The Corner

Video: This Is What a Social Justice Warrior Looks Like

The video below has been making the rounds on the internet. It shows a young woman screaming in the face of Yale professor Nicholas Christakis about the alleged plight of minority students. Why the hysterical shrieking? Because the professor’s wife (a Yale lecturer) had the audacity to write an email to students at Silliman College, one of Yale’s so-called “residential colleges,” questioning excessive sensitivity over Halloween costumes. Yes, Halloween costumes. Before you watch the video, here is the core argument in the email:

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).

Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

This simple message – a rather basic defense of free speech on a pluralistic campus — triggered a firestorm. A group of students confronted Professor Christakis on campus, and a student pitched what is best described as a toddler-style screaming fit. I haven’t seen this kind of conduct from any of my children since they were three years old, but — ladies and gentlemen — I present to you a member of America’s student aristocracy, a social justice warrior in full battle cry:

Whenever I write about political correctness on campus, readers will post a number of comments noting how poorly this kind of behavior works out in the “real world.” Yet it’s crucial to note that many social justice warriors never enter that ”real world.” They stay on campus as professors or activist administrators, or they join left-wing nonprofits, or — worst of all — they join the leftist quarters of the bureaucracy, where they turn their temper tantrums into policy. There exists an entire parallel universe that is almost entirely insulated not just from the rough and tumble of the market, but also from the inconvenience of contrary ideas. And in that parallel universe that young student is a hero. She spoke “truth to power,” and she’s on her way to greater respect and influence at Yale and beyond. 

Elsewhere, however, that behavior is self-limiting and ultimately self-defeating. In social justice-land, fit-pitching is the path to power. Everywhere else, it’s the path to parody. 

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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