The recent protest at Yale University over issues of cultural appropriation and Halloween have received support, analysis and condemnation. Responses opposing the protestors run the gamut from thoughtful concern about free speech to indignant clucking.
Much of the thoughtful criticism focuses on the supposed "intolerance" of the protesters, asking what happened to the legendary free speech protests of the 1960s. Some of the writers objecting to these protests seem to think objections to racial caricature, at Halloween or any other time, represent a new low in public support for free speech. That would probably come as a shock to the Nuremberg tribunal, who found the vicious anti-semitic caricatures of Der Sturmer had helped fuel the hatred that drove the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jewish population. The court sentenced the publisher of Der Sturmer to death for crimes against humanity. Free speech has always had limits, and most Western countries acknowledge that in a society that aims at tolerance and diversity, incitement to hate lie falls outside these limits.
To understand why student complaints about the use of cultures in Halloween often seem to focus on practices that do not seem hateful, it helps to understand the environment the millenial generation has grown up in. The Internet has shifted the context in which today's students
experience restrictions on speech. The power of the Internet has made the actual
repression of information and opinion very difficult, except for
extremely authoritarian governments willing to endure considerable
self-inflicted harm. Students today have never lived in a world where
censorship of ideas can plausibly come from an American civil servant or
a judge. Instead, they have spent their lives in the world of the DMCA,
where expressions get blocked not by laws but by licenses, not by
bureaucrats but by lawyers, not by state power but by private claims of
ownership over ideas. The
controversy over cultural appropriation in Halloween
costumes involves not free expression but property.
Connor Friedersdrorf quotes the offending email by Erika
Christakis: "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?" That looks
to me like a naive and nostalgic view. In Halloween celebrations of
the 1960s and 1970s, parents whipped up costumes for their children, Halloween decorations were made at home, and students pulled sheets of their beds for toga parties. Some parents still make costumes for their children, but Halloween today is a
multi-million dollar business. Stores pop up in major cities in September and October, selling
multitudes of ready to wear costumes. These costumes come with design
copyrights, trademarks, even business method patents. The only people
who do not get to make claim on this revenue stream are the people who
created and maintain the living culture that gives many of these
costumes their meaning. Cultural appropriation is not kids being
transgressive; it is yet another an example of big business using the
powerless as raw material to make a buck. Moreover, it is one means of
turning that many things appropriated from the powerless into cash that individual
students can choose not to participate in. The email from Erika Christakis advised students offended by a costume "...if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other." That misses part of the point. Costumes are big business. By the
time a student puts on an offensive costume, the exploiters have rung up another sale.