A Halloween message signed by 13 college administrators asked Yale University students to be sensitive about the costumes they chose so as not to demean, alienate or "impact" any groups or individuals.
But when the associate master (faculty head) of one of the dorms on campus, early childhood educator Erika Christakis, wrote her own note to students suggesting that maybe we don't want the authorities deciding what costume is or is not sensitive enough, you'd think she'd endorsed genocide.
Students, hundreds of them, insisted they longer felt "safe." They protested. They screamed. They demanded her ouster, even though in her letter, Christakis bent over backward to say she knows that the costume guidelines came from "a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense."
What's more, Christakis wrote that she "lauds" those goals. But: "As a former preschool teacher ... it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably 'appropriative' about a blonde-haired child's wanting to be Mulan for a day. ... 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?"
Over 700 angry Yalies (Yale is my alma mater) signed a petition saying that Christakis' "offensive" letter "trivializes the harm done by these tropes" (stereotypes) and "invalidated" those hurt.
As the days passed, the outrage mounted, until a mob surrounded Christakis' husband, sociologist/doctor/professor Nicholas. He is seen on a video being screamed at by a student swearing at him and insisting he and his wife step down because their job is to create not an intellectual space but a "safe space" for students.
What I keep trying to figure out is: Seeing as the students are not actually unsafe — no one is threatening their physical safety — where is all this demand for "safety" coming from?
Could it be that in a society that has told young people and their parents that nothing is safe enough, students grow up believing this? Think of all the things we have dangerized. This month's Parents magazine tells parents to get rid of their wire laundry hampers. "They should be off-limits to kids: They've caused severe eye injuries." Meantime, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently recalled 140,000 children's sweatshirts because there was one report of one pull tab's falling off a zipper, thereby posing a "choking hazard." There are towns that don't let people vote in the schools anymore for fear the voters could pounce on the kids, and there are local newspapers that no longer announce births for fear this would lead to baby abductions. The common thread?
All these dangers are nearly nonexistent.
There's a difference between a real danger (a baby bottle filled with bleach) and a product or practice that could, very rarely and unpredictably, result in serious injury (a laundry hamper, a birth announcement, a zipper pull). But we keep insisting that there is no difference and congratulating the authorities who refuse to acknowledge it. (Just think of all the nail clippers confiscated by the TSA.)
When extraordinarily unlikely dangers are seen as enormous, immediate threats — threats that the experts, the universities and the government feel compelled to take action on — it's quite possible we have bred a generation of people convinced that everything they encounter that is not an organic avocado (or an organic avocado costume) is making them "unsafe."
I'm not positive it is a straight line between society's obsession with far-fetched childhood dangers and the fear that leads to screaming college students racked with fury. But I am positive that when we grant credibility to nonexistent threats, nothing and no one is safe.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids" and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Her TV show, "World's Worst Mom," airs on Discovery Life Channel. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.