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The founding fathers of the United States fought for freedom and today we continue to maintain that freedom. We fiercely fight to protect, amend, and interpret the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Amendments. So when last fall Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email imploring students to consider the implications of their Halloween costumes and reevaluate their decisions to wear them Professor Erika Christakis responded with an email defending student’s rights to make their own choices. This story made national news and ignited discussion about cultural appropriation as well as inclusivity, racism, to name a few issues. It was widely discussed because it is a topic that is near and dear to every American’s heart: our unalienable fundamental rights.
This essay seeks to include John Stuart Mill in the discourse surrounding this event. While Mill would condone the sending of the emails he would probably question the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s authority. In terms of policy Mill would say that that if the school could prove harm then they could implement a set of enforceable policies surrounding costumes. The Millian arguments against the concerns the taskforce puts forth are weak. The two emails themselves are simply vocalizing opinions and the concerns of both parties. Mill would advocate for individual’s autonomy as freedom of speech is a principle that the government under which the university resides values. The ultimate authority of the state decided that free speech will maximize utility and Mill agrees with that. To inject Mill into this situation it is necessary to consider a basic principle of his.
Mill’s Liberty Principle is critical in understanding why he would support the dialogue between the committee and professor. He stresses that freedom of speech and opinion encourages the truth, comprehension of the truth, and the real meaning of the truth. Maximum competition of ideas creates a better society in Mill’s opinion (59). “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (59).” Essentially it is a good thing that the university and professor spoke out on the topic of Halloween costumes.
Towards the end of the second chapter of Mill’s On Liberty he considers the struggle of putting bounds on fair discussion. He supports pushing these boundaries but mentions that the manner in which an opinion is presented could lead to censorship (60). This means that although it may be a valid opinion to voice the way it is voiced has a huge impact on its intentions. Christakis’s email response to the university brings up her appreciation of other cultures including the fact that she obtained a sari on a trip to Bangladesh. She says that she never wore it once. This is in a sense a loophole in this argument. Mill might say that certain limitations on types free speech are okay. One could argue that one could appreciate a culture just as much by talking or writing about it rather than dressing in potentially offensive outfits. That of course is not really the point of either emails, but Mill would have more to say on that and how much authority can restrict individuals.
Mill thinks that authority always needs to be justified. His Anti-paternalism principle that explains acts by the individual affecting only the individual and Liberty Principle explain this. “It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress (Chapter 3).” A caveat is the Harm Principle that allows authority to encroach on individual autonomy. After discussing rules, power, society, and laws among other ideas he states that power should not be imposed on an unwilling individual unless it will prevent harm to other members of the society (14). Liberty can be taken away when members of the community could commit harm to others (90). The issue with this relating to the emails from above is that Mill offers no concise definition of harm, harm is hard to prove, and harm is also hard to predict. If the university defined harm in a reasonable way Mill would probably encourage creating disincentives and punishing those who dress offensively for Halloween. Most importantly Mill would ask them to explain why their exercise of power is legitimate.
In my opinion and hopefully this opinion is not too mired white privilage the university’s actions were controversial. Yale gave the students a few questions to consider hoping to ensure that the campus would be a safe space for everyone during Halloween events but at what expense? They did not tell the students what to do but rather gave its stance on insensitive costumes, which would have been appropriate except their opinion held a lot of weight coming from a place of power. Ideally a university is supposed to represent the views of its students and its students are supposed to represent the views of the institution. There were not any repercussions mentioned in the email. There is truth in the university’s statement; an offensive costume truly could lead to the harm of a student or group of students. I agree with Mill that this is an extremely critical element to keep in mind when making rules and possibly limiting free speech. That being said college campuses are for experimenting, pushing the boundaries of what society considers normal, and making mistakes.
The youth in higher education will be the ones to lead eventually and Professor Erika Christakis points to that in saying that the university should not try to control what students wear. Drawing the line on what is offensive and what is passible is impossible so the responsibility should be left to the individual and their community. Personally, I would recommend that the university stress the importance of diversity awareness and inclusivity year-round. The fact that this email was sent pertaining to Halloween and specifically costumes was what made it such a huge issue. Surely few students would argue against making their peers feel comfortable in their learning environment. However when it appears that the university is trying to censor them strong backlash should be expected. More education on this topic would force individuals to be accountable to their community. Understanding the deeper issues behind cultural appropriation changes the way people act permanently in their day to day lives instead of just trying to put a Band-Aid on the issue once a year when Halloween rolls around.
Mill looks to maximize the utility of a society and he considers harm a detriment to society. According to him the email correspondence between the two parties: the university and the professor are critical in creating happiness by maximizing liberty. Liberty cannot come at the cost of harming others however. Which is why he would potentially support the university in its endeavor to protect some of its students if it was exercising legitimate authority. I think the university has the duty to educate its students in order to prevent harm organically instead of making rules.
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