Grounds for a Crisis in Faith?

Heathen cup vs. Christian cup?
About the time you think life can't get any weirder, it does. A new battle rages across the land, my friends—one, I'm told, that threatens the survival of Western society as we know it. Go ahead and blame me if society crumbles like a stale muffin, because after this essay I intend to sit on the sidelines. I just can't get all that frothed over images of Christmas as seen from the side of a Starbuck's coffee cup.

If you've been on another planet and missed all of this, let me first tell you how much I envy you. To bring you up to speed, Starbuck's riled Christians of (little) faith by unveiling the paper cup in which December beverages will be served. Shockingly, it's red. Even worse, it has the Starbuck's logo on it! Imagine the nerve of putting the corporate logo of the corporation selling you corporate coffee directly onto the side of a corporate cup. But this isn't all that stirred the sludgy minds of evangelical caffeine addicts. Even worse, that's all that's on the cup­–no Christmas symbols like reindeer, holly, or Santa. If memory serves, didn't Starbuck's have a blue snowflake cup last year? Did that escape comment because it evoked Elvis's "Blue Christmas?" (Maybe the War on Christmas crowd confused Elvis and Elves. That could happen.)  

By contrast, Chris Davis, the head of a North Carolina-based group calling itself Faith Driven Consumer–you can't make it up–has praised Dunkin' Donuts seasonal cup, a pink, green, and orange vegetative design that appears to be half pine and half tarragon, encircling the word "Joy." Well praise the Lord and pass the Half and Half. And thank you for informing me that orange is now a holiday color, that joy is a Christian word, and that consumerism is now officially faith-based. Apparently a new lost text of Matthew 21 reveals that Jesus drove the money-changers from the Temple and then, after a quick stop to get a cup of Dunkin', toddled over to Walmart to do a little Christmas shopping. On the way he regaled the disciples with warm family stories about the manger and how the forgotten fourth Magi, Milkyor, came bearing a thermos full of Joe for his infant self.

Can we just stop with all this War on Christmas nonsense? If one measures Christmas according to a Faith Driven Consumer standard, the war has been won. Last year more than $616 billion was spent during the official holiday season that begins the day after Thanksgiving. That's up a trifling $584 billion over what it was ten years earlier!

Do you want to talk about Christmas outside of the consumer realm? Good luck with that. Adbusters promotes a Buy Nothing Day for Black Friday, but CNN won't run their ads. Did I mention that CNN is owned by a bunch of one-percenters (and I don't mean a coffee additive)? Want to bring back the true spirit of Christmas? Tell Chris Davis that he and his ilk need to stop rendering unto Caesar. And to all whose faith is shaken by a plain red coffee cup I say, "Your faith is weaker than Dunkin' Donuts' coffee."

I'm done now. Go ahead and blame me if the red cup really is the tipping point that leads to Christmas being outlawed. You'd have grounds.  


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. 


Yale versus the First Amendment?

Rejecting Nick Christakis' call for dialogue at Yale
The Atlantic headline is damning: "The New Intolerance of Student Activism." It's wrong to tar all student activism with such a label, but journalist Conor Friedersdorf is right to worry about the implications of recent student protest at Yale. Call it a reverse 1960s—Yale students sided with university administration against a professor who supported their right to free speech. Yalies need to take a course that teaches them that close reading is, generally speaking, a more intelligent way to form moral positions than knee-jerk reactions. Then they should sign up for a US history class.

The truly sad part is that both sides in the dispute were (sort of) right. It unfolded just before Halloween, when 13 Yale administrators sent a letter to students with guidelines on Halloween costumes. I can see that. There's not a college communications office in the land that wants to field queries from the press about idiotic white kids who thought it would be "cool" or "funny" to slather on burnt cork and pretend to be African-American rappers. Ditto those who might dress as campesinos or Native Americans. If the letter had taken the tone of an advisory rather than official guidelines, it might have been viewed as sagacious. It would also have helped if the audience consisted of minors, not young adults.

Enter Erika Christakis, a lecturer in early childhood education, who noted that Yale students are supposed to be viewed as adults. In an email that could hardly have been more respectful in tone, Christakis raised a question of utmost importance: free speech. She began by asserting she had no desire to "trivialize" the issues raised by the administration or its desire to avoid "hurt and offense." She clearly stated, "I applaud those goals," but she went on to ponder the implications of "an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students."

Christakis' mistake was to frame her well-considered question in the language of her field of childhood development. She raised questions about when "the statute of limitations" expires on the boundaries between fantasy and provocation. She admitted she did not know; hence she was uncomfortable imposing standards on others. She correctly, but impoliticly suggested that the maturation process occasionally involved young people being "a little bit obnoxious." (Is there anyone who has been around college students who has not observed that from time to time?) At several junctures she reiterated that she was not condoning bigotry; the point was free speech.

One might have thought that Christakis was advocating that Yale students don Ku Klux Klan robes given what happened next. She found herself viciously assaulted verbally, with students demanding her firing. When her husband/professor, Nicholas, defended her, he too became a target. His attempts to open dialogue with students were dismissed with churlish and–I'll say it, childish–temper tantrums and demands that he too reign. That despite the fact that he magnanimously asked the public not to judge students whose anger was captured on video. Instead, both Christakises have been the object of obscenities, protests, and libelous associations with contributing to racism and genocide. One student went so far as to say, "I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain." I'm sorry, but as President Obama noted, we don't "learn" when we retreat behind our sensitivity.

I support Erika and Nicholas Christakis because I was once part of campus battles that overthrew the very structures of university control they fear are being reestablished. Do you like irony? In an earlier time, student protestors would have been severely disciplined for their incivility and disrespect. Today's students are only able to condemn their professors because, once upon a time, a bunch of us fought for the very free speech Yalies want to restrict!

In 1992, Noam Chomsky observed, "If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” Yale students should heed those words. While they're at it, take in a little Latin: in loco parentis. It means "in the place of the parents" and it's how college administrations saw themselves (and were supported legally) until the 1960s New Left kicked out the jams.

That battle first attracted wide notice at UCal Berkeley. A little delving into the 1964 "Free Speech Movement" reveals that UCal students who had taken part in Mississippi Freedom Summer had to fight for the right to set up tables on campus to dispense information about it. Think upon that the next time you see a flyer on any campus anywhere about any issue whatsoever. Try this one: Look up the word parietal and tell me when Yale eliminated them. No, I'll tell you: 1968. That too happened because of students who valued freedom of expression over someone else's idea of propriety. Do you want to talk about how campuses became forums for social justice issues in the first place? Want to talk about non-sanctioned teach-ins, sit-ins, and marches? Should we discuss why colleges set up women's studies programs, Afro-Am departments, gay rights organizations, and ethnic studies programs of all sorts? Do you want to talk about the walls that had to come down in order to make campuses more diverse, or do you just want to talk about your pain? Guess what? Without free speech, nobody's listening.

And here's the really pernicious thing. The Hard-shell Right loves what you're doing. You give it ammo to dismiss you as intolerant thralls to Political Correctness whose collective butt needs to be spanked. It too has ideas about what values you should hold and how you should conduct yourselves. But you won't like them.   

Next: Yale II: Can community standards address oppression?