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.

Reader Discussion

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on June 02, 2016 at 09:55:51 am

Professor, your experience at Yale was far from unique. I was at Harvard Law School in the early 1980's and it was routine for students to hiss at those with unpopular opinions, while the professors stood mutely by. The message was clear.

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Ed Mechmann
on June 02, 2016 at 11:14:06 am

A fascinating comment to read on a libertarian-ish blog.

According to Rappaport, student Jerelyn Luther engaged in a "verbal assault" on Nicholas Christakis, Master of Silliman College. We're not talking about a gun or rope or lead pipe or candlestick; the weapon in question is speech.

And Rappaport is dismayed that Luther should be permitted to graduate "without any kind of reprimand." Sure, she's been the focus of national articles regarding her behavior. But that's not a relevant consequence for Rappaport. The only consequence that matters is some judgment issued by an authority figure to sanction her for her speech.

This prompts Rappaport to reflect on a prior circumstance in which students engaged in speech Rappaport disapproved of, and an authority figure failed to pass judgment.

I share Rappaport's view that we have never had a "golden age" free from this dynamic. The dynamic in question is social norming. People in many social classes are hyper-aware of how this dynamic is always around us, shaping us, constraining us. It may strike them as amusing when occasionally members of the elite express shock! shock! that this dynamic constrains them as well.

And when people encounter this dynamic and find it objectionable, what do they do? Often, they seek out vindication from an authority figure. Arguably the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an exercise in one social group seeking out an authority figure to tell another social group that their social norming was bad and wrong. I sense that today most Americans embrace this message. Indeed, to find people who dissent from this view, you'd have to go to 1) people who object to how such policies apply to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, or 2) the Libertarian National Convention.

I feel sympathies for each side of this argument. I've articulated an affirmative defense to civil rights claims designed to create more space for people to act in conformity this their minority views. And I generally disapprove of hissing and brow-beating and other illiberal norms. I merely note that they are hardly unique to today's era or to campus life.

On the other hand, I invite my libertarian-ish friends to reflect anew on the concept of microagressions. Rappaport recoils at the power of social judgment to influence people's behavior. Now imagine that you were a member of a traditionally subordinated group and got to eat social judgment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

So I struggle to know precisely how to respond to the circumstances Rappaport articulates. I'm forced to reflect on the idea that liberal norms are, at base, merely one more type of norm, and that societies promote norms through fundamentally illiberal means such as praising and ostracizing (carrot and stick). To demand an authority figure to pass judgment on speech seems like the antithesis of liberal norms -- yet if they don't, will liberal norms persist?

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on June 02, 2016 at 11:57:38 am

seems to me that the responses to all these *micro* aggressions are simply a more polite form of going "postal"

I suppose going "sub-postal" is now an appropriate *norm* in this liberal society.

Give them all *orange slices* perhaps that will soothe the pain of all those MICROaggressions.

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on June 02, 2016 at 13:08:14 pm

There are worse exclusions than hissing and political correctness.

Take for example this tyranny from James Madison, Memorial & Remonstrance, 1785: “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe." Madison politicked on, “[T]he Bill . . . is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind.”

This citizen, born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and working for civic justice into an eighth decade is constrained to ask: What is "Civil Society?" Does "civil" refer to social conformity or the law? What about civic life? And further, what is "Governor of the Universe"? Physics, which is mass, energy and space-time from which everything on Earth emerges? Yes! Or is it deism's unity or Protestantism's trinity or a little of both? No! Not for this citizen. Reform James Madison's legacy!

Or what of Adam Smith's statement, "“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” James Madison likes that for Federalist 10, but look at the ruin that idea has wrought.

The dear anonymity labeled gabe might express his usual foolishness and Richard permanently retreated with the whine that I am condescending (to seek collaboration). But the rest of the crowd glares in silence--a popular control method, especially by those who perceive they have the higher opinion. But physics does not brook opinion.

What of James K. Polk's statement on exiting the presidency, "I now retire as a servant and regain my position as a sovereign." Is there no opportunity to for a chemical engineer to collaborate for real-no-harm (RNH) private morality with civic liberty (PMwCL) in the USA? Can just one conservative constitutional law professor see an ally in a citizen who observes that Judeo-Christian tradition as civic morality has a record of ruin. For example consider its use by Congress in DOMA. Physics-based morality can fill the gap, and with advice from conservative law professors, Congress could be acting on it now--perhaps overturn Obergefell v. Hodges. Physics is the bedrock for civic morality.

