Making Space for Compassion

by Taylor Eldridge 

There has been a fundamental misunderstanding on campus this past week.

Specifically, the idea that freedom of speech means that there are no consequences for what someone decides to say. Freedom of speech is certainly critical to a healthy and diverse society, yet that does not preclude anyone from an investigation of the content, intention, and impact of their speech.

The problem with the Yale administration’s silent response to the concerns, particularly pertaining to women of color, about the racial climate on campus is that it is a refusal to acknowledge the repercussions of the freely expressed values of some members of the Yale community. What needs to be investigated, and urgently so, is the role that compassion serves in supporting the freedom of expression and the protection of students from marginalized communities.

But what exactly does it mean when someone in our community says that they have been hurt by the actions of another community member, and our community’s official response is silence? Why has the support of free-to-be-offensive speech failed to account for the ways that the ways that the speech of wealthy white communities has been privileged over the voices of others, both historically and in present day? Why have influential Yale professors failed to invite a compassionate response to the concerns of all community members with the same diligence that they have strived to defend a student’s right to be offensive?

Acknowledging another person’s hurt, and partnering with them to find ways to demonstrate that their presence is valued is what happens in healthy communities. Yet, the cynicism on campus has left no room for compassion. To acknowledge another person’s pain and why people continue causing it is hard; to be compassionate is to stretch yourself beyond the limits of your own experience, and extend dignity and worth to an experience that is not your own.

Yale does not exist in a vacuum; racism and the dehumanization of Black and Brown folks are just as flagrant between the four walls of each of the residential colleges as it is in any city that has made headlines in the past year. Simply because you have not personally experienced racism at Yale or out in the world does not disprove its presence. We need to learn a new math that teaches us that one Yalie’s positive experience doesn’t cancel out or provide an excuse to hide or ignore another one’s negative experience; that the concerns of students of color at Yale prompts an equal response as that given to a threat to the freedom of expression.

Our community, the Yale administration included, has a responsibility to care for communities of color that were just welcomed to campus 50 years ago. It is only when the experiences of students of color are met with the same vigorous support of “free speech” that Yale can grow into the inclusive community it claims to be.