Yale's Activists Deserve Constructive Criticism

Intellectual allies have defended the students against unfair attacks, but haven’t helped them reflect on their biggest mistakes.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

In The New Republic, Roxane Gay comments on student protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University with characteristic thoughtfulness and a powerful anecdote.

“I attended Yale from 1992 to 1994,” she writes. “While I was there, I understood that, as a black woman, I was regarded as a usurper on hallowed Ivy grounds. Either I was a scholarship student or a New Haven local—no one could believe that I was there, like the others, simply to learn. It was not uncommon to be the target of racial slurs, to be the subject of whispered discussions about affirmative action, and to tolerate microaggressions on a daily basis. Campus police made a sport of asking me and other black students, to show our student identification cards.” In my most recent piece on Yale I noted a student with the same complaint.

Gay’s whole article is worth your time.

She is right that “the currents protests are symbolic of a far more complex problem: a troubled racial climate on Yale’s campus that has persisted for many years.” I concur with her belief that neither the public nor the press should ignore the core grievance of black protestors: That not all students experience Yale equally. And I am glad to see her write of Nicholas and Ericka Christakis that “neither faculty member should resign or even apologize” for an email that the latter sent, even though many student activists have demanded apologies and resignations.

I wish, however, that Gay would’ve explained why they shouldn’t resign or apologize, if she believes that student activists are mistaken on that point.

What is the root of their mistake? She doesn’t say.

As I see it, their core error is not one particular to Yale activists, or participants in the nationwide protest movement about race on campus, but is shared by one faction of the left, diverse in race, gender, and cause of choice, that relies too heavily on stigma and too little on persuasion.

Greg Lukianoff, a leading critic of intolerance for dissent on campus, says Yale’s protests have lately taken a good turn. “Students and administrators are engaging in a variety of productive discussions and demonstrations regarding race on campus,” he writes. “There’s been a lot of discussion about how the issues at Yale are much bigger than Erika and Nicholas Christakis, and that’s certainly the opinion of many students. This week, Yale students refocused the narrative and engaged in a thoughtful, powerful demonstration of student activism through a ‘March of Resilience’ to express solidarity for students of color, and a forum to discuss race and diversity on campus. Both brought together over 1,000 students, faculty, and administrators.”

I’m glad that prominent critics of Yale activists are crediting areas of common ground. But ​I sense reluctance on behalf of many left-leaning intellectuals who support the students to be as forthright about their activism’s weaknesses as its strengths.

This does no one any favors.

Early in my career, I spent a lot of time lamenting a similar trend in the conservative movement, where intellectuals in sympathy with the grievances and ends of the activist base went out of their way to avoid criticizing even their least defensible notions, focusing exclusively on rebutting the least fair criticism of their allies. They reasoned that the media was unfair, so piling on would be disloyal and harmful, as if the presence of unfair criticism somehow makes sound criticism less useful. The effect was a populist base that believed all of its critics were disingenuous and dismissible. This has not worked out well for movement conservatism.

Although sympathetic to the anti-racist ends of the Yale activists, I am not a social-justice progressive. Criticism from me is therefore relatively easily dismissed. But whether they wish to hear it or not, the most serious mistake these activists are making is intolerance.

Gay mentions my criticism in her piece, but seems to disagree:

Conor Friedersdorf took offense to some of the people involved in the protest, labeling them intolerant. “They’re behaving more like Reddit parodies of ‘social-justice warriors’ than coherent activists, and I suspect they will look back on their behavior with chagrin,” he wrote, espousing the curious notion that protest should be a polite and demure endeavor that pleases everyone.

This misrepresents my argument.

And it evades the matter at hand. Intolerance is not an absence of politeness. I did not argue that the Yale activists are intolerant because they failed to be demure or to please everyone. And while I noted that some activists spat on people leaving a lecture––surely an intolerant act––even that wasn’t at the core of my critique.

I called the Yale activists intolerant because it was not enough for them to protest an email that they found wrongheaded; it was not enough to fully air their grievances in multiple public forums and at the home of its author; it was not enough for Nicholas and Ericka Christakis to listen attentively to student critiques and to express heartfelt regret that the email hurt feelings; rather, the student activists demanded that the couple renounce the substance of their beliefs, or else face public shaming and an effort to remove them from their position. Never mind that Christakis believed what she wrote. She had to reverse her position, or else.

That is what I believe to be intolerant: a refusal to agree to disagree, however passionately and impolitely; a rejection of the notion that earnest differences held by people of good faith are not cause for punishment, even if they are mistaken, or unwittingly insensitive, or give offense; a stance that amounts to “error has no rights.”

As I put it in my original article on the Yale controversy:

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed ... Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings. Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

This mistake is being made by campus activists all over the country, and the backlash to it is important. An academic community cannot thrive if its members face reprisals for merely stating what they believe to be true, constructive, and accurate.

Does Gay agree that the student activist demand for an apology and resignation is, in fact, a failure of tolerance? If she disagrees, I wonder on what basis she reached the conclusion that “neither faculty member should resign or even apologize.” Wouldn’t the activists benefit from knowing the rationale behind a position counter to their own, especially when held by a Yale alum who experienced campus racism? Couldn’t activists at other schools benefit from understanding their mistake?

Gay goes on to write that “there is often condescension in examinations of these supposedly fragile young people who don’t understand the real world.” I agree: They are being condescended to by the right and the left in different ways. They’re resilient enough to be engaged by commentators who listen to their experiences, care about their grievances, reflect on their activism, and offer frank, constructive criticism. But as is true in so many parts of politics, the closer one gets to their position on the ideological spectrum, the less constructive criticism one offers, perhaps because, as on the right, one then risks being stigmatized oneself.

Without this kind of criticism, the activists err more than they otherwise would. And they will keep garnering unusually intense opposition from people who dissent from their ideology so long as they insist that dissenters should be punished. If they abandon that premise, persuading the public to support their cause becomes a whole lot easier.