A Halloween message signed by 13 college administrators asked Yale students to be sensitive about the costumes they chose, so as not to demean, alienate or “impact” any groups or individuals.
But when the associate Master (faculty head) of one of the dorms on campus, early childhood educator Erika Christakis, wrote her own note to students suggesting that maybe we don’t want the authorities deciding what costume is or is not sensitive enough, you’d think she’d endorsed genocide.
Students, hundreds of them, insisted they longer felt “safe.” They protested. They screamed. They demanded her ouster, even though in her letter, Christakis bent over backwards to say that she knows that the costume guidelines came from “a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense.” What’s more:
I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect…on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?
Over 700 angry Yalies (my alma mater) signed a petition saying that Christakis’ “offensive” letter “trivializes the harm done by these tropes” (stereotypes) and “invalidated” those hurt.
As the days passed, the outrage mounted, a until a mob surrounded Christakis’ husband, the sociologist/doctor/professor Nicholas. He is seen in this video being screamed at by a student swearing at him and insisting he and his wife step down, because their job is not to create an intellectual space, but a “safe space” for students.
It’s that “safety” idea that is so interesting, from a Free-Range Kids perspective.
This video was taken by Greg Lukianoff, head of a group I love, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which has a long piece on the story. It’s fascinating. But what I keep trying to figure out is: Where is all this demand for “safety” coming from?
Could it be that in a society that has told young people and their parents that NOTHING is safe enough, students grow up actually believing this? Think of all the things we have dangerized. This month’s Parents Magazine tells parents to get rid of their wire laundry hampers — “they should be off-limits to kids: They’ve caused severe eye injuries.” Meantime, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently recalled 140,000 children’s sweatshirts because there was one report of one pull-tab falling off a zipper, thereby posing a “choking hazard.” There are towns that don’t let people vote into the schools anymore, for fear the voters could pounce on the kids, and local newspapers that no longer announce births, for fear this would lead to baby abductions. The common thread?
All these dangers are nearly non-existent.
There’s a difference between a real danger (a baby bottle filled with bleach) and a product or practice that could, very rarely and unpredictably, result in serious injury (a laundry hamper, a birth announcement, a zipper pull). But we keep insisting that there is no difference, and congratulating the authorities who refuse to acknowledge it.
When extraordinarily unlikely dangers are seen as enormous, immediate threats — threats that the experts, the universities and/or the government feel compelled to take action on — it’s quite possible we have bred a generation convinced that everything they encounter that is not an organic avocado (or organic avocado costume) is making them “unsafe.”
We know — we MUST know — that 140,000 sweatshirts with one defective zipper amongst them aren’t really dangerous. And we know — we MUST know — that a non-Asian dressing up as Mulan isn’t threatening an entire group of people, to the point where they are no longer “safe.” But even saying, “What’s the big deal?” is not allowed. Even “What’s the big deal?” could make someone, somewhere feel unsafe — because everything can.
I’m not positive it is a straight line between society’s obsession with far-fetched childhood dangers and the fear that leads to screaming college students racked with fury. But I am positive that when we grant credibility to non-existent threats, nothing and no one is safe.
How ironic. – L.