The Passion of Nicholas Christakis


From the Uffizi museum, Firenze, Italy — one of the fascinating aspects of many of the religious paintings involving Jesus was seen in the backdrops– all scenes from Italy, not the Holy Land

For those that have been paying attention to the higher education landscape lately, there has been a fair amount of upheaval around the issue of race — namely the lack of progress on a variety of diversity issues.  These complaints are broad-based, and often touched off by an incident, which may or may not be small.  There are typically also other concerns mixed in with the crisis, often involving social justice, like poverty or insurance issues for academia’s permanent underclass– temporary faculty and grad students.

Two separate situations made it to the top of the fold.  The first, a racially instigated crisis at the University of Missouri, led to the resignations of Chancellor R. Bowen Lofting, the nominal head of the Missouri-Columbia campus, and the President of the entire system, Tim Wolfe.  The second, involved, curiously enough, Yale University, and an individual whose work on social networks I had blogged about earlier — Nicholas Christakis, a professor, and his wife and fellow professor, Erika, about an e-mail concerning Halloween costumes, cultural and racial appropriation, and students’ ability to choose what they wear for holiday parties.

The University of Missouri’s situation is large and complex.  I’ve written an op-ed about it for the local paper, and I’ll post it after this post.  It is a cautionary tale about how Authoritarian v-Meme systems change, which means they fight until they collapse.

It’s more interesting to look at the situation at Yale, which blew up because of a seemingly innocuous issue — students’ ability to choose what they wear at Halloween.

Here’s the backstory:  in the run-up to Halloween, members of the Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee sent this e-mail to all members of the Yale community regarding dress for the holiday.  For those that don’t bother to click through, it pretty much says dressing like any other culture than your own (whatever that means in this polyglot world!) is off-limits.  It’s reinforced by a Pinterest board that’s even more prescriptive — no Steve Jobs costumes, or Amy Winehouse for that matter.  The tone of the e-mail isn’t bad, but there’s not much left over, costume-wise, if you carefully parse the contents.

Some students apparently complained about the first e-mail to the Christakises, who are live-in ‘masters’ of a residential community at Yale, known as Silliman House.  Such living groups are common at residential campuses like Yale, and the various titles, like ‘master’, are historic.  If you want to get upset by this kind of thing, well, that’s another post!  I’m sentencing you to read the rest of my blog!

In response, Erika Christakis, who is a child development specialist and professor herself, wrote this e-mail, basically arguing that the Halloween costume e-mail sent by the Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee, though typical — lots of universities send out these kinds of things — was overstepping sensible bounds of restriction on student choice.  The level of control being implied, that students wouldn’t be able to figure things out Halloween-costume-wise, was inappropriate, she maintained. Experimentation and exploration was supposed to be part of the college experience, and as long as things didn’t get too far out of hand, then it was just fine.  She explicitly stated that she didn’t want to tell anyone how to act. So it was not a case of an authority attempting to impose her will or taste on others.  Quite the opposite.  She was making a case for independent agency — the ability for students to choose their costumes on their own.

This e-mail led to a crisis among the students, with demands by a group called Next Yale for the Christakises to be booted out of their role as house parents.  The culmination of public exposure for this incident were the following three videos, which shows students in Silliman House demanding apologies from Nick for his wife’s e-mail (talk about reinforcing traditional patriarchal gender roles!) and culminating with one student having a mental screaming breakdown.  See the following three videos for a complete review of the incident.

This incident is a classic example of how a High Conflict Personality (HCP) (in this case, there is more than one!) using well-traversed mental models (in this case, the relatively rigid perspective on diversity on today’s university campuses) to demand obedience from an authority figure that they may, or may not like.  The worst offender was student Jerelyn Luther, who is the one in the final video apparently melting down in a preconscious rage, while earlier in the second video, mugging for the camera.

The Halloween costume issue itself lends itself well to v-Meme unpacking, mostly along the lines of how different social structures have different levels of In-group/Out-group sensitivities dependent on empathetic development and cultural/religious sidebars.  Once one moves out of the grossly inappropriate racist parodies (such as blackface), Native Americans are well-known for resenting costume appropriations by Out-group members — especially those that use religious symbols as part of costume play.

