posted at 10:01 pm on September 15, 2016 by John Sexton
We posted this story in the headlines yesterday and today I finally got a chance to watch these videos of Yale students interacting with a professor last October. The videos show professor Nicholas Christakis surrounded by dozens of students. As he tries to have a respectful dialogue with them they react with tears and eventually screaming and insults. The clips were published by James Kirchick at Tablet magazine who describes the backstory to this incident:
Four days before Halloween, a university organ called the Intercultural Affairs Council released an email to the entire student body warning them not to wear costumes that “threaten our sense of community.” In the absence of any recent incidents on Yale’s campus involving racist or culturally insensitive Halloween outfits, however, the missive struck many students as patronizing, if not entirely misplaced…
Sensing this incongruity between their own lived experiences and the prophylactic admonishments of a glorified residential adviser, some students brought their concerns to Erika Christakis, a professor of child developmental psychology and the associate master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 residential houses. In a rejoinder email sent only to Silliman students, Christakis took umbrage with what she portrayed as a cosseting administration, asking, “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”
That’s when all hell broke loose. To many Yale students, Christakis’ email was not an affirmation of their maturity and independence, a gentle riposte to the hypermanagement of young adult lives. It signified nothing less than a naked endorsement of white supremacy.
Nicholas Christakis who is Erika’s husband and also the master of the Silliman, met a group of several dozen students in the quad and attempted to have a respectful discussion with them. As you’ll see in these clips, Christakis is willing to apologize for any pain he has caused but draws the line when students suggest he (or his wife) created a platform for violence against people of color.
In this first clip a young woman faults Christakis for not knowing her name since they have interacted on campus in the past. Christakis replies that he has 500 students whose names he needs to learn but adds that his inability to do so has nothing to do with her race. Mikayla doesn’t seem convinced and wants Yale to once again be a “safe space”:
The dialogue is then interrupted by another student who wants to know why Christakis won’t just issue an apology. He replies that just because an apology is demanded does not mean the person being asked for one immediately has to say yes. The student then uses this analogy, “If I’m in the courtyard playing games, right, and I’m kicking around a soccer ball. You happen to be walking by. I kick the soccer ball; I break your nose, right…You are experiencing pain, physical pain…I need to apologize because I have caused you pain.” “That’s a good argument,” Christakis replies.
The conversation seems to be going in a positive direction and Christakis is ready to apologize for hurting feelings but draws a line when someone suggests he should agree the offending statements were racist. Which of course is not in keeping with the analogy the student just used. In that analogy, the pain caused by the soccer ball was an accident, not intentional.
And then the student, who had been speaking rationally if excitedly to this point, begins crying hysterically. A group of friends move in to hug her and one student even stands between her and Christakis.
In part 3, Christakis tries to talk about “our common humanity” and that really seems to upset the crowd. A man steps out of the crowd and gets in Christakis’ face saying, “We’re human, great! But your experiences will never connect to mine.” He continues, “Even if you don’t feel what I feel ever, even if nobody’s ever been racist to you cause they can’t be racist to you, that doesn’t mean that you can just act like you’re not being racist.” So we’ve gone from the analogy of the accidental soccer ball to the claim that Christakis can never understand and must stop pretending he’s “not being racist” in the span of four minutes.
Here’s the final clip when things get even more heated as a succession of student get louder and more aggressive. At about two minutes in a student tells Christakis she is “disgusted” and adds, “Now I want your job to be taken from you.” He tries to reply a few times and is told he has no right to speak. He just has to stand there and be berated for several minutes. Apparently the students who are focused on their own pain have no problem inflicting pain on others, not accidentally with an email or a tweet, but intentionally face to face.