Yale University

Sound Off !

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty (Thoreau)

Tony Lavely

January 31, 2016

Category: Society > Campus Issues

In my role as Class Secretary, I hear the voices of many classmates. One of my goals in this role is to foster communication among classmates, the sharing of experiences and perspectives, even when they differ greatly from my own. I think the importance of sharing different experiences and perspectives is one of the most important things I learned at Yale.

Anyway, today, as one individual and not your Class Secretary, I wade into the recent "discussion" about issues on the Yale campus that were highly publicized last fall. My purpose here is not to comment, point by point, on the issues that have surfaced:  freedom of speech, separation of special identity/interest groups, representation of minorities on the Yale faculty, "safe places" for students, etc. Rather, my purpose is to share my own experiences (and biases) that bring me to this or any other controversial issue. I want to emphasize that this is not about "virtue" or the feeling that I am somehow "better than" people who hold different views. Nor am I proselytizing. It is simply a statement of personal belief and conviction. 

First, I am reminded that it is very difficult to "get outside" one's own experience and perspective. I'm sure there are eminent psychologists and sociologists that have stated this limitation far better than I. That is why I believe one of the chief goals of "learning" (dare I call it "education"?) is to try to get the perspectives of other people, especially those unlike oneself. In other words, don't stay in your own tribe or study only what your tribe studies.

Secondly, I must confess a real bias. In many ways, I am anti-establishment, though not recklessly so. Experience and education have proven to me, time and again, that institutions typically protect the status quo. This includes governments, churches, law enforcement and, yes, universities and colleges. Put another way, I almost reflexively favor protests, at least as a starting point for discovery. So whether it was Woolworth lunch counters in 1960, Muhammad Ali's arrest in 1967, or the Silliman College incident in 2015, I react with empathy for the protesters and ask myself, "What's going on here?" In fact, the history of protests (for the most part) shows that "Where there's smoke, there's fire." Protests have been right about the wrongs they expose far more often than they have been wrong. Are their methods always right? No.  I guess that's why they call them "protests."  So I seek to understand the protesters' views, though not blindly so.

Thirdly, I return to our days as Yale undergraduates to put my own views in context. Age certainly provides opportunities to learn, but it can also be a terrible barrier. For instance, how did we feel about the views held by the Class of 1914 about discrimination, war, women, the environment, and other issues of our undergraduate lives? Were they sympathetic to our views? And then there is gender. Clearly, we were 100% male.  More importantly (though not to women), statistics show that our class of 1033 included 11 men of African heritage, or 1.1%. In a selfish way, I'm glad. If I had had to compete for admission with smart, representative levels of minorities, foreign students, and women, I would not have been admitted! My good fortune was that my room suite was 25% African-American, and my bedroom was 50% African-American. I learned a lot from Stan Thomas. And, yes, we had Special Interest/Identity Groups, though we didn't call them SIGs. They were called: the football team, the singing groups, and fraternities. They all separated us based on our interests and affiliations. No harm, no foul, as long as the separation is not overdone. 

Lastly, I would pose some questions to others who seem to be taking the establishment side of the recent campus protests (my answers are in parentheses):

    • Are you black? (No)
    • Have you dated a Black? (Yes)
    • Have your children dated a Black? (Yes)
    • Have you been arrested and jailed? (Yes)
    • Have you ever participated in an organized protest? (Yes)
    • Have you spent meaningful time (other than as a tourist) in an environment where you are the only white person? (Yes)

Just askin! It's not that these answers open a gate of understanding, but they have informed my life. Now, for a much better understanding of these issues, I encourage you to read Ta-Nehisi Coates book, Between the World and Me.  Don't take my word for it.  Take his.