Political Correctness and The Mob: It Didn’t Just Start

This article in the Atlantic discusses the current situation at Yale regarding the Halloween costume controversy. The main event, of course, was the verbal assault of then Master of Silliman College, Nicholas Christakis, by student Jerelyn Luther. The entire article is well worth reading. The ultimate result of the incident is that Nicholas Christakis is no long serving as Master. His wife, Erika Christakis, who shared in the job’s duties and whose email sparked the controversy, resigned her position teaching at Yale. (Ms. Chistakais has recently published a significant book on child-rearing.) It is not entirely clear from the article why the Christakis couple are no longer occupying their positions. It may be due to pressure from Yale or the Yale community or it may be their own decision. But whatever the cause, the message is clear: Don’t mess with the Political Correctness Mob. By contrast, the student, Jerelyn Luther, appears to have graduated without any type of reprimand.

This is a sad story, and one that has been written about at length. Here I just want to note that this type of issue is hardly new, at Yale or in other places. I remember my time at Yale Law School, which exhibited the 1980s version of this intolerance. It was known as hissing. When people voiced comments that the liberal mob disliked, they would collectively hiss.

I can still remember a Federalist Society member, whose has since gone on to become an important academic, announcing an event prior to my tax class taught by Michael Graetz. The mob hissed him.

Professor Graetz, however, behaved the way a professor should. He calmly but with conviction announced to the class that hissing people with whom you disagree is both disrespectful and inconsistent with the principles and traditions of a university. What’s more, it is inconsistent with the liberalism with which most of  these hiss-ers identify. He explained that it does not matter whether one agrees or disagrees with the message. He concluded by pointing out that the hiss-ers no doubt knew all of this. He was just reminding them what they knew and what they should follow. And this was especially the case when it occurred in his classroom.

Just kidding. Let’s be serious. Professor Graetz did nothing of the kind. He simply watched with what seemed like amusement as the hissing occurred. To me, it seemed as if he imagined himself doing the hissing, much as the college football coaches sympathized with the jocks as they abused the nerds in the 1980s movie Revenge of the Nerds.  (Of course, I don’t actually know what was in Professor Graetz’s mind—that’s just the way it seemed to me. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the hissing.)

In my opinion, Professor Graetz behaved badly that day. In some ways, worse than the hiss-ers did, since he was the professor in charge. But that was not the only time hissing occurred in classes with professors doing nothing to criticize it. I can still remember Quentin Johnstone in his famous—or infamous—property class ignoring the hissing of students.

People often commit the fallacy of the golden age—imagining that things used to be better during some prior period. Well, that was certainly not the case when I was at Yale.