There’s a video making the rounds of the Internet: a student protest at Yale. What they are protesting over is a bit complicated, but I’ll try to simplify: the Yale Intercultural Affairs Council sent out an email to everyone asking people not to wear Halloween costumes that might cause others to feel uncomfortable with regard to their race or ethnicity.
Professor Nicholas Christakis, the master of the college, didn’t like this. His wife, who also works at Yale, sent an email in response, pointing out that this infringed the students’ rights to free speech and thought. Watch what happens.
What was Christakis’ response?
“I stand behind free speech; yes I do. Even when it’s offensive. Especially when it’s offensive. ”
“Even when it denigrates me?” asks a student.
“Even though it denigrates you. Even though I don’t agree with the contents of the speech. I have the same objections to the speech that you do, the same ones. But I defend the right of people to speak their minds! Who gets to decide what’s offensive? Who gets to decide, guys?”
“When it hurts me!” cries another student. “When it’s offensive to me?”
“What if everybody says ‘I am hurt’?” questions Professor Christakis. “Does that mean everyone has to stop speaking? ”
Now, Yale’s problem is honestly far beyond a Halloween costume, despite how Channel 4 tries to cast it . These black students are protesting against longstanding racial issues at their university, both in words and in deed. Nevertheless, Christakis’ question stands: “What happens when everyone says ‘I am hurt’?”
Take a step back.
The world is increasingly headed towards being more politically correct. Target discovered this recently when they made this T-shirt:
Which basically led to Target being accused of trivializing mental disorders. And so did Starbucks, with their new controversial coffee cup, which is (apparently) an attack on Christmas.
Of course, these are frivolous examples, and I agree: the point is to point out just how far we’ve gone. This phenomena is by no means specific to the US and American aesthetic choices. It is no longer possible to write a sentence without offending somebody. Write a story with a male protagonist – and if it takes off, legions of feminists question why it couldn’t have had a strong female lead instead. Write the word “LGBT” and people want to know why it isn’t “LGBTIQ” instead.
Different groups find different things offensive. Talk of God? The athiests don’t like it. Talk of many gods? The Christians and the Muslims and the Jews don’t like it. Talk of one god? The Hindu wants to have a word.
There are pros and cons for each cause, of course. Acceptance of transgender people? Damn right. More power to women? We’ll drink to that. Nevertheless, quite often the PC backlash goes too far, such as when a European scientist who made space-age history was shamed for wearing a shirt his girlfriend made for him. “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your bowling shirt is holding back progress” cried this incredulous rant.
I feel that in this quest to be politically correct, we’re in danger of giving up our rights to free speech to build a culture that, while providing a safe harbour, also stifles the more eccentric, the more creative thoughts in the name of public satisfaction. A sterile culture devoid of the constant clashes that makes everything more dynamic. A culture where everyone is polite, cautious, afraid of offending someone, and thus do not want to take risks with new ideas or discussions: a culture that is, instead, content to just maintain the status quo and not rock the boat.
Is this what we want?
This is important not just because how it makes us feel, but because it’s because of the constant clash of ideas that we, as society, progress. Old worldviews are fought against, discarded. People are pissed off and new ideas take over. This is how human culture evolves; by grinding and grating and baying at the edges until the center changes. Feminism is a great example of this change. Once upon a time it was not politically correct to be a feminist.
Once upon a time, Socrates, the old philosopher of Athens, was forced to drink poison, for the crime of introducing new ideals and disdaining the old gods.
Is this what we want?
Of course I don’t have the answers to this. I have my own biases – against religion, for differently sexual individuals (note I don’t call them queers), against carrot curry. We all have things that offend us. My only question is Christakis’ – just because it offends us, should everyone stop speaking?