Like many other Trojans, I’ll be making the drive up the California coast this weekend for the Weekender, the annual football game that USC plays at either Stanford University or UC Berkeley. It’s at Berkeley this year, so when I leave the campus on Sunday, it’ll also be the first day of its Free Speech Week, an event hosted by conservative student group the Berkeley Patriot featuring right-wing provocateurs by the likes of “Darkness is good” Steve Bannon and “Feminism is cancer” Milo Yiannopoulos. A proverbial middle finger to UC Berkeley’s controversial shutdown of Yiannopoulos’ speech in February, Free Speech Week will be the ultimate campus test, which will likely see mass protests and thousands of dollars in police presence over the next week. It will be a spectacle that is not what our educational institutions or our country need right now.
An event of these massive proportions is a testament to the commitment to free speech — and to revamping UC Berkeley’s image — held by Chancellor Carol Christ, who has called this year a “free speech year.” And her promise to create fora of open debate is laudable. Intellectual diversity prevents the kind of echo chamber that can stifle productive dialogue. For young people who are still shaping their ideas about the world and understanding their role in it, it is especially important to analyze different viewpoints and engage in thoughtful conversation.
Berkeley Patriot’s decision to host Free Speech Week next week isn’t about that. If it was, they would have invited someone like Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, not incendiary media personalities like Ann Coulter. But instead of fostering a real conversation, Berkeley Patriot has amassed a list of conservative firebrands more interested in theatrics than dialogue in an attempt to make headlines. And, following the national headlines made in February by protests outside Yiannopoulos’ speech at Berkeley, they’ll probably succeed, providing conservatives nationwide with the wry satisfaction that the liberal snowflakes can’t handle free speech — perhaps ignoring the right to protest that is written just as intentionally into the First Amendment as the right to free speech is.
It’s a shame that Berkeley Patriot chose to entertain the pageantry of these agitators, because it has wasted an opportunity to forge real intellectual bridges across the aisle. Their embrace of those who incite hatred just to prove a point is disgraceful. Amid a national backdrop in which the president tweeted a GIF of himself committing violence against his failed political opponent, the group’s encouragement of nastiness echoes a larger, and dangerous, trend toward the decline of civility among left-right discourse that needs to stop.
The Berkeley College Republicans wrote on Facebook in February: “The Free Speech Movement is dead.” If they really thought so, then they deserve congratulations — the existence of Free Speech Week is proof that UC Berkeley can and will host any speaker, regardless of viewpoint. But is hearing from Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter without protest really what the Free Speech Movement was about? Guest student writer Camila Elizabet Aguirre Aguilar wrote in an op-ed in The Daily Californian last week: “The greatest perversion of the Free Speech Movement lies in the fact that though it initially sought to legitimize the oppressed, it is now being appropriated to legitimize oppression.”
In the counterpart to this column, columnist Luke Phillips makes an interesting point about Free Speech Week: On college campuses, it’s the public shaming from the left that drives those who fail to fit the typical liberal mold to contrarians like Yiannopoulos. Maybe he is right. Trumpism and alt-right fever has not ended at USC’s gates, and in its wake, we need to dispatch more concerted efforts to engage in constructive dialogue and welcome dissent — not to entertain those that inspire hatred, but to allow for agreement to disagree.
It is a difficult balance to strike. To give space to some viewpoints — for example, neo-Nazism and white supremacy — and allow them to go unchallenged on a college campus would be shameful and unproductive. But we need to take a more honest, critical look at the kind of atmosphere we’re fostering, and ask ourselves if we allow space to engage each other in a meaningful way.
That is the point of this “Point/Counterpoint” column. If Luke and I can do it, anyone on this campus can.
These are fraught political times. UC Berkeley’s student groups should do what is right; just because they can invite Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon doesn’t mean that they should. Free Speech Week will only pour gasoline on the ideological flames at UC Berkeley, USC and nationwide. Until we commit ourselves to respectful and dignified debate and search for some form of common ground, they will just keep burning.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.