Yet generalizing this exclusion to all folks — saying you must stay in your ethnically or racially designated In-group to play dress-up — starts running into larger problems with reality.  People protesting someone wearing Chinese garb, such as a Qipao, or one of the myriad head adornments, have obviously never visited mainland China. There, it is popular for any tourist, or person out for a Sunday afternoon in the park, with a few extra dollars, and hours, to dress up as a Qing-dynasty emperor and have their picture taken.  Such photo studios exist at many of the major tourist attractions, and are rooted in a deeper history going back to a desire for play with limited resources during the Maoist era.

But that’s not what’s really interesting to me.  What the HCPs in this video are doing is, on the surface, objectionable, and likely to trigger readers of this blog.  The screaming, dismissal of Dr. Christakis’ argument, and what many would call a lack of respect for him is all interesting enough.

What’s more curious is the demand from the younger generation for less agency — not more.  And the sidebars in the press around how they treat the students is equally fascinating.  The Christakises, in every news release, are named, and their relationship to both Yale and each other is well-publicized.  Yet the students attacking Nicholas Christakis in the video, though over 18, are almost never named.  Students in a public space are as accountable as anyone in a public space.  Yet the press itself does not recognize newsmakers if they are undeclared and under the age of 30.

What we see here is classic evolutionary/devolutionary v-Meme conflict, being manipulated by HCPs, for the end of power and control.  Students are demanding an apology from a husband, Nicholas Christakis, for his wife’s behavior.  The students doing the screaming are pure, collapsed Authoritarians, borrowing from higher Communitarian, as well as bottom-level Survival/Safety themes, to demand a homogenized environment that they get to control. Because the e-mail that Erika Christakis wrote was so innocuous — all it argued for was to trust students a little — that makes it an even more powerful tool, if they win.  Every appointed figure will have to walk on eggshells around the student groups, lest they be called out.  That’s a pretty rough situation to place someone in if they expect to finish the job of raising the young adults in the video.  I’ve been working with this age cohort my entire career.  And while none of my students would ever accuse me of being an Authoritarian, sometimes you need to have the last word.

Nicholas Christakis does a pretty good job of evolutionarily holding his ground with the various questioners/attackers — talking about personal agency, choice, freedom of speech, and some reserved personal boundaries on whether to apologize or not.  Though his voice raises a couple of times, he gets points from this author for not being the Batman. Both he and his wife are obviously very Communitarian v-Meme, with a fair amount of self-awareness, and that’s to be commended. Yet the fundamental elements of a three v-Meme separation, the Insanity/Barbarism Conflict, is clearly evident.  In the second video, to the students surrounding Dr. Christakis, they think he’s nuts for not giving in and apologizing to his primary accuser, who is busy demanding an exaggerated emotional empathetic response.  She declares herself ostensibly in pain (though there are no facial cues that she actually is) and is demanding reparations for her perceived hurt.  And while Dr. Christakis’ thoughts are reserved to himself, my own empathetic sense is that he’s wondering if these kids can be saved from their darker impulses.

At the same time, you can see how the students surrounding him are, whether HCPs or not, mired in external definition.  Some clap as the student leaders attempt to score Survival v-Meme points, as well as demonstrating what Foucault talked about with power not always being vested in a title.  But even the ones that aren’t clapping aren’t stepping up to actually argue the points Dr. Christakis is making.  Not a single young person will go against the Groupthink.  It’s all about power and control.

Current trends in the university aren’t helping them realize that they need to have responsibility and rational empathy toward others.  In the videos, Dr. Christakis urges them in that direction.  But the Principle of Reinforcement in this case, of the v-Memes of Authoritarianism and Legalism, too common on university campuses,  being applied, is pulling down the empathetic ladder he’s attempting to give them.  Anything declared racist by someone of that race must be, de-facto racist.  No one outside the In-group has any ability to speak or argue, rationality be damned. Rightness is determined by grossest measure possible — phenotype.