Regardless, no way will I take a civic people's ideas from the silent side of the aisle to the hissing side. But John Earle suggested the other day that I take it to the world.

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Phil Beaver
on June 02, 2016 at 15:23:51 pm

In response to nobody.really says:

The point of my piece is that a mob of people -- exercising their "free speech rights" -- can behave in a way that conflicts with the ideals and principles of a university. The professor should have spoken about those ideals, but he did not. None of this has to do with coercion or state action.

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Mike Rappaport
on June 02, 2016 at 18:04:25 pm

The point of my piece is that a mob of people — exercising their “free speech rights” — can behave in a way that conflicts with the ideals and principles of a university. The professor should have spoken about those ideals, but he did not. None of this has to do with coercion or state action.

Uh … yeah, that was my point as well. But I also added to it.

First, I noted that a mob of people — exercising their free speech rights — have always behaved in ways that conflicts with the ideals and principles of a university – that is, classically liberal norms. Historically the mob has behaved in racist and sexist ways. Now they’re also behaving in “politically correct” ways. We can decry it, but the general dynamic is hardly new.

Second, “the ideals and principles of a university” promotes persuasion through reason, not through appeal to authority. Thus, there’s no special reason to expect a professor to having anything more to say about liberal norms than anyone else. Yet here we are: Advocates for (classical) liberal norms, seeking to bolster our cause by appealing to authority figures because we lack faith in the power of reason to defend the social norms we value.

Third, “the ideals and principles of a university” should embrace the free speech rights of students to express dissent. Thus, it’s not entirely clear how a professor should respond. Would not a professor, making unsolicited arguments based on no greater expertise than anyone else, deprive students of an opportunity to employ their own critical thinking? The irony is that we began this discussion by noting the cascade of events that flowed from Erika Chistakais’s e-mail arguing that authority figures should butt out and let students exercise their own judgments regarding things such as Halloween costumes. And the moral Rappaport draws is that Erika Chistakais was wrong, and we really do need authority figures to tell students what to think.

It’s a perspective. I merely wish to note that there is more than one perspective here.

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on June 04, 2016 at 00:44:13 am

Let me try one more time. I think that the University stands for certain types of norms. Those norms involve free speech. Hissing is inconsistent with such speech in a university setting. Perhaps you disagree, which is fine. Similarly, allowing people to dress up in different ways also involves a type of free speech (or related free action). In both cases, I think it is appropriate for the professor to promote those norms.

You say: there’s no special reason to expect a professor to having anything more to say about liberal norms than anyone else. It depends what you mean by "expect." I believe that a professor should understand more about the liberal norms of a university than the students. That is why he is the teacher. In our world, I might not predict it because there are so many problematic professors, but that is another meaning of expect.

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Mike Rappaport
on June 04, 2016 at 10:53:55 am

Let me reflect on this. Thank you for the replies.

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on June 04, 2016 at 12:11:12 pm

Nice exchange between you and Rappaport.

Let me throw my 1 1/2 cents in here, if I may.

"You say: there’s no special reason to expect a professor to having anything more to say about liberal norms than anyone else."

Would you also say that there is no special reason for a professor to have anything to say about her particular subject matter? Is there not, or ought there not to be, a certain deference to her position based upon say, experience, study, immersion in the "norms" of the university - not to mention the purported purpose of a university, i.e., the free (only somewhat nowadays) exchange of ideas.

Yet, I agree with you if only in a time, or age, sensitive sense.

I would not, in fact DO NOT, expect that a grade / high school teacher ought to be providing such "normative guidance." Perhaps, it is because of the rather pronounced leftist disposition of the academic profession that I so object.

Yet, clearly a case may be made for the university professor, who rather than dealing with somewhat *unformed* minds / character, is (allegedly) dealing with young individuals who have completed the process of neurosynaptic generation and integration - their minds are clearly physically formed, if not morally formed. The expectation is that at such an age the individual ought to be able to deal with both the professors divergent views and her *normative* instruction against hissing. This is not clearly evident for the young teenager.

