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Walking the "tight rope" connecting Cultural Sensitivity with Freedom of Expression

Walking the "tight rope" connecting Cultural Sensitivity with Freedom of Expression

"It is the mark of an educated mind
to be able to entertain a thought,
without accepting it as fact."

By writing this commentary, regarding the recent Silliman College dissonance at Yale, about “safe space” vs. free expression, I want to make it clear from the beginning, for the reader, that as a journalist I do not believe in the “either or” dilemmas. On the contrary, I prefer to take a stand with professional skepticism and humanistic empathy to what is perceived as a journalistic “fact”, by reconceptualizing alternative understandings of the issue, inter-subjectivity of the individuals, inquiry and doubt. I also believe that what seems on the surface to be a “dissonance”, it is often not related to the actual “facts”, but to the [mis]interpretations, we as human beings make; in most cases these are connected to our personal feelings, values, knowledge, experiences, cultural sensitivities and intentions. What is happening, these days, at Yale is not just a simple incident regarding Halloween costumes and personal choices. This is the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, or rather a hidden-old-open wound that requires attention, thoughtful resolution, and constructive dialogue. Yale students are rising up, as they feel that their voices, cultural sensitivities and minority rights, haven’t been considered adequately, in creating the “safe space” they need.
It is rather an unfortunate coincidence, that this development was triggered by a series of e-mail exchanges, instead of a public dialogue, where all voices could be included and heard, and everyone involved, could explain not only what they meant with their written words, but also the very intentions and ideological perspectives beneath their words. Haven’t we all lost friends or colleagues due to a misinterpreted e-mail exchange? No matter the benefits of such communication, it seems that it has occupied dangerously our interpersonal-authentic-dialogic space, marginalizing body wisdom communication, which would be essential in decoding any ambiguous discourse. The main question here is when enough is enough? I am daring to “Walk the tight rope of connecting Cultural Sensitivity with Freedom of Expression”, and I am consciously focusing my effort on the three e-mails that have dominated this dissonance, namely Yale’s “Intercultural Affairs Committee” e-mail, Silliman campus Associate Master Erika Christakis’ e-mail, and finally the Students, Alumni, Family, Faculty, and Staff response to E. Christakis’s e-mail, by raising some common sense questions:


1. Were the voices of Yale students, represented adequately in the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s process of recommending those restrictions at first place? 

2. If the students voices were not included, who could possible decide for them what is “offensive” in terms of costume or cultural representation? 

3. Do these students, who seem to be now in agreement with the Committee’s position, feel that this particular e-mail, (about Halloween’s dressing choices), captures completely their “safe space” requirements in general and beyond this particular occasion? 

4. Does the existence of such an e-mail indicate that there have been previously serious concerns and incidents regarding racism/sexism and other breaches of cultural sensitivities?

5. Is it correct to impose the generalization of a “growing national concern”, as it is clearly stated in the Committee’s e-mail, to the specific characteristics and requirements of the Silliman campus community, without the input and consensus of its students?

6. Why did they choose a day that is dedicated to be fun and it could also represent freedom of expression and choices, to become the target for advocating sensitivity to issues that should be addressed more effectively throughout the year?

7. Why an intercultural, intellectual institution like Yale, chose to sensitize its students via an e-mail of prohibitions, instead of enhancing their appreciation and learning of the situation, with appropriate inspiration and stimulation?

8. Why cannot Yale be concurrently a “safe space” of comfort, and a place of free expression? Who thinks that those are mutually exclusive?

9. Suppose there is no golden rule of co-existence of “safe space” and freedom of expression, who has the right and responsibility to decide on the possibilities and limitations of such a distinction?

10. Is there truly an “exercise of implied control” over Yale students, who implies such a control and why? 

11. If those who are concerned about the imposition of an “implied control to the student’s community”, apologize to the community or resign from their positions, does this make the community a “safer space”?

12. How the choice of an “appropriate” Halloween costume by students can really be an action of genuine sensitivity and respect towards other cultures and minority groups, in ways that contributes permanently to the everyday behavior?

13. Do choices made by adults and imposed to the younger ones, with the best intentions, represent necessarily the best choices? 

