I was listening to a ‘Waking Up with Sam Harris’ episode a few weeks ago, called Facing the Crowd. It has since been playing on my mind. Harris talks with Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis, who, for a few short months in 2015/16, was also a Yale ‘Master’ – a title for academic caretakers of particular residential colleges that has been subsequently changed to ‘Head of College’, in an attempt to remove any possible connotations to slave ownership or racism. In October 2015, as the newly appointed Co-Masters of Silliman Residential College, both Nicholas Christakis (a sociologist and physician) and his wife, Erika Christakis (a lecturer in early childhood studies), came under fire and resigned from their positions as result.
The fracas erupted over an email, sent by Erika Christakis to all Silliman students, about Halloween costumes. This email was in response to another email that had been sent by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, asking students to be careful of what costumes they chose for Halloween in order to avoid cultural appropriation, racism or generally offending others. Erika Christakis’s response asked Silliman students to consider whether they were really okay with a university administrator telling them what to wear – that surely they should avoid offending others because they are thoughtful, thinking individuals, and not just because they’ve been told to! She asked them to reflect on this question: “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?”
In the weeks that followed this email exchange, the Christakis family were on the receiving end of extensive harassment from students, and according to an article written by Erika Christakis a year later, nearly a thousand demands were made that Yale remove them from their positions. In what may have been the clincher that made this event go viral at the time, Nicholas Christakis decided to engage in ‘civilised discussion’ with the protesting students .The ensuing two-hour long debate, in which Christakis is surrounded by angry students at times 5 or 6 rows deep, was filmed from multiple angles by students on their mobile phones. It is highly disturbing in its intensity, the raw emotions of the students, the commitment of Christakis to persist with hearing them out. But no matter what he said, it was perceived to be wrong. The tears, the swearing, the shrieking accusations, some physical intimidation from students – it’s chilling, and every time I watch it I end up with my arms wrapped around myself, thoroughly grateful that I was not there to see it in person. I encourage you to watch the video, in spite of this, and perhaps before reading any further.
Living in different (social) worlds
There’s an awesome video that does the rounds every now and then, of comedian Tim Minchin doing the keynote speech at a University of Western Australia graduation ceremony, in which he describes many of society’s arguments as being fueled by complete misunderstanding. “We tend to generate false dichotomies and then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions,” he says, “like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts”.
If you’ve watched the video of the students surrounding Nicholas Christakis posted above, you might recognise this idea. Watching these predominantly minority students trying to express, and in many ways embody, the pain of hundreds of years of discrimination, oppression and disadvantage, in a space where they have really only very recently even been accepted, at a time when racial minorities are often still heavily disadvantaged on almost every social index, and at their place of residence, where they were perhaps daring to feel safe in spite of all of this… it’s heartbreaking. At the same time, anyone who has read the original email would probably be wondering how it, specifically, provoked such an emotional response. It seems almost as if they’re having different conversations entirely – like they’re hitting their shots out of different courts. Or, perhaps, living in different worlds.
A social world, in its simplest form, can be defined as the organisation of a group of people and artefacts around various commonalities, such as ideologies, tasks or goals, and ways of behaving and communicating. I would suggest that the students of Silliman College involved in the video were living in a different social world to the one inhabited by Nicholas and Erika Christakis – their ideologies, behaviours and ways of communicating differed so dramatically that they could barely find their common humanity at all. Indeed, the students state this explicitly, telling Christakis that he can never understand their perspective because they have nothing at all in common except their most basic biology. “We’re humans – great! Glad we understand that,” says one student, “but your experiences will never connect to mine.” Exasperated, Christakis addresses the crowd: “If you don’t believe that I can ever understand what you’re saying to me, then why do you stand here demanding to be heard?” And, in response, an anguished voice wails from within the crowd: “Because we’re dying.”
Of course, it’s impossible to know which ‘we’ the voice was referring to. If it was the African American community, this was not hyperbole – for example, in 2015, when this all blew up, black men lived, on average, five years less than white men in the United States. They are, literally, dying younger than their white counterparts.
If she meant university students, again, this isn’t an unfair assessment; suicide has been named the second leading cause of death for college students in America (after unintended accidents), and occurs at a higher rate for them than others in the 15-24y/o age bracket. Admittedly, suicide rates in the US are lower amongst young black men – their leading cause of death is homicide.
