Nicholas Christakis: Too Much Obsequiousness Is A Dangerous Thing

Nicholas Christakis: Too Much Obsequiousness Is A Dangerous Thing November 11, 2015

Boy, am I ever out of touch.

Yesterday, when I begged compassion and mercy on behalf of the so-called “Shrieking Girl,” the Yale senior caught on video berating Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis, I was working from the assumption that she had set herself up for a big fall. She’ll suffer, my reasoning went, not least through her own conscience. Why aggravate an individual’s trials in order to score points in a culture war?

Well, at the moment, whatever fall awaits the young woman seems less pressing than the fall taken voluntarily by Christakis himself, right onto his sword. The Washington Post reports that Christakis apologized to a group of about 100 students in the presence of university administrators. “I’ve disappointed you and I’m really sorry,” he said, adding shortly, “I’ve disappointed myself.”

Christakis’ sin, in his students’ judgment, was to support his wife, instructor and Silliman associate master Erika Christakis, who had responded sympathetically to complaints about official guidelines for Halloween costumes. Some students found the instructions over-precise, and Erika Christakis generally agreed. In an e-mail to Silliman residents, she conceded that vigilance against “cultural appropriation” – among other potential offenses targeted in the guidelines – was important, but argued gently that free expression represented a higher good.

Now that her husband has abandoned that position, the question remains: Why? If his reversal is an expression of careerism, that’s repulsive, though understandable. (Would that I, too, had a career worth sacrificing my principles for.) If, following an intellectual epiphany, he has actually changed his mind, that’s bad news for higher learning. But if he has allowed himself to be swayed by his students’ vehemence, that would be worst of all, and a genuine tragedy. It would illustrate the perversion of a very fine Christian quality: humility.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines humility in very practical terms. For the Angelic Doctor, it “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.” St. Bernard’s definition is a little more expansive. According to Abelard’s old sparring partner, humility is “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.”

The acts of abasing oneself and submitting reflect the same virtue, but they are not identical. Think of the first as washing feet and the second as kissing rings. The first may be good generally, but the second should be reserved for certain people. The viral video shows Christakis abasing himself quite thoroughly. Keeping his own voice low, he employs “active listening” techniques, nodding whenever his student speaks, by way of acknowledging her. With head slightly bowed and his hands clasped in front of him, he is almost literally cringing.

It’s just possible Christakis has assumed this position in the hope of blocking any sudden kicks aimed at his groin – a sensible plan, given the company he’s in – but I think it more likely he is going out of his way to carry himself in a manner that his high-strung students will find non-threatening. That manner may also reflect the fact Christakis is white whereas the aggrieved student has a dark skin, and that the dispute over culturally malignant Halloween wear arose as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining traction on campus. He may be trying to preclude any impression of racial injustice by taking on the posture of a slave.

But in the end, Christakis went beyond self-abasement. He submitted to his students. That is, he allowed their will and judgment to prevail completely over his own. His students are not his superiors. Granted, a university residential community isn’t a rifle company or a corporation, and Christakis isn’t a captain or a CEO. But the relationship that exists now between students and master can’t even be called collegial. Silliman students – and possibly not even a majority of them – are yanking the master’s strings.

St. Thomas Aquinas wouldn’t have known a Social Justice Warrior if his family had turned one loose in his cell with orders to jump his bones. Nevertheless, he had the foresight to name “a too great obsequiousness or abjection of oneself” as “a vice opposed to humility.” Why? Well, it might “be derogatory to a man’s office…or it might serve only to pamper pride in others, by unworthy flattery, which would occasion their sins of tyranny, arbitrariness, and arrogance.”

Funny how that works.

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