14. If Yale doesn’t recognize the right for free expression and imagination, during Halloween’s celebration, why such a celebration exists at first place? 

15. Who has the right to condemn another human being, either a student or a professor, on the basis of them having a different opinion, while this opinion doesn’t necessarily contradict the requirement for “safe space”? 

16. Why the student community revolts against the Associate Master Erika Christakis, for raising questions, while not imposing any answers or prohibitions? 

17. Are the questions regarding the “strength and judgment of the young people”, raised by E. Christakis, too challenging to be answered consciously by them?

18. Who can decide about a celebration that is mainly about imagination and free expression if not the young people themselves? 

19. Suppose Yale creates the ideal “safe space” for its students’, how that “safe space” will resonate with an open, antagonistic and often unfair society? 

20. Suppose that E. Christakis has failed to include or address in her response e-mail, the students’ feelings and concerns regarding “safe space” and “repeated requests of students of color”, is that a good reason for them to put the blame on exclusively on her as well as on her husband Dr. Nicholas Christakis who also serves as Master in Silliman Campus, for apparently pre-existing and long lasting incidents? 

21. Why students think that E. Christakis’ e-mail doesn't show the right respect towards cultural sensitivities and minority groups, when she actually took the risk to challenge the Committee’s recommendations for the benefit of students? 

22. Isn’t it really another form of discrimination and racism when an opinion different to the mainstream one is condemned? 

23. Why is it suggested that such a perspective is against “cultural awareness, respect, and appreciation on campus”, if it is expressed authentically with real respect to student’s rights and freedoms?

24. Why student’s stated in their e-mail, “degradation of cultures and people and violence that grows and that is something already ignored by Yale’s administration”? 

25. Why Yale instead of providing e-mails of prohibition for Halloween, doesn't provide “means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding” as students themselves require? 

26. How by being “obnoxious or offensive for one day of the year, can invite ridicule and violence” for 364 days of the year, unless this is a well embedded value-based behavior related to other kind of societal or national stereotypes?

27. Can truly an e-mail exchange, independently of its content and opinions expressed within it, “invalidate student’s existences on campus and disrespect of their cultures and livelihoods”?

28. Does this “history of exclusion” in Yale, as students describe it, justify the exclusion of different opinions instead of co-creating new-common ground and opportunities of inclusion for everyone?

29. How can Yale’s community overcome pre-existing, painful and often well hidden “stereotypes” and “incorrect beliefs” or even self-victimizations on any side, by synthesizing the thesis and the antithesis of all perspectives to a new consensual reality for the benefit of everyone?

30. What immediate corrective actions, beyond Halloween choices, can be taken for all those students of Yale, who feel “inferior and unwelcome in their own society”, and “whose voices”, they claim, “are not heard”? 

Beyond university campuses, in many countries around the world, “safe spaces” are non-existent. On the other hand millions of people are struggling every day for the freedom of expression, not only during Halloween days, but every single day, where truly inappropriate imposed “costumes” and behaviors dictate how people or nations should or shouldn’t act. Those “costumes” are often extremely narrow and neither question not doubt fits within them; quite often there is not space even for the voices of those who are forced or obliged to “wear” them.

Finally, probably it worth’s to be mentioned, that Greek tragedy and the history of Western art grew out of the ritual recital of epic poems that took place during the Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece. Mimesis was "the primary dramatic phenomenon: projecting oneself outside oneself and then acting as though one had really entered another body. F. Nietzsche wrote that "transcendent experience of art pulled man from the clutches of nihilism and that the Dionysian transformation, while disruptive to ego-consciousness, is the means for resolving the existential paradox. The gap between self-knowledge and ethical action, between 'merely animal and animal transcending,' (Maslow) between being both man and God, between is and ought, between actuality and potentiality, is bridged during the aesthetic experience. Art forces a comparison of the previously unknown (unconscious) and the known (conscious) and momentarily releases the viewer from the existential burden (guilt) of not knowing.

Halloween seems to be the meta-modern opportunity for such a mimesis, which is rooted in old cultural traditions related to both “safe space” and freedom of expression issues. Probably, the groundless ground of freedom of expression and humanistic values is the ideal- open-safe space for anyone of us to be.

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