Yale II: Can Commuity Standards Work?

Community standards worked in Williamsburg, MA
In the midst of the Yale kerfuffle detailed on Monday, several Yale students hurled a potent rhetorical challenge that was more thoughtful than the parodic sinkholes into the debate degenerated. What, they wondered, would have happened to a student who transgressed sensitivity lines? Wouldn't Yale students have dealt with that issue themselves though peer pressure, ostracism, and protest?

Excellent question–one, I hasten to add, almost all college professors would encourage (though possibly not many negative-PR-averse college administrators). The question got lost, possibly because some students allowed their anguish to degenerate into behaviors more resembling pitchfork vigilantism than a principled stand. It is interesting to consider, though, that this question is a defense of the First Amendment, not rationale for limiting it.

Are community sanctions workable? They can be. In the 1990s, Harvard fielded outrage involving students flying Confederate flags in their dorm windows. Intriguingly, Harvard both condemned the symbol and defended the First Amendment right of students to fly the flag. Peer pressure brought down the flags, not a den of deans. Harvard did not publicly identify the students, though two self-identified–one of whom finished at Harvard, and the other of whom transferred.

One wonders if Yale leaders might have had Smith College in mind, not Harvard, when it issued its Halloween costume guidelines.  In 2007, a Smith student and her male date attended a Halloween party in black-face. Then-President Carol Christ fielded the student's apology, but went on to denounce "the corrosive heritage of racism" in America, and to demand that Smith raise " hard questions about a campus culture that seems to license anonymous, ignorant, prejudiced, and hurtful comments of this sort." It may have been her finest hour as president—not her most comfortable, but her finest.

The First Amendment is often messy because it's also a double-edged sword. How does one define "ignorant," "prejudiced," or "hurtful?" The only constant is that when courts intervene, their decisions delight some communities and outrage others.  A case that springs to mind involved the Cincinnati Museum of Art's 1990 decision to display Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Most of the images were benign, but several were explicitly gay and a few showed sadomasochist acts. Although the exhibit came with what we'd today call "trigger warnings," community standards were invoked and museum director Dennis Barrie was arrested on obscenity charges. He was acquitted, but I doubt he much enjoyed doing his bit for the First Amendment.

No one should pretend that there are any easy one-size-fits-all answers floating around. One of the drawbacks of living in a free society is that the issue Erika Christakis raised at Yale is true; sometimes people behave in ways that are "a little bit obnoxious." Sometimes they're horribly obnoxious, and sometimes one person's "obnoxious" is another's definition of "art" or "freedom." All the more reason to hold the kinds of dialogue Christakis advocated.

But here's some hope. Community standards and peer pressure can advance social justice. At the very least, they refuse to allow obnoxious behaviors to be swept out of sight. Think of the principled stands taken by (some) 19th century abolitionists, by Gandhi, or by Dr. Martin Luther King. Did they topple injustice on their own? History tells us that it took the Civil War to end slavery, that World War II eroded colonialism, and that individuals more radical than Dr. King also played key roles in advancing civil rights. Often, progress is slow, confusing, and (alas!) sometimes violent. But it doesn't have to be.

You will recall that South Carolina removed the Confederate flag in July in response to Dylan Roof's murderous racist rampage. It didn't take that sort of horror in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where a local sheet-metal shop owner fabricated a painted tin Confederate flag to protest South Carolina's decision. The reaction against him was so swift and strong that his tune changed quickly and repeatedly–from a defense of "free speech" to complaints over the "PC police" to a feeble "It's only a decoration." Nobody denied his right to display the flag; they simply let the owner know they found him uncivil, insensitive, and ignorant. Neighbors applied peer pressure, the local paper was filled with condemnatory letters to the editor, petitions flew, and online chat boards lit up like a welder's torch. The clincher came in the form of a call to boycott the business; the flag came down after the owner's face-saving claim to have made his point. Was the result one of psychological extortion, or community standards at their moral best? The latter, I think. I'm absolutely certain, though, that it's a great argument for increased dialogue. If, for no other reason, when we talk about issues, we put our energy into problem-solving rather than destructiveness. 

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