A Liberal College Wants Students to Watch What They Wear on Halloween

Should you check yourself before you bedeck yourself?


This weekend is Halloween, which means you have very little time left to get your costume together. But even if your plans are set, you might want to stop and think a moment before going out to trick-or-treat or attend a Halloween party. You’d better check yourself before you bedeck yourself.

The Office of Student Affairs at Wesleyan University is taking this idea particularly seriously. Posters pinned around campus ask students the question that titles this post, adding “check yourself and your friends.” Here’s the poster:

These posters are red, raw meat to the right-wing political-correctness-police; police whose favorite pastime is exposing liberal intolerance. At the National Review, Katherine Timpf flashed some italics-salted sarcasm in her incredulous reaction to the message: “After all,” she writes, “Halloween is a very serious issue, and can not be treated as if it were just some fun little holiday that’s a chance for people to use their imaginations and have some fun without taking each other too seriously.” The campus “costume sensitivity consultants” want to spoil Halloween for 19-year-olds everywhere. Michele Hickford was even more aghast: “OH, PUH-leeeze,” she phoneticized. “[T]he PC crowd finds a way to ruin EVERYthing.”

The posters do seem a tad overblown. But it’s wrong to suggest that the impulse behind them is completely without merit. Just a few years ago, some white students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, thought it was a good idea to wear blackface on Halloween — a trick that sparked campus-wide soul-searching. All Saints’ Day may liberate people to adopt the face of a new identity for a day or a night, but transgressing boundaries has its moral limits, and race-switching is clearly beyond the pale.

The poster’s admonition to think again about a costume that “[mocks] cultural or religious symbols such as dreadlocks, headdresses, afros, bindis, etc.” is mostly well taken. Yet it is not clear that donning an unfamiliar costume necessarily implies mockery of the people who are more accustomed to wearing it. And there seems to be a distinction between adopting the skin tone of a disenfranchised minority and wearing, say, Indian garb for a day. A few years ago, my wife and I borrowed an Indian dress and a kurta from friends when attending an Indian wedding, and the other guests were welcoming, not offended, by our clothing. It’s possible to join a culture for a day without violently appropriating it or mocking it.  

No Van Gogh (whose mental illness led him to shoot himself at 37)? No Virginia Woolf (who was bipolar and drowned herself at 59)? Suddenly the proscribed list of characters seems very long indeed — untenably long.

The other two examples of problematic costumes in the Wesleyan poster raise more questions. I have a hard time imagining a costume that constitutes an “attempt to represent an entire culture or ethnicity.” What would such a get-up look like, exactly, and why would an onlooker assume that the costume is designed to reduce Chinese people, say, to a stereotype?

And what kinds of costumes are guilty of “trivializ[ing] human suffering, oppression, and marginalization”? Are Mao or Lenin costumes out of bounds? Is the Dalai Lama too holy, or too persecuted, to portray? The verboten examples provided are portraying “a person who is homeless, imprisoned, a person with disabilities, or a person with mental illness,” but these all have quite distinct meanings. It would be tasteless to dress up like a Syrian refugee or a hurricane victim. But what about famous figures (fictional and real-life) like Charles Manson or Nurse Ratched? No Van Gogh (whose mental illness led him to shoot himself at 37)? No Virginia Woolf (who was bipolar and drowned herself at 59)? Suddenly the proscribed list of characters seems very long indeed — untenably long.

The Wesleyan poster and similar posters on other campuses are well-intended; they are not the Orwellian nightmares that right-wing pundits portray them to be. Yet the poster campaigns do seem to suffer from a rather simple-minded conception of the proper ethical limits of masquerade. The discussion is much more nuanced than a simple check-list could capture. And there is something uncomfortably paternalistic about the tactics involved. One would hope that college students are a little more sophisticated than this. Relying on tacked-up costume rules can’t do much to develop sensitivity and a moral compass in college-aged students. Nineteen-year-olds might be more reflective and responsible if they were left on their own to decide how to dress up on Halloween, perhaps with a very general reminder that cultivating community on campus relies on an awareness of how our actions affect other people.  

--

Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Why Lil Dicky made this star-studded Earth Day music video

"Earth" features about 30 of the biggest names in entertainment.

Culture & Religion
  • Lil Dicky is a rapper and comedian who released his debut album in 2015.
  • His new music video, "Earth," features artists such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheehan, Kevin Hart, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • All proceeds of the music video will go to environmental causes, Dicky said.
Keep reading Show less

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less

Behold, the face of a Neolithic dog

He was a very good boy.

Image source: Historic Environment Scotland
Surprising Science
  • A forensic artist in Scotland has made a hyper realistic model of an ancient dog.
  • It was based on the skull of a dog dug up in Orkney, Scotland, which lived and died 4,000 years ago.
  • The model gives us a glimpse of some of the first dogs humans befriended.
Keep reading Show less