wearing potentially offensive Halloween costumes. She argued that a policy that limited what students are allowed to wear could be perceived as an intrusion on free speech rights. Her critique caused intense anger among many students, some of whom called for her resignation.
This created a profound internal conflict. Initially, I was inclined to agree with Christakis — these are just Halloween costumes, and it can be difficult to know for certain what will offend. But with deeper thought, the incident became blurrier, as is often the case with issues that seem simple on the surface. This dispute was clearly about more than Halloween costumes. It was about free speech, cultural appropriation and varying definitions of home: all matters with implications that stretch far beyond Halloween costumes. I was struggling to find my place in this controversy. As a white male, should I even have a say in the outcome of this issue? How can I possibly understand how people of color feel when they see someone appropriating their culture in a costume? Still, should the preservation of free expression supersede this? And if not, where should a university, or a country, draw the line?
These questions consumed hours of my thoughts over the next few months, in the midst of my college application process. See, I recognized that I didn’t yet have the answers to these questions. But I knew it was crucial that I attend a college that could provide me with the resources necessary to make my own informed opinions on the many challenging questions that face our society, just like these ones.
When I ultimately decided to enroll at Yale, I thought back to this incident. Is Yale the same place it was three years ago? Will it be a place where the student body demonizes individuals with opinions different from its own? Yale prides itself on sharing a commitment to free expression and academic freedom within a welcoming community. A critical part of this, though, is that the dialogue must be open to everyone, even those with differing views, and I would not be convinced that the discourse is truly open to everyone if Yale had not changed over the past three years.
Last year, Yale hosted a plethora of controversial speakers, such as Dinesh D’Souza, many of whom likely would not have been welcome on campus three years ago. Just last week, as University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Marvin Chun addressed the Class of 2022, they both emphasized the importance of seeking out viewpoints that are different from our own. Still, to create an environment that truly encourages healthy disagreement, we have a way to go.
I am currently a first year in Pauli Murray College. Murray was a civil rights and women’s rights activist and a champion of open discourse. She fought fervently for free speech rights, even for those with whom she disagreed. Murray realized what was at stake: If those she disagreed with were not allowed to express themselves freely, neither could those with whom she agreed. Since it is only the second year Pauli Murray College is open, current students can still help pave its legacy — and I see no better legacy to leave behind than one in the image of Murray herself. This means creating a campus culture that is open to true discussion and real debate; a campus culture that encourages students to discover their own informed opinions, whatever they may be.
I don’t know for certain whether or not safe spaces benefit college students, or if costumes should be considered free speech, or if U.S. hegemony is good for the world. So, I don’t quite have the answers to those initial questions yet. But I do know that Yale can be the place that will help me find them, if we let it.
Andrew Sorota is a first year in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .