The Corner

Culture

Training Tyrants at Yale

In today’s Washington Post, former Yale professor Erika Christakis has a harrowing op-ed reflecting on the firestorm that engulfed Yale University a year ago when she sent an email to students suggesting that there might be some downsides to official university censorship of Halloween costumes to prevent any student from being offended. 

Nearly a thousand students, faculty and deans called for my and my husband’s immediate removal from our jobs and campus home. Some demanded not only apologies for any unintended racial insensitivity (which we gladly offered) but also a complete disavowal of my ideas (which we did not) — as well as advance warning of my appearances in the dining hall so that students accusing me of fostering violence wouldn’t be disturbed by the sight of me.

You may remember that her husband, also a Yale professor at the time, was at the center of this horrifying video of out-of-control students in a rampage of violent and hateful abuse. If there wasn’t something very wrong with Yale, these students would have been disciplined and some of them expelled. But something is very wrong with Yale, as with many other premier American universities. Christakis puts her finger on it: 

Some called my email tone-deaf or even racist, but it came from a conviction that young people are more capable than we realize and that the growing tendency to cultivate vulnerability in students carries unacknowledged costs.

No doubt the Yale faculty thinks it is cultivating this vulnerability and victimism in the name of social justice and creating safe spaces for students. But there is a very different and very practical reason for Yale to teach vulnerability and victimism, and it’s here that students are really getting their money’s worth. As we learned from the Mohammed cartoon controversy some years back, people who demand your respect are often really asking for your obedience to their control. The Taliban destroyed statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, and ISIS has razed ancient cities to the ground in Syria, because they have learned to use their grievances to justify claims of absolute moral truth, in order to impose totalitarian control on the world around them, including the relics of the past. Exactly the same thing is happening when Princeton University students demand that Woodrow Wilson be effaced from the campus to which he contributed so much, because he happened to be a man of his time and not theirs. Those students think they’re being socially conscious. In fact, they are just a high-tech American version of the Taliban. 

As the Yale Halloween controversy shows, vulnerability and victimism are valuable because they permit people to claim absolute moral truth, a pretension of power with respect to the future as well as the past and the present. They never stop to think that a few generations from now, people like them will demand that their contributions be erased from the institution’s memory, for their current violations of tomorrow’s political correctness. That doesn’t matter. The payout is today. They get to impose totalitarian control on the present and the past.

Yale is graduating tyrants superbly well trained in how to control and silence others. What these students have done at Yale is just a taste of the sadism they will show once they attain to positions of real influence and power. Beware. 

Mario Loyola, a former White House environment-policy adviser and speechwriter, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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