In other videos, and other pieces of news on this case, it’s pretty apparent that the social structure extant on university campuses is not dealing with change well at all.  In the piece tagged above, the Dean, instead of processing the students through their concerns — some legitimate, some not — spends time kowtowing to them.  I’m sure that Yale is not the perfectly evolved, racially diverse environment — and things need to continue to evolve. At the same time, such dichotomous thinking does not promote the kind of multiple solution thinking the future needs so badly.  The Ivy League is where, for meritocratic reasons or not, future leaders are expected to emerge.  And diversity, as I’ve argued, is absolutely fundamental in that.   Yet at the same time, giving in to the moment of the mob is also not a very evolutionary path.

How to understand what Yale can do?  Yale’s social structure is virtually identical to every other university in the US, which means not much real or declared authority or responsibility for diversity, or anything else, is in the hands of the students.  It’s a legalistic authoritarian environment.  And there is the expectation that change, order and security is supposed to rest in the hands of the administration.  By the fundamental definition of the social structure of the campus, the students are placed in a role of low responsibility.  And unfortunately, they are responding by arbitrarily lowering the bar.

Yet that very fact makes the whole system unstable, and prone to manipulation.  And the externally defined, title-based thinking is absolutely ubiquitous in how people are perceived.  Jonathan Holloway, noted in the article above, is described first not by his name, but by the fact that he is the first black Dean.  He’s not a person first — he’s a category.  And he knows full well that his continuation in that authority rests not on him speaking truth to the real power in the room — in this case, the HCPs — but instead on mollifying them about concerns that are truly trivial.  Most of the students at Yale ARE well-off.  Inside the Silliman House sit two magnificent Steinway pianos.  And the ones that are not well-off have won the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, with heavily subsidized tuition, or likely a free ride.  The student most noted for screaming (though there are others) was Jerelyn Luther, whose mother, at least we know, owns an ad agency.  It is unlikely she has known much deprivation or discrimination, especially due to her racial profile.

What’s happening here many would like to blame on spoiling, or infantilizing youth.  Some might say narcissism is the problem — and it may well be the problem for the disruptors.  But the bigger problem is that young people in this society are being raised in more fragmented, control-based social systems, with less and less agency — less ability to make choices, enjoy freedoms of association, and face scaled consequences — than the generation I was raised in. My own sons, ages of 17 and 15, spend far less time in any independent social milieu with other age groups than I did.  No one hangs out or cruises.  They have far more homework, and even in school, there is not even the sociableness of gym class.  Lunch is short, and breaks between classes are only 5 minutes. Even the homogeneous age mixing necessary for teenage development is truncated.

This lack of social and empathetic diversification is having, and will continue to have profound effects.  Students are taught to be passive in the face of authority — and they are.  But what happens, when authority fails to deliver on some of the promises, the HCPs, sensing an ‘in’ to get the party started, uses marginal complaints to provoke an episode of group Borderline Personality Disorder.  The student mentioned above, was on the committee that picked the Drs. Christakis as masters.  Now she wants him to quit.  Splitting much?  And an unspoken truth that could come back to haunt all of us in the future?  Students broken into an authoritarian system are very likely to be comfortable with a future, larger authoritarian leader.  How does democracy play into that set of biases?

At last report, it looked like the Christakises were being taken down off the cross before death by Yale President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway.  They will remain as masters of Silliman House, and lead an effort to ‘move forward’ their respective constituencies — whatever that means.  What it needs to mean is more empathetic development and exercises in connection for all the students, especially with real Out-Groups.  I honestly recommend some time spent in Papua New Guinea, or maybe next door, in the slums of New Haven.  Combine that with situations with real accountability, and responsibility — if things don’t get done, then other people get mad at them — and these young people might begin the transformation into real Independent Relational Generation.

But it’s not going to be easy. Real change is going to involve doing things differently, and organizing differently.  The HCPs have persistent mental models on their side, and aren’t likely to respond well to demands that they actually step up and do something, other than terrorize and manipulate. They’re not afraid to use crisis for their own needs for excitement, power and control. But change has to start somewhere.  Like it or not, at least some of these students will end up in the next leadership cohort of governance or corporations.  It would be far better to start them on a path toward data-driven, critical thinking now.  And the best way to do that is with empathetic development.




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