At issue in Missouri protests, how we 'quit intimidating each other'

Debates over racial insensitivity at Missouri and Yale have at times devolved into yelling and anger on both sides. But beneath the surface, something meaningful is going on. 

Matt Hellman, The Missourian/AP
Members of Concerned Student 1950, University of Missouri's Graduate Professional Council, faculty and student supporters gather at Mel Carnahan Quadrangle to rally in support of an ongoing protest to get UM System President Tim Wolfe to resign on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015.

When the president of the University of Missouri resigned this week – forced from his position after angry protests over campus racism finally reached a tipping point – he said he believed community members had “stopped listening to each other.”

"We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening and quit intimidating each other,” said Timothy Wolfe at a press conference Monday. He added that the level of anger and frustration made the need for his resignation “immediate and substantial for us to heal.”

The months-long protests at Missouri, kindled by several racial incidents during recent weeks, have sparked a boisterous nationwide discussion that in many ways has been about the parameters of listening.

Simmering racial insensitivity and ascendant political correctness have mixed to form an explosive atmosphere in which the line between bad taste and outright animus has at times been blurred. The result on one hand is an escalation of righteous and voluble umbrage on all sides. But beneath that very public race for the moral high ground is a place where the conversation is meaningful, probing how American Millennials are evolving society's sense of what is offensive and acceptable. 

The core issue in the Missouri protests is a crucially important one for colleges and the country, most agree, particularly against the backdrop of the country’s larger struggles with race and law enforcement. Widespread incidents of racism and cultural insensitivity have fostered a demeaning and deliberately intimidating climate on campuses, many minority students and others say.

At Missouri, for instance, a swastika was scrawled with feces on a dorm room wall. At the University of Oklahoma earlier this year, a video surfaced in which white fraternity members were shown singing that blacks would never be admitted, including the lynching line, “You can hang ’em from a tree.” Last year, a noose was hung around a statue of a civil right figure at the University of Mississippi.

Many minority students point to the incidents and insist that the climate has become unbearable – an “unlivable space,” as Jonathan Butler, the Missouri grad student who went on a hunger strike to force Mr. Wolfe’s resignation, told The Washington Post last week.

The words and actions of some of the protesters, however, have drawn criticism from both liberals and conservatives who say they have crossed the line from expressing grievances and demanding redress to a dangerous and intolerant demand to suppress the free play of ideas and expression if they are deemed offensive.

Protesters at Missouri attempted to block reporters from the tent city erected on public grounds on Monday. In one video of the confrontation, a faculty member tried to take a camera from a person recording the confrontation, saying, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” 

A number of commenters have criticized the protesting students for being intolerant and illiberal in their understanding of free debate and expression. They have ridiculed many of the students as being “coddled” and focused more on hurt feelings than bold engagement with the world.

At Yale University this week, complaints of campus racism culminated in a debate over culturally-insensitive Halloween costumes – a debate that has gone viral after videos of angry confrontations swept through social media this week.

The debate is hardly unique to Yale. Officials at Arizona State suspended members of a fraternity after it threw a “gangsta”-themed party on Martin Luther King’s birthday featuring drinks from hollowed-out watermelons. Similar parties caused an uproar on the campuses of the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Michigan.

But Yale's debate took an unusual turn when a member of staff – very gently – offered a defense of the boorish behavior. 

The controversy began in late October, when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee asked students to avoid “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes, including outfits featuring feathered headdresses, turbans, or blackface. But after some students felt the guidelines were paternalistic, an associate “master” at one of Yale’s residential colleges wrote an e-mail to students raising the question of whether school administrators should determine the ways students play and dress.

“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community,” e-mailed Erika Christakis, a lecturer on early childhood development and associate master of Yale’s Silliman College, lauding “a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense” in such costume guidelines.

Still, she reasoned, “even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

The e-mail caused a furor among some minority students and others, and many demanded Ms. Christakis and her husband, fellow Silliman master Nicholas Christakis, step down. The response brought to the surface deep-seated feelings of alienation. 

"Giving 'room' for students to be 'obnoxious' or 'offensive,' as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe,” responded one Yale student in an open letter. Another Yale student oped rejected even debating the subject, writing in an op-ed, “...we don’t want to debate more. We want to be able to go home at night in a place where we feel welcome and wanted.”

But many of the student’s expressions also shifted the conversation to another debate: whether college campuses are becoming “places of censure and prohibition.”

As Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic wrote: “It ought to be disputed rather than indulged for the sake of these students, who need someone to teach them how empowered they are by virtue of their mere enrollment; that no one is capable of invalidating their existence, full stop; that their worth is inherent, not contingent; that everyone is offended by things around them; that they are capable of tremendous resilience…”

The fundamental issue is plotting that point at which offense becomes unacceptably invasive to others, and that is a target that moves as society changes.

For his part, New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb argues that the threats to minority students, both on campus and in the larger society, are real, and that we must listen to them.  

“The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered,” wrote Mr. Cobb, professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. “The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.”

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