Sunday, November 1, 2015


There has been a series of stories in the past few days about an imperative for college students not to offend while having fun. First there was a news story about colleges warning students against culturally or ethnically demeaning Hallowe'en party costumes: Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus: Feel Free to Be You, but Not Me. Then there was a report on moves to apply high standards to college mascots--specifically, a movement to get rid of "Lord Jeff," the namesake of Amherst College and its home town. At Amherst College, Some Say It's the Mascot's Turn to Embrace Diversity. The original Lord Jeff evidently treated Indians badly. And then Erika Christakis, Associate Master of one of the Yale Colleges, pushed back against an encyclical from a Yale committee to avoid those culturally insensitive costumes.
“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?” Christakis wrote. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
That, of course, caused a furious reaction and a petition demanding an apology.  Christakis, allegedly, is party to the marginalization of already marginalized students. The way we respond to defenders of unwelcome speech is … to bully them into shutting up.

Christakis is a brave woman. She was co-Master of one of the Harvard Houses until her husband Nicholas decamped from Harvard to Yale last year. She has written also about the risk of over-reaction to college sexual assault -- another unpopular and unfashionable position.

The thrust of her worry about the costume warning is that colleges are growing-up places, places from which graduates should emerged prepared to deal with the world as it is. In the real world there will be no one to mediate grievances about inconsequential matters. We do students no favor by teaching them to expect that society will protect them from seeing silly costumes, or by training them to be sensitized to slights they might not even have realized were demeaning until someone explained it to them.  We don't have to like the supposedly offensive costumes to realize that we do more harm than good by landing hard on those who wear them to parties.

Discouraged by my reading of the day's newspapers, I turned on the Notre Dame-Temple football game, where I witnessed people in the crowd dressed up as grotesque caricatures of Irishmen. Right there on national TV, in spite of this country's despicable history of "No Irish need apply" and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. And then I turned to a broadcast of our local pro basketball team, and more of those Irish caricatures. Where is the outrage?


The blog has been dark for a long time, and probably won't be very active anytime soon. I am trying to write in a longer form, and in spite of being dean no longer, I seem to be busier than ever. But after the series of stories and the attack on Christakis, I decided I had better say something.


  1. Good to hear from you post-deanship. Are you writing on these issues "in longer form"?

  2. On one of the Star-Trek shows (Prob ST-VOY), a progressive Sci-fi show,
    I heard the line:

    No wonder he's arrogant. He's half Romulan, half French.

    I've also seen the french insulted and no outrage on that either, including
    Jeb's comment about the french work-week in the last debate. One thing odd is that one of the stereotypes I've heard about the french is that they are anti-semitic.

    bill g.

    1. I used to explain unary notation as the number system of Polish computers. Don't do that any more! When did the Polish jokes end, and why? You are right -- the French, like the Irish, are still fair game.

  3. The history of Irish Americans is not the same as that of Hispanics, Native Americans, and Black people. Irish people have the benefit of being white in a country that long embraced white supremacy, and that has long lasting impacts. Namely, that minority students are only recently entering institutions like Harvard and Yale, which also had a history of excluding them.

    In the real world, people constantly tell you what is and isn't acceptable behavior, just as the administration was telling students at Yale. When Erika Christakis took it upon herself to defend students' right to wear racist costumes (let's call them what they are), she wasn't fighting any sort of administrative policy, she was just countering a call for civility made by a group representing minority students on campus. The students had the ability to wear their offensive costumes before she spoke out, and they continue to have it now. All that differs, is that we now know with whom Erika sides.

    1. I suggest you read up on the history of the Irish in America.

  4. Harry, does it occur to you that perhaps the University was not "training students to be sensitized by slights they didn't realize were demeaning," but was instead relaying the concerns of Black and Native students who know well these kinds of slights and put up with them (and many more) year after year?

    The initial email sent to the student body asked students to be mindful of their costume choices--a far cry from "landing hard" on students. From this, shrieks and bleats from the Christakis's that speech was being infringed and that they are oppressed by such "censorship." What a silly, overblown response. So overblown, that you wonder what drives a person to react so intensely to a simple request from students for some basic respect.

    Your implication that there is not outrage against the "Fighting Irish" is that there should be no outrage for people blithely dressing in blackface or wearing feathered headdresses (which are sacred items to many Native peoples). Your words here show that you apparently believe requests for respect are too injurious to free speech that they should not even be entertained. Is that the case?

  5. I don't think the University should be picking winners and losers in the game of who has the right to take offense at sophomoric Hallowe'en costumes. This is not a good use of the institution's moral authority, because it invites others to request the same protections, and some institutional authority would have to determine where the edge is. The reason nobody at Yale is showing up in blackface at Hallowe'en parties these days is not because the institution asked people to stop doing it.

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  7. If you can ever find a way to write more, I wish you would. Your past posts have been incredibly enlightening. With what is happening at Harvard, and other universities and colleges, it would be great to hear your thoughts on an ongoing basis.


    1. Thanks for the kind words. I am working on some longer form writing and I am delightfully busy with more than 200 students in my classes this term and a huge number of Computer Science concentrators who just signed up as sophomores. And a number of things that are happening puzzle me too. Oddly perhaps, I am reluctant to write when I don't understand what I'm talking about.

    2. Harry...

      Shoot first, from the hip, it's close to "the gut", and trust your gut over your "thrice processed prefrontal cortext" product.

      People of the past should not be judged as if they were living and acting today. And they should not fail, for not having been saints..., Especially when we give the adulterers a "quick pass" if they are also bright, witty, and humble. < Bill Clinton, for one.>

      And: the banning of the word "Master" !... Too overly thought.... What about "Paddy Wagon", and "hillbilly, etc.

      The young of today judge their forebears by today's standards...., and that's ok, so long as we don't do "back flips" in apologizing.

  8. good post