Do we dare not to care? You’ve seen the news by now: Students and administrators at Yale fretted that thoughtless Halloween costumes might subject them to “cultural appropriation” and steal from them their “voice” and “agency.” Certainly, it’s easy enough to poke fun at this sort of holiday “snowflake”-ism. But there’s another question we should also ask: Why do we care?
In case you’ve been preoccupied with real life, the story can be told quickly. (If you’d like more detail, try here, here, or here.) Yale’s administration issued an email suggesting that students should think in advance about the cultural sensitivity of their costumes. Don’t use blackface. Don’t go as a “wild Indian.” Etc. One faculty member, Erica Christakis, responded that such warnings reduced adult Yale students to quivering infants. Can’t we all be trusted, she asked, to act a little subversive on Halloween?
The response was swift and sure. Students and their allies denounced Christakis and called for her removal. They denounced her intentions and racist and oppressive, though she had explicitly supported “concerns about cultural and personal representation.”
It is easy enough to bemoan Yalies’ response to this Halloween email as another egregious overreach by “Snowflake Totalitarians,” privileged students who censor and shout down any smidge of a disturbing idea. It is also fairly easy to defend the students, in the words of one writer, “to understand why people of color would feel marginalized by the email and the university.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I tend to agree with the protestors. Or, at least, I’m happier to see students morally outraged—perhaps to excess—than to see students drinking their way through country-club collegiate life.
But let’s consider a different question today: Why do we care? Why is it so very interesting to so many of us what goes on at Yale? After all, hardly anyone actually goes to school there. For almost everyone, college life is worlds removed from the elite goings-on at Yale, or Princeton, or Harvard. And, if we measure college by relative earnings, Yale comes out near the bottom.
So why do we care? I’d like to suggest two possible reasons and I’ll welcome suggestions and denunciations. In essence, though, I think we’re seeing here the higher-educational fruits of Americans’ ferocious love/hate relationship with celebrities.
First, I think there’s some amount of schadenfreude at play. Just as ratings skyrocket when Kim Kardashian stumbles through another atrocious episode of her public life, we regular folk outside of the Ivy League love to see those snobs act stupid. More proof, if we needed it, that those grapes were sour to begin with.
Also, I detect among academic schlubs like myself a certain titillation with the celebrity factor. No one doesn’t know Yale. Americans are excited and interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
When Ivy-League students act with predictably adolescent over-zealousness to each new situation, do we all have to talk about it so much? Or will it be culturally insensitive of us to take Professor Nicholas Christakis’s advice and “look away”?