The Campus War on Halloween

Halloween used to be a mindlessly fun holiday. You picked out a pumpkin, you chose a costume, and then you knocked on strangers’ doors in the hopes of full-size candybars. The biggest fear that existed was the urban legend of the malevolent stranger putting razor blades in our Halloween haul.

But now, something much more malevolent lurks in the shadows: The PC police. Arguments over the sensitivity of costumes have been around in higher education for years, but the issue came to a head in 2015, the year that Professor Erica Christakis set off a firestorm at Yale over her reaction to a mass email to students about what is considered “appropriate Halloween-wear.” In a reply email to certain students, Christakis wrote:

“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? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

“And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all kay with this transfer of power? Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

For this, a faction of students harassed the professor and her husband, engaged in a campaign of public shaming, and even attempted to get them fired.

“If that is what you think about being a master you should step down,” one student yelled at Christakis’ husband.” It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.”

Another screamed: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

That event should have served as a wake up call for a society teetering on the edge of PC insanity. It’s hard to imagine a more deferential way to present an interesting counterpoint to the idea that university administrators, from their position of power, should influence the decision making of college students (read: adults). And yet, if anything, the goings on at Yale have pushed us further into the politically correct abyss.

Colleges have been designating costume sensitivity contacts within the administration, putting out “Halloween checklists” to answer the question “Is Your Costume Offensive?,” and engaging in poster campaigns like “It’s a Culture, not a Costume.”

There is, of course, a difference between the genuine concerns of costumes that are purpose-made to generate hurt and offense, and those that are more innocently intended to be, simply, fun. It seems indisputable that the line between those is not as clear as everyone would like it to be, though it also seems indisputable that the fight over Halloween costumes has shifted far in the direction of censorship via shame.

Although it’s not based on college campuses, the online brouhaha over a mother’s discussion with her child over appropriate Halloween costumes, seems instructive. The child was making a seemingly normal choice between Moana, a Polynesian Disney character, or Elsa, the Scandinavian queen from Frozen. But the mother’s decision making process was decidedly not normal.

“I had some reservations regarding both costume choices,” the mother, Sachi Feris, wrote, “about cultural appropriation and the power/privilege carried by Whiteness, and about Whiteness and standards of beauty.”

She ultimately settled on Elsa, though it was a struggle over whether or not she would be allowed to wear a blonde braid (her hair is brown and the mother didn’t like sending the message that “White skin, long, blonde hair, and blue eyes,” is the only definition of beauty), though she was ultimately talked out of Moana in favor of Mickey Mouse. That turned out to be much easier because, “we don’t have to worry about making fun of anyone or dressing up as a culture different from our own because Mickey Mouse is a pretend mouse!”

Kyle Smith, writing for the National Review, offered this wonderful retort to this parent’s thinking, which seems to be increasingly reflective of the left generally:

The Left used to insist on seeing people as individuals, not as members of groups. The goal used to be that kids of different races would play together oblivious to one another’s superficial differences. This was commendable, and many a race barrier has fallen. Now the Left is determined to put those barriers back up, to teach kids to obsess over race. It is adamant that pigmentation has to be of overriding concern to you, and if it isn’t to your children, your children must be indoctrinated to divide people based on skin color, to calculate varying levels of “sensitvity” and “privilege” based on melanin. It’s not only ludicrous, it’s alarming. Don’t let this diseased mindset take hold. Go ahead and dress your kid as Moana this Halloween.

And college students…stop obsessing over race and identity, ahead make your own decisions about what costume is appropriate. That’s not a green light to make bad decisions. It’s an invitation to act like, and in fact be, an adult.