A few weeks ago, Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students reminding them to be culturally sensitive in selecting their Halloween costumes. The president’s action was an attempt to be conscious of the well-being of all Yale students and stemmed from the diversity of that university’s campus, a trait Yale and UR share. The email came in the wake of the president of the University of Louisville being caught wearing a poncho, bushy mustache and sombrero. He was quick to apologize for his actions. The Yale email also brings to mind an event that occurred here, in which a student was coerced into taking down a Confederate flag, even when he was genuinely expressing his South Carolinian pride. All of these examples showcase the inappropriate and ridiculous extent of the restriction of free speech on college campuses.
A faculty member at Yale responded to the email by telling the student of the residence hall she lives in that they should be able to wear whatever they want, despite the potentially offensive nature of their costumes. Feathered headdresses, blackface and turbans were discouraged in the email. I happen to agree with the faculty member, who promoted the freedom of students to wear whatever Halloween costume they like. The line dividing what is considered appropriate and what is considered inappropriate is currently much too conservative. The traditional constitutional argument claims that in restricting Halloween costumes, students are not able to freely express themselves. I, however, would like to point out that if a student were to dress up as a terrorist, I would find this inappropriate. It is an evidently sensitive issue in the United States today, and exploiting this current issue is not right. This is different from the president of the University of Louisville’s actions because there is no obvious derogatory nature in the latter. The guy dressed up as a stereotypical Mexican. I know someone whose costume was a “drunk Irishman.” I did not consider this offensive, and nobody else seemed to find it so. My friend’s costume was probably much more offensive, too, as it expressed a specific, negative stereotype about a group of people, something the Louisville president’s costume did not do. The costume did not overtly demean Mexicans, so is there really an issue here? People are immediately jumping to the conclusion that he is demeaning Mexicans, and that is much more offensive than the act itself. Although it may appear insensitive to claim that the societal expectations of Halloween costumes are too conservative, there is a deeper insight that merits attention.
The discrepancy between appropriate and inappropriate free speech is ambiguous, but there is a point that is being overlooked in this argument. Consider the situation in which a student dresses up as a terrorist or in which the UR student puts a Confederate flag in his window. There is an ignored social cost in these actions that needs to be taken into account. Regardless of whether the student put a Confederate flag in his window for genuine reasons or not, he will pay a price. If black people walk past his window and observe it as a promotion of white supremacy, then they will likely not associate themselves with the individual. Further, since this issue was reported in several prominent news sources, future employers will likely come across this incident and, if they do not condone the presentation of the Confederate flag, then they will not hire him. If students across the campus do not approve of his behavior, then they will protest against him and alienate him on the campus. There are a plethora of social costs that the student would experience, and these would be the consequences of his behavior. Preventing the behavior in the first place is redundant, as costs will be imposed anyway. These issues with freedom of speech are completely ridiculous. Students may be offended, but the offenders will suffer from the numerous social costs. When freedom is allowed, negative behaviors such as blatantly offending others will naturally be reduced, and there is no need to institutionally restrict these behaviors.
There is another point of interest in all of this. When the faculty member at Yale stood by her initial email, students protested and demanded the resignation of both her and her husband, a professor at Yale, who vocally supported her decision. When both refused to resign, they were cursed and yelled at vehemently. This is a common tendency of liberal people supposedly promoting tolerance. These people claim that they value tolerance, but, when met with opposition, they are in fact intolerant. They are only tolerant of those who share their views. I am sure the faculty members at Yale would be accepting of others who disagreed with them. I am sure they would respectfully disagree with dissenters. The ridiculous hypocrisy of students cursing at the married couple needs to be addressed. People are allowed to have different perspectives and should not be alienated simply because of these differences. A person who values tolerance must tolerate ambiguity and respect others with different opinions. Again, these students are tolerant only of those who agree with them.
I have also been personally attacked on social media for voicing my perspectives regarding social issues. I have been criticized by ardent liberals, and their arguments generally resort to criticisms of my personal character and aspects of my social media profiles, instead of criticisms of my statement. Generally, these criticisms are fueled not by rationality but by emotion. In fact, a relative of my girlfriend said she could not believe we are dating after something I said on Twitter. My profile is public, and I am positive everything I say is not offensive if the reader simply puts on a critical thinking cap. I think these people have the cognitive capacity to understand that there are consequences to every action, and that statements are not always offensive, even when they may appear as such. People need to critically analyze these situations, as opposed to appealing to their emotion, to prevent these social controversies. If individuals from all parts of the political spectrum could adopt this notion, America would be better off than it is now, and freedom of speech would not be as controversial an issue as it currently is now.
Sehnert is a member of the class of 2019.