My acceptance letter to Yale not having arrived in the mail yet, it’s possible that I fail to appreciate the artistic value of the performance. Art is in the eye of the beholder, I’m told, by people who know more about it than I do. I can accept that, but I nonetheless doubt that one person’s (or five people’s, as is technically the case) attempt at art justifies what happened in Professor Emma Sky’s class.
“My classroom is a safe forum for students with different views and backgrounds to debate vigorously the politics of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy,” Sky wrote in an email to the News. “The world is complex and there is no single narrative. We all learn from each other and tolerance is a key value. It is a classroom that values freedom of speech and rigorous debate and that is why so many students compete each year for one of the 18 slots.”
Sounds interesting, not that I’ll ever know for sure. But some students who did get the letter disagreed.
“Open your eyes, open your ears, you are being taught by those you should fear,” chanted the protestors, disrupting Sky’s 110-minute Global Affairs class titled Middle East Politics. Protestors — Zulfiqar Mannan ’20, Casey Odesser ’20, Hazal Özgür ’20, Nika Zarazvand ’20 and Francesca Maviglia MPH ’20 — said they initially intended to enter Sky’s seminar and distribute pamphlets calling their professor a war criminal.
Sky is a war criminal? That’s a new one. This was part of a demonstration called “Do You Trust Your Educator?” which was part of a larger performative project called “Paradise Sought.” What’s a performance without a title?
“I am incredibly disappointed with the way that the University rejected our proposal to honestly, earnestly and creatively engage with [the students in the class],” Odesser said. “I’m appalled and horrified at how no one will talk to us engage with us and instead perceive us as a threat.”
Yale prevented the “earnest” gang of five from doing as they pleased and intended.
Odesser said that the project was not meant to be disruptive. They explained that the group had originally planned to “perform a slinky, sexy catwalk” into the classroom and silently place a pamphlet on each of the students’ desks. They said they believed that many students in Sky’s class have “not confronted the levels of hypocrisy and violence — like white feminism — that is propagated by her class.”
As it turns out, the students in the class weren’t particularly interested in the pamphlet, or the performance, or pretty much anything Odesser, et al., were selling. They were interested in the class they were taking. It made Odesser sad.
They added that they were “sad [but] not surprised that” only one student — who was not a member of Sky’s seminar — asked the group for a pamphlet. No students from the seminar took a pamphlet from the protesters on their way out of the classroom.
“We want to show an alternative world here … through our art and our protest,” Odesser said. “You don’t really know the consequences of what you’re studying when you get here. And if I had known what this place represented in the world I would have gone through my time here very differently.”
In other words, that the students in Prof. Sky’s class weren’t appreciative of the performance and its message proved how students just don’t get it, because Odesser gets it, as he makes clear.
Aside from the artistic value of the performance, is it a big deal that five students with dubious taste in make-up and accessories sought to inform a class that their teacher was a “war criminal”? After all, Sky was “an advisor to the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq, and to the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.” Then again, her breadth of knowledge in the Middle East extended a bit further than the kids.
Prior to that, Sky worked in the Palestinian territories for a decade, managing projects to develop Palestinian institutions; and to promote co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, Emma has provided technical assistance on poverty elimination, human rights, justice public administration reform, security sector reform, and conflict resolution in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
But even if Sky failed to have substantial bona fides to teach about Middle East conflict, such that even the most sensitive anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian, student should have recognized the value of her background, the question remains why students believe that their passionate belief in whatever nonsense they believe entitled them to disrupt a class and deprive the students in that class of learning what they’re there to learn? The “artists” may well have a right to perform their art, but do they have the right to do so at the expense of what others choose to hear?
The conflation of the right to send a message and the right to do so by silencing someone else shouldn’t be all that hard to grasp. Similarly, what of the right of the students in Sky’s class to not be compelled to watch the performance, to suffer the artistry of these five students, but rather to attend the seminar instead?
This one performance doesn’t condemn all students, or Yale. If anything, the fact that no student in Prof. Sky’s seminar cared a whit speaks well of them, more focused on their education than whatever these “artists” had to say. But that didn’t prevent the students from believing they were entitled to cause as much disruption as possible.
During the protest, members of the group chanted, sang, stomped and yelled through the classroom’s windows as they tried to get Sky’s attention. They were asked multiple times by the Yale Police officer and Lizarríbar to lower their voices.
After the class, they came up with another way to “perform.”
The safety issues Lizarríbar mentioned included fire hazards created by the protesters. As the class was ending, the group laid on the ground in front of both the classroom doors and the stairwell in an attempt to distribute their pamphlets.
There was no fire, and no one was harmed by tripping over a student taking a selfie during the performance, but there was no applause for the performance from the students in Sky’s class. Apparently, the fault wasn’t that the performance was unwelcome, or just awful, but that students just didn’t sufficiently appreciate their art or their message. That there was no applause wasn’t a commentary on the performance, but how everyone but the quintet didn’t get it, and that’s why they had to teach them.