As a college freshman I had a wildly incompatible roommate.
We both knew we couldn’t live together by the end of orientation, so we went to the RA and explained our situation. And then we went to the RA again, and again, and again, as the school seemed to hope our differences would go away on their own.
They didn’t, and I was soon at my wit’s end, hiding out in the library every day to avoid my room, where an icy silence now reigned perpetual.
Finally, I realized what to do. I didn’t understand exactly why, but I knew I simply had to tell the RA one special word:
“I am offended by my roommate’s lifestyle.”
The results were immediate, and my awesome new roommate and I lived together until graduation.
My point here is not to blame my college, which was dealing with a large freshman class and limited dorm space. No, my point is that “offended” was—but shouldn’t be—the magic word.
Don’t get me wrong: When I went to my RA that last time, desperate to stop feeling like an intruder in my own home, I was beyond grateful I’d found the “open sesame” of academia.
But inside the academy and out, the power of a claim to offense has far outgrown its appropriate reach.
This has been especially clear in the past week’s headlines. First, there’s Yale, where students at Silliman College (a cross between a dorm and an academic department) are angry over an email sent by the college’s master (a cross between an RA, a professor, and a dean) about Halloween costumes.
In response to another email from administrators cautioning students against costumes which could give cultural or religious offense, Silliman Master Erika Christakis (who shares the position with her husband, Nicholas) wrote this:
I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
She went on to suggest that community dialog is a better way to deal with rude outfits than top-down clothing regulations from the university—and that this sort of debate is exactly what the university experience should include.
As Conor Friedersdorf notes at The Atlantic, Christakis thoughtfully invited Silliman students “to think about the controversy through an intellectual lens that few if any had considered.” And yet:
For her trouble, a faction of students are now trying to get the couple removed from their residential positions, which is to say, censured and ousted from their home on campus. Hundreds of Yale students are attacking them, some with hateful insults, shouted epithets, and a campaign of public shaming.
Per Yale’s website, the Christakis’ job is “fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character” of Silliman, and to reasonable observers it would seem that the Halloween email did exactly that.
The students vehemently disagree. They are offended, and they expect that magic word to “open sesame” the doors of Yale and give the Christakis couple the boot.
The nonsense began when an apparently famous pastor named Joshua Feuerstein posted a now-viral video alleging that Starbucks “hate[s] Jesus” because it printed a plain red design for its Christmas cups instead of something with, say, snowflakes (because obviously there was snow when Jesus was born in ancient Israel in the summer time).
The good news is that most Christians don’t seem to be buying into Feuerstein’s blather, despite the attention it has received. But the fact that a pastor—someone with far more responsibility and, hopefully, wisdom than a bunch of college kids—would use the magic “I’m offended” formula is perhaps even more troubling than these protests at Yale.
None of this is to suggest that there is never any room for offense or never any justification for public outcry. There is often occasion for both.
In fact, I’ve written in defense of college kids protesting when their universities bestow honorifics and speaking opportunities on people the students believe are morally ineligible for such recognition. But that type of protest—which is the grassroots dialog Erika Christakis advocated in her email—is not what we’re seeing at Yale or Starbucks.
Instead, there’s merely shameless invocation of a cultural abracadabra intended to force sympathy and avoid difficult but constructive debate.
Ivy League students and Christian pastors should know better than to play with that sort of hocus pocus—and the rest of us should know better than to give them an audience when they do.