Free Speech, or Political Correctness?


AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Racial discrimination and inequality have been perpetuated in American history since the nation was first founded in the eighteenth century. Although defenders of cultural diversity have come a long way in promoting respect and cultural acceptance in the United States, various social injustices and micro-aggressions still cause harm to the feelings of minorities. While many praise the idea of promoting political correctness (the avoidance of expression that may be offensive to certain disadvantaged groups), some worry that such prohibition may restrict individual’s freedom to express dissension. In November, a heated debate on political correctness with regards to racial equality was spurred by a student protest at Yale University following the outcry against racial injustice in the University of Missouri. Different public responses to the event pose a controversial yet significant question: are institutions responsible for enforcing policies that prohibit certain insulting expressions of students?

Several back-to-back conflicts sparked a school-wide outrage against the racial and ethnic aggression at Yale University. According to the Huffington Post, an African American female student from Columbia University claimed that she was prohibited from attending a Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity party on October 30 “not because she doesn’t attend Yale, but because she was told the Halloween party was for ‘white girls only.’” As many students stood in solidarity with the African American student who was blatantly discriminated by the fraternity group, an email sent by Erika Christakis, a Yale psychology professor, to the Siliman college students on the day of Halloween exacerbated the tension. Responding to an email sent by the administration of Yale intending to discourage students from wearing racially offensive costumes, professor Christakis expressed her concerns that such an administrative move would lead the college to “become places of censure and prohibition.” Analyzing the positive effect of role playing others, professor Christakis argues that “pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks,” something in her opinion the college should support. She further quoted from her husband that students who feel uncomfortable should “look away” and “tell [the students] you are offended” because “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” To Erika Christakis’s surprise, dozens of Yale students who felt significantly offended by her email accosted her husband (also a professor) on November 6th, by publicly condemning and calling him “disgusting,” according to the Daily Wire. The Washington Post reports, on November 9, hundreds of students aggregated and marched on the street surrounding the Yale campus to “show solidarity with minority students who say they are barred from full participation at the Ivy League school.” As Erika Christakis and her husband become the target of condemnation, Erika Christakis has made a voluntary decision not to teach in the future on November 30th, while her husband responded, “I apologize for causing pain, but I am not sorry for the statement. I stand behind free speech. I defend the right for people to speak their minds.”

The public responded to the protest with various opinions. For many Yale students, the student protest stood as a successful move to address the racial issues that had perpetuated their time on campus; in fact, many students of color and other minorities especially expressed that they have felt uncomfortable in the community. “All the issues that the students are addressing have been issues that have been happening since the school was founded,” says George Ramirez, a physics teacher at Loomis who had recently graduated from Yale in 2015. When he recounted his experience at Yale, Mr. Ramirez described that although he was grateful of his experience, “being a first generation Latino, low income student of color was very, very rough.” As the only Latino physics major in his class, Mr. Ramirez in many instances felt uncomfortable of the micro-aggression from his professor and the pressure of performing better than his white and Asian classmates to counter the stereotype that Latino students do not thrive in STEM fields. He described that when the professor was handing out the tests and saw the last name Ramirez, the professor knew exactly who to go to, because he was the only one who could have that last name. “The worst part was, ” Mr. Ramirez said, “in many cases I was the student who did the worst in the exam. I felt really uncomfortable.” Showing his full support, Mr. Ramirez commended the students for their actions. “If [the protest] had happened a few months ago,” he said, “I would have been there. I would have been rallying, organizing meetings…that would have been me.”

Similar to Mr. Ramirez’s experience as a student of color, Ms. Duell, a psychology teacher at Loomis and one of the first class of female students accepted to Yale in 1969, also expressed her struggles of being a woman in the white, male-dominant community. “I was ignored in classes by professors,” she recounted. According to Ms. Duell, in one particular instance, one of her female professors completely ignored her until she finally looked over to Ms. Duell and said, “Well, gentlemen, I guess we would have to hear from the girls.” She also described that during her time at Yale, female students were severely marginalized and prohibited from joining any clubs or fraternity societies. “I left after the fall term of my sophomore year. It was not a welcoming place, not even from the women,” lamented Ms. Duell.

The issues that the Yale students have been protesting against were not groundless. However, many people also accused the students of being too aggressive, particularly for some students’ verbal abuse of professor Christakis. According to Yale Daily News, physics professor Douglas Stone authored a faculty open letter in defense of Christakis. “It’s not good for our community to feel constraint in our expression of reasonable and relevant views…That’s unhealthy for Yale.” Expressing her concerns of some overly aggressive actions of the students, Ms. Duell also added that “students, according to what I have read, crossed the line in terms of being verbally abusive and being prejudiced against the adults that they identify as part of the problem. I think we are all humans, and we can all be caught up in our emotions in how right we feel.”

While voices condemning and defending Christakis’ email coexist, the debate about the reconciliation of political correctness and freedom of speech proceed. Mr. Ramirez expressed his interpretation of the relationship between freedom of speech and protecting disadvantaged groups. “It’s not about telling people to shut up; it’s about encouraging people to consider what other people may feel with regards to their statement,” says Mr. Ramirez. “If you say something offensive, and I feel upset and tell you about it, that’s not my infringing on your freedom of speech, that’s my telling you that you are being disrespectful.” Sydney Steward ’17, one of the presidents of PRISM, also acknowledged that although it is important to have opposing opinions, voices should be equally valued. “Those who come up with arguments, yes, I will listen to what you are saying as long as you listen to what I’m saying too, as long as our voice are valued equally, regardless of our race, religion, age, gender. Until our voices are seen as equal, there’s still a problem.”

While different voices debated the validity of student protest, the administration responded to the student riot by proposing an expansive plan of addressing racial inequalities and of creating a comfortable environment for the students. According to the Washington Post, Peter Salvoes, the current president of the Yale University, promised to create “an academic center focused on race, ethnicity, and social identity” and to invest $50 million in a five-year initiative to enhance faculty diversity. Although some individuals such as Inderpal Grewal, a professor of women’s gender and sexual studies, commended this plan as a victory of the students and “an exciting and promising moment for Yale,” others doubted the implementation of the proposed plan.  For instance, a senior at Yale named Eshe Sherly, decries that the president had “made no effort to reach out to us to have a meeting,” and that the announcement was a “lukewarm policy and an attempt to throw a little bit more money at the issue.” Whether the president’s program addressed the student’s need, the real impact of the plan is still in question. “To create programs is one thing; to shift the structure of an institution is an entirely different process,” says Ms. Duell, who had experienced the “hierarchical, white male dominant” structure in Yale’s community. “These are two different task, both are difficulty in their own ways, but to shift the embedded structures and assumptions of an institution is something that takes a long time.”

Certainly, the battle against social injustice is far from the end. However, the recent event at Yale reminded the public of the dilemma of an administration’s role in responding to such racial tension, and whether the authority should regulate student’s speech in order to prevent certain groups of people from being offended. An effective resolution to reconcile a free-speaking environment and people’s potential offenses is still very obscure.