Incited by the supposed lack of cultural sensitivity on the Yale campus, a group identifying itself as the Pan-Ethnic Coalition recently asked various undergraduate organizations to sign the Freshman Education Initiative (FEI). The goal of the FEI, as drafted by the Asian American Students Association, is “to bring cultural awareness to Yale, and right some serious wrongs that plague even our campus, many of which our administration refuses to acknowledge or recognize.”
In order to increase “awareness” and “sensitivity” on campus, the FEI demands that Yale increase the amount of information and education incoming freshmen receive about issues related to culture, race and ethnicity. The Pan-Ethnic Coalition claims that the university has not fulfilled its role in preventing “ethnic bias” and wants to mobilize students to pressure the school to change its policies. While the FEI seems to be chock-full of good intentions, a closer analysis reveals many problems with its reasoning and its conclusions. The FEI, if implemented, would seriously threaten the freedom of speech integral to the goal of the University.
The text of the FEI begins with the statement that “[i]t is a certain unalienable civil right not to be ridiculed and insulted purely for a person’s culture and color.” First of all, the concept of an unalienable civil right is an oxymoron. Each right either exists because universal morality demands it in all cases (making it “unalienable” by society) or civil, in which case it is not a requirement of morality, but happens to be granted by society (and is therefore “alienable”). The drafters of the document went for more effect than meaning, preferring strong language to basic logic. They wanted to appeal to reader’s emotions, counting on the fact that most Americans hold dear the concept of not impinging upon sacred rights based in universal morality. However, the constitution never included a right not to be made fun of. The authors of the FEI believe that there is such a right. But they’ll have to do more than assert the right to prove it exists.
When a student pointed out to Adrian Hong, a representative of the Pan-Ethnic Coalition, that undergraduate regulations, which quote Professor C. Vann Woodward, explicitly state that free speech is to be protected at Yale even in the event of racial slurs or epithets, Mr. Hong responded: “At the risk of sounding overdramatic, the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations are WRONG. Despite what History Professor Woodward believed 30 years ago, Yale students DO NOT have to tolerate slurs and epithets intended to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion or sex.”
Given that neither the constitution nor undergraduate regulations support Mr. Hong’s claims about what has to be tolerated, one is still left to wonder what does. The end of his interchange with the student, who is Asian, is enlightening: “In fact, I’m actually astounded that you can even suggest that, especially being a minority yourself. Incredible.”
Mr. Hong does not appeal to rational arguments of any kind to back up his assertions, but to his personal feelings about the regulations. Worse than that, when he realizes that not all minority students feel the way he does, he resorts to racial attacks adorned by indignation. This is his way to counter a fellow student who poses a threat to his idea that an entire culture feels the need for policy changes at Yale.
The FEI continues with shameless exaggerations. It claims, “[i]ncidents such as the remark by the Morse dining hall manager serve only to create a threatening atmosphere. They devalue the distinctive contributions of the individuals affected and impair their ability to contribute to the community.” The Morse dining hall manager made a derogatory remark about the Korean culinary preference for dog. Which Korean student was truly prevented from contributing to the community because of this comment? Every student will be annoyed by a few isolated exposures to ridicule due to various (not always cultural) reasons during his time at Yale. But there are also plenty of students who are eager to learn about other cultures and share their own experiences with others. Individuals who resort to self-segregation based on these annoyances are to be criticized for allowing their feelings to be hurt too easily or making up excuses not to engage with others.
The report ends by claiming that Yale does not emphasize issues of cultural sensitivity during orientation. To rectify this situation, the FEI demands that Yale send out brochures and letters on cultural issues to freshmen before their arrival on campus, give more training to freshman counselors and ethnic counselors about cultural issues, display more brochures about grievance procedures in the case of cultural discrimination, and provide diversity training workshops for freshmen during orientation.
The FEI is misleading in its representation of the present state of affairs, giving the inaccurate impression that none of these measures is currently in place. Actually, all freshmen receive a copy of the undergraduate regulations booklet, which delineates the exact procedures to be followed in the case of grievances against racial, ethnic, national and other discrimination by Yale employees. The Undergraduate Regulations including those procedures can also easily be found online on the Yale College Dean’s Office web site. Freshman and ethnic counselors are made aware of cultural issues, and diversity training for freshmen does already take place in the form of a mandatory information and discussion session with the freshman counselors during orientation. This exaggeration of the degree of insensitivity on campus will lead to hypersensitivity to a problem that is not widespread.
The demands of the FEI represent an attempt to silence dialogue on issues of ethnicity and culture at Yale University, as well as to change Undergraduate Regulations to punish students whose remarks are deemed offensive by others. The role of the university, however, is precisely to provide a forum where every idea, as sacred as it may be to some of its members, can be discussed and criticized in the open. Restricting free speech will increasingly limit the information available to people when making decisions and push them into the habit of covering their eyes and ears in fear of absorbing inconvenient facts.
This tendency can be seen in a recent incident at Colgate University. Colgate Professor Barry Shain communicated in an e-mail exchange with a student that he was worried about the education minorities received at the school. He believed students of color were often asked to write papers about their own experiences of oppression instead of employing analytical methods, a situation that led to a disparity in skills between white and minority students by the time they graduated. Professor Shain’s comments could have been conducive to a factual discussion about whether minorities were truly at a disadvantage due to special treatment in their classes, and if so, how this could be changed. Instead, Colgate’s African, Latin American, and Native America Cultural Center organized a sit-in to demonstrate against these supposedly racist remarks and pressure Colgate to implement mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all members of the faculty and student body. Colgate is now seriously considering their demands.
This brouhaha provides a good example of hypersensitivity concerns obscuring potentially deep problems. In the end, it is minority students themselves who may suffer the consequences of Colgate’s refusal to discuss all aspects related to the quality of education. Serious issues will be brushed under the carpet here at Yale in the same way if people have to fear official censorship when voicing controversial opinions. The Pan-Ethnic Coalition assumes that the members of the Yale community are not reasonable enough to argue about such topics among themselves; instead they want the university to enforce political correctness in a top-down approach. Part of cross-cultural understanding, and simply being an adult, is the ability to confront an offensive person one on one to find out his motivations and try to change his views instead of acting like a tattle-tale by asking the university to chastise him.
An overwhelming majority of students at Yale rightfully abhor racism and condemn it when they see it. So is there a pressing need to increase cultural sensitivity at this university? Having institutions like Cultural Connections and Ethnic Counselors is already questionable: minority students are encouraged to band together from the beginning, and are given the impression that there is a threat to them out there before they interact with a single white Yale student. They enter their undergraduate careers under the false impression that racism is common at Yale and that they need each other and special counselors to deal with this threat. When a remark like the one by the Morse dining hall manager is made, this is taken as a confirmation of what they expected from the outset instead of the stupidity that it is. Adopting the FEI is another step toward alienating minorities from white students and vice versa. It is out of a desire for desegregation and open dialogue that every student or organization should reject the Initiative.
Casey Lee is a junior in Trumbull College.