Then again, it may very well be that the university student, having been *normatively* weened on the new regime of "self-esteem" by these very high school instructors are now unable to handle any divergent view and having been taught that only their view ultimately matters, it is not unexpected that they will behave in the manner discussed above.

So what say you?

Shall we punish the university professor because she attempts to enforce a norm that is not only traditional but proper and is in keeping with the purpose of a university WHILE permitting the highschool (somewhat less educated, perhaps) teacher to not only express but instill the new norms.

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on June 04, 2016 at 15:18:07 pm

My opinion is that anyone who undertakes to participate in an institution has at least a practical obligation to speak out in defense of the basic, identifying tenets of that institution; otherwise he or she is merely an insurgent.

One would expect a medical professor to challenge a resident who advocates treating cancer with aroma therapy; one would expect a Catholic Bishop to counter a priest who denies the historical existence of Jesus; one would expect a police chief to reproach an officer who advocates vigilante justice. There are certain principles that define institutions that those purporting to support those institutions should uphold.

With specific regard to universities and colleges, it does not seem unreasonable to expect a professor to defend, even if only by feeble objection, the notion that rational thought and reasoned debate is superior to screaming, emotional tantrums, physical intimidation, or really anything that is not rational thought and reasoned debate.

Also, in my opinion, microaggressions are entitled to micro attention.

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on June 04, 2016 at 16:31:13 pm

"microaggressions are entitled to micro attention"

or as Senator Rubio would say:

Microaggressions are reserved for those with micro-hands!

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on June 12, 2016 at 14:12:14 pm

The founding principle of this country is a civic contract by connected people, and it is stated in the preamble to the constitution for the USA. Most citizens pay no attention to civic connections and are thus part of "We the People of the United States," a utopia floundering in domestic combat.

However, there are a few Americans who articulate much less practice commitment to the principles stated in the preamble. We distinguish them as A Civic People of the United States (ACPUS). Colleges and universities and law schools serve ACPUS.

Each day, we see cause to follow our friend John Earle's advice and take the message to the world, letting the USA continue to flounder in opinion-based law, balanced federal combat, and originalism vs progressivism. In that case, the willing becomes a civic people (ACP).

Professors have long appeared to ACP as serving their own interests at the expense of the people. Many professors extend their attitude of power over students, through grades and other approvals, to the people including ACP. But it's a false extension. Often, members of ACP view the professors with disdain, because it is obvious that the professors are squabbling among themselves and creating bad examples for the less scholarly people.

Squabbling professors are not contributing to real-no-harm (RNH) private liberty with civic morality (PLwCM). In fact they resist the very words, rebuking the writer's specific usages, so as to defend the elite society they have built for themselves. They pretend that somehow their propriety excludes them from citizenship--takes them into a realm whereby they are not required make common sense according to civic morality. Their scholarly morality is above reproach--to them. Not to the public.

Conservative law professors advised Congress on how to defend marriage. The physics is plain: Only a man and a woman can independently procreate. However, Congress writes DOMA based on Judaeo-Christian tradition! Clearly unconstitutional! The professors pretend ACP did not notice the woe the professors caused. ACP suffers the woe and is a friend, working to restore dignity and equality for children. But the professors are out on a limb and want to stay there.

Perhaps professors, behind anonymity, pretend that they can, with fruitless words, demean the voice of help that points them to physics as the bedrock of civic morality, where physics is mass, energy and space-time from which everything on Earth emerges, including propriety among citizens.

Take another case: slavery. The physics of slavery has always been chains, whips, brutality and rape to slaves with burdens to masters. However, the Christian Bible was canonized with passages that condone slavery. The word of the Christian god lives on and has whatever affect on individuals minds it might have--no correction about slavery passages forthcoming. The civil war was waged by white Christians against white Christians who felt the other side has "more erroneous religious opinion." The professors offer no help to a civic people, so the battles over Bible interpretation rage on.

The facts of reality may be discovered with physics, which yields to neither opinion nor pretense nor scholarly propriety. ACP must collaborate to take earliest advantage of the reform to civic morality, and that is my continuing plea on this forum and elsewhere.

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Phil Beaver

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.