Or, perhaps, the comment was hyperbole, and the speaker meant it as a metaphor for how upsetting the situation was. What is clear, though, is that while Christakis was making what seemed, to someone living in his social world, like a rational appeal, the students’ responses show that they are responding from a different place entirely.
Social worlds and conflicting ideologies
I’m not writing this blog post because I want to judge any of the participants in the events at Yale. I have supreme sympathy for the students. I have supreme sympathy for Erika and Nicholas Christakis’. I think the whole situation sucked for all involved.
What I do want to address, however, is how any one of us reading or hearing about the events retrospectively might respond. As an academic, my initial reaction upon watching the video was slack-jawed disbelief. How could these students possibly be responding with such anger to such a mild email? Had they even read the email? And how could they be so thoroughly misinterpreting Nicholas Christakis’ every word, every movement, when it was so clear to me, as a (distanced) observer, what his intentions were?
Then I started reading around, and was amazed to discover that many of the commenters on the various articles and videos, particularly those identifying themselves as people of colour, were amazed that anyone would NOT see it like the students had. Although they often conceded that things had ‘spiraled to several ugly places’, they nonetheless urged other commenters ‘not to forget how things went down’. This is what made me think of social worlds theory.
I’m using my imagination now, and ask you to use yours, because none of us (I assume) actually know ANY of the individuals involved personally.
Let’s imagine Erika and Nicholas Christakis’ social world for a minute. They’re educators, academics, probably middle class, who have made their way in the world via their liberal beliefs in the transformation and betterment of society through discourse. Freedom of speech, for them, is the only way for society to be able to have the conversations needed to make things better. They are committed to what Joelle Fanghanel (in Being an Academic (2012)) would call a ‘reproduction ideology’ – a belief about higher education drawn from the Humboldtian tradition that emerged following WWII that encourages knowledge for the sake of knowledge and education as an end in itself.
In his interview with Sam Harris, Christakis refers to the importance of Yale’s motto – ‘Lux et veritas: Light and Truth’ and the importance of universities in providing a space for the truth to be brought to light, as such. As self-proclaimed ‘progressives’, they are also committed to a ‘transformation ideology’, positing education as a means of personal growth and social progress. A transformation ideology focuses on developing the emotional, intellectual and personal capabilities of individuals, because it is each individual’s sacred human right to have that opportunity. So, living in this social world, it seems very reasonable to question the potential restrictions to students’ freedoms implicit in an email suggesting what Halloween costumes to wear or not to wear. It seems like an obligation to engage in debate with students, to model disciplinary behaviours of civil discussion, analysis, and the co-production of ideas.
Now, let’s imagine the social world of the students in the video. Let’s imagine that they live with racism, sexism, and/or other forms of discrimination, large and small, on a regular basis. In their privileged position as students of an Ivy League University, particularly if they are undertaking a liberal arts education, they are learning and thinking about injustices wrought upon their ancestors, crimes wrought upon members of their own communities, and/or structural inequalities wrought upon themselves and their fellow students.
Let’s imagine how the lead up to Halloween is, in this social world, a time of anxiety, a time to worry about how the majority students of their university (the place that they temporarily call home) might choose to represent or misrepresent African American culture, or Native American culture, or some other culture not their own, in the name of Halloween fun. In that social world, an email from the university advising those majority students to be thoughtful about their choices of costume is perhaps not seen as an affront to freedom of expression. It is seen as a welcome point of support. And an email questioning that support is not going to be seen as mild – it’s more likely to be seen as yet another thoughtless, painful brush against an open and smarting wound. What’s more, a member of the ultimate majority – a white, middle class man who is literally called ‘the Master’, someone who has traditionally held all the power over a person from my social world – is standing and trying to debate me over the truth of my pain? Well…
So, what? What should everyone have done differently?
When I was talking to people about this post before I wrote it, I was often confronted with, “okay, fine, but what should they have done differently?” I noticed that, whether the “they” in the question referred to the professors or the students tended to depend on the social world of the person who was asking. And that’s the key point I want to make in this post.
I don’t know what anyone should have done differently at Yale in 2015 – I dare say I don’t even have all the information. But I do challenge you to consider whether you should do things differently. If, as you were reading this post, you had a moment (or more) of wondering how on earth someone could have done or said or felt or behaved the way they did at Yale in 2015, perhaps ask yourself a different question:
“What social world do I live in, and how is it influencing the way I think?”
[Feature image is of Yale University from pixabay.com]