'Look From the Heart—at the Action, Not the Race'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As an addendum to the Claremont McKenna note, check out this compelling scene. It centers on an Asian American immigrant student who brings some nuance to the discussion—but she’s physically interrupted and then accused of “derailing” the protest:

Over to Yale again, here’s a perspective from a reader with close ties to the school:

For context, I am a proud Yale and Silliman graduate and father of a current Yale student. The Christakises made two mistakes, one of substance and the other of timing and symbolism. Power is what threatens free speech. The Christakises recognized in the IAC’s email the power imbalance between the administration and the students; as professors and scholars, they related easily to students who might feel stifled by pressure from administrators.

What they didn’t think about was the power and privilege imbalances among the students themselves—something they have no personal experience of—and the fact that offensive speech can be an instrument of power rather than of resistance to power.

The ideal of the university is not to simply be a forum for free speech per se.

It is to create an environment where the free “marketplace of ideas” can flourish. Free speech is a critical part of that marketplace, but equally critical is that all participants feel secure and valued enough to listen without fear. Turning a blind eye to bigoted or similarly ignorant speech or symbolic conduct conveys a message of its own—that certain people’s fears and distress doesn’t matter. It conveys that Yale is not theirs, but belongs at its core to the same people who explicitly ran it for their own benefit for most of three centuries.

The Christakises are not racist, and neither are the vast majority of their supporters. They are simply people who lack the experience of being made to feel they don’t belong, or that they specifically don’t belong at Yale, because of their visible heritage. It simply never occurred to the pair how that kind of disempowerment skews the ability to participate in the marketplace of ideas: The powerless can’t hear, and the powerful have no incentive to listen.

The second mistake was context. The administration was originally trying, admirably in my view, to avoid outright punishment of offensive speech while still modeling good behavior and respect in a diverse community. While the Christakises email made some excellent points in a vacuum, styling it as a counterpoint to the IAC email changed the message completely. If you state, for example, that all of our lives are precious and worthy of protection from harm, that is totally uncontroversial. But if you answer “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” the exact same sentiment now denigrates and dismisses the struggles and concerns of people of color. The Christakises and their supporters failed to recognize that difference.

Unlike the “All Lives Matter” crowd, though, it is clear that the Christakises acted not out of bigotry but from a failure of experience and imagination. That is why the result of their email has indeed been a powerful teaching moment—just not the kind they thought, and not for whom they intended.

A very different view from this reader:

In this discussion, we are emphasizing the catastrophization of ethnic/sexual/gender slights. My understanding of catastrophization is this: a person treating a minor slight as an existential threat. In the Atlantic cover story, catastrophization is partly ascribed to a sense of entitlement or sensitivity on the part of a coddled generation. But I am not sure that this is totally correct.

I think catastrophization is two things: (1) a tactic for building a movement’s strength, and (2) a chance for young people to “practice” civil protest. Unfortunately, if this is correct, the movement builds strength at the expense of sincerity.

Take the Yale Halloween incident as an example. A professor makes a reasonable attempt to engage with angry students, and is met with demands for resignation. A student, apparently representing the feelings of the crowd, confronts the professor's husband, spews buzzwords until the man responds, and then she explodes into a profanity-laced tirade. The tirade seems almost unrelated to the man's response, except that she began it immediately after his calm words.

How can young men and women, apparently the best and brightest of America, be so absurd? What explains their lack of insight? Are they truly over-sensitive? They had to overcome some tough hurdles just to have made it to Yale. They can’t be this sensitive.

My understanding of catastrophization provides an alternative explanation. I think it is a tactic, one the European “professional revolutionaries” of 1848 would have admired. You provoke your opponent into attack, and then use that attack to solidify your moral high ground. Gain the sympathy of the public. You win a small battle, and you build up your power to intimidate.

In the Yale situation, the man’s response was not malicious enough to the young protester’s outrage. By his calm, he won the round. You can tell by the public’s mostly anti-protester reaction to the incident. But had Yale sent security, even to try and “ease” the situation, the protester would have won, and sympathy would be on her side.

Regardless of the Yale battle’s success, the movement can utilize incidents like it to prepare for future confrontations, which will be of greater significance than Halloween costumes. There is not going to be a Ferguson or Baltimore on every campus all the time—catastrophization is necessary to allow people to practice for the real thing.

Thus catastrophization serves both to solidify the movement’s prestige through small victories and to allow members of the movement to practice tactics in a relatively safe environment. It is not a random manifestation of entitlement or over-sensitivity. However, this tactic risks undermining the perceived sincerity of the movement and numbing the public to the public to expressions of outrage.