Yale, yoga and the battle over free speech on campus

From perceptions of racism at Yale to the cultural appropriation of yoga at the University of Ottawa, North American universities have become the new battleground for trying to establish the limits of sensitivity, Neil Macdonald writes.

N.A. universities are the new battleground for racial sensitivity, political correctness

Yale University students and supporters demonstrate earlier this month against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school. (Ryan Flynn/New Haven Register/Associated Press)

In their book on treating depression and anxiety disorders, psychologists Robert Leahy, Stephen Holland and Lata McGinn list a condition they call "catastrophization."

This is a tendency to believe that what most people would see as trivial events are in fact utterly unbearable — dangers to the mind and health.

It's not a widespread condition in the Third World. People who live through actual catastrophes — Syrian refugees, for example, or most Haitians, or the villagers of Darfur — don't really need to catastrophize.

But the students of North America's universities seem to endure a fresh calamity every week or so.

Some of these young people, who are among the Western world's most privileged sons and daughters, its elites in training, have developed such extreme sensitivity that they sound like damaged soldiers returning from combat.

Consider this declaration by Yale University student Jencey Paz earlier this month, writing about a university official's reflection on over-policing campus speech.

"I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained."

What not to wear

The source of this distress was a note by Erika Christakis, associate master of a Yale college, challenging the censure of Halloween costumes.

Each year, the warnings to students grow stronger, and they are basically advised not to dress as a member of any other culture.

No sombreros, no dreadlocks, no turbans, no "war paint," presumably no beards and Kalashnikovs, no anything that even might give offence in an environment where everyone's sensitivity is on high alert, and university speech codes promise punishment to offenders.

Christakis, seeking to moderate the discussion, followed up this year's warning with a note of her own.

"I don't wish to trivialize genuine concerns," she wrote, "but as a former preschool teacher, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably 'appropriative' about a blonde-­haired child's wanting to be Mulan [a Chinese heroine in a Disney movie] for a day."

Her point was that Yale students are adults, and therefore perhaps not in need of speech policing by university authorities.

"Are we all okay with this transfer of power?" she asked. "I don't, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can't defend them anymore than you could defend yours."

This provoked an eruption of fury from students such as Paz, who produced a list of demands — including Christakis's immediate dismissal — to remedy what they believe is racism at Yale.

There had also been rumours of a "white girls only" party at a Yale frat house, which the fraternity in question had strenuously denied.

And when Christakis's husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a college master, tried to defend her, he wound up surrounded by angry students, including a young woman who shrieked profanely that he was unfit for employment as a college master at Yale.

A video of his shaming was uploaded onto YouTube. Abusive language, apparently, is permissible in the pursuit of social justice. 

As for Christakis's suggestion that this is a debate over the limits of speech, Paz wrote in the student-run Yale Herald: "I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain."

An epidemic of censure

Late last week, Yale's president announced a slew of new diversity initiatives in response. But, he added, he would not be firing Erika Christakis or her husband.

At least not yet. When student protests intensify, as they did at the University of Missouri last month, officials tend to buckle and resignations are required.

A member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while addressing a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe was about to resign. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Over at nearby Princeton University, black students now want to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson, a former president of both Princeton and the U.S., from fronting some of the Ivy League school's institutions.

Wilson was America's most famous multilateralist — he was the force behind the establishment of the League of Nations, forerunner of the UN — and established a doctrine of exporting democracy.

But he was a racist. To put it mildly, he did not believe in the advancement of blacks.

Should his name be expunged at Princeton? The university is considering the question. The story has made the New York Times.

But then should the name of Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves, be wiped off the buildings of the University of Virginia, which he founded? Or should his statue be toppled in Washington?

What about George Washington, another slave owner who has a university, and more than a few monuments, not to mention a city, named after him?

The argument could easily be applied to just about the entire firmament of Western leadership in the past three centuries.

History is history. It exists, and bowdlerizing it on the grounds of hurt feelings does not make it disappear.

The most inexplicable catastrophization so far, though, may be right here in Canada, at the University of Ottawa, where the students' union has suspended a free yoga program at its centre for students with disabilities.

Jen Scharf used to teach a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa but it was cancelled by the student federation, at least partly over cultural concerns. She says she focused on the physical benefits of yoga and didn't play up the spiritual side. (CBC)

One of the reasons for the decision was concern about yoga's origin in Eastern cultures and how it's been adopted by Western users.

Those cultures, according to an email sent from the student centre and quoted in the Ottawa Sun, "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism ... we need to be mindful of this while practising yoga."

This yoga-catastrophization has provoked tremendous derision on the internet.

Most people, including University of Ottawa officials, have a hard time imagining yoga teachers, with their candles and Namastes and soothing happy talk, as oppressors who need to be shut down.

To be fair, all this hot student activism is also about creating a peaceful, collegial learning environment.

But the ferocity of those who wander the halls of the academy, demanding resignations and re-education of others (never of themselves), and the shutdown of programs and discussion of their distress, seems limitless.

You can only wonder how accommodating it prepares students for the offensive, noisy, pitiless world they're about to enter.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.