Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This old adage, repeated on countless playgrounds across the country, made so much sense when we were kids. If some menacing meanie approached us on the schoolyard spewing put-downs, we were taught to disempower them through intentional ignorance instead of vulnerably whining. After all, nobody likes a tattletale!
If only the adult world were so simple. Instead, many of us have grown up to abandon the strongminded mentality of our childhood for that of the tattletale by crying at anything we find “offensive.” Sadly, this cult of political correctness has shown a strong presence at UC Berkeley lately, where two controversies over the past week have caused many Cal students to drink the Kool-Aid of offendedness.
First, the YouTube sensation Simple Pickup announced that its self-proclaimed Casanovas would visit campus to teach our Berkeley-goggled men how to hit on hot women. The Gender Equity Resource Center quickly responded to the pickup artists’ advances, with director Billy Curtis deeming their techniques offensive and likening them to “sexual battery.” However, the controversy generated by Simple Pickup pales in comparison with the Black Student Union’s decision to host Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on campus. Wellknown for his history of anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks, Farrakhan’s presence sparked an outcry from the Jewish community — even prompting our ASUC executives to write an op-ed calling on Farrakhan to “exercise his free speech elsewhere.”
By now, both controversies have largely blown over, and, fortunately for the First Amendment, the two events unfolded unfettered by censorship. Indeed, to their credit, even the harshest critics of Farrakhan and Simple Pickup did not call for the administration to intervene. Nevertheless, their gut reaction to condemn and discourage discourse represents an illiberal element of our politically correct culture that is unhealthy for any free society. Rather, to protect individual rights and truly defeat bigotry, our campus should call for conversation surrounding such controversies, not silence.
As a former intern of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), I can testify that universities too often capitalize on controversies to institute unconstitutional policies. In fact, judging by Mark Yudof ’s open letter “on recent incidents of intolerance,” it seems like the wheels may already be turning toward a new era of censorship for our university. In his systemwide email last Saturday, the UC president promised to “strengthen prohibitions on threatening conduct and acts motivated by bias.” But, as a lawyer himself, Yudof should beware that non-violent “threatening conduct” like “hate speech” or “bias incidents” is fully protected by the First Amendment.
Furthermore, past attempts at regulating “bias incidents” by college administrations have been utter failures. After all, “bias” is entirely subjective, so what may offend me may be innocuous to thee. Perhaps the most hilarious example of failed hate prevention is the Claremont Colleges’ “bias-related incident” protocol, where students have been rebuked by the administration for innocent pranks like writing, “Hillary (Clinton) is a foxy lesbian” and throwing tortillas out of a moving car. Thus, Yudof should be mindful of the unintended consequences on students’ individual rights when instituting systemwide policies to improve campus climate, lest they degenerate into a joke like they have in Pomona.
Don’t get me wrong. Simple Pickup’s predatory pranks are questionably sexist, and Farrakhan’s controversial comments are unquestionably hateful. Indeed, in my humble opinion, Farrakhan would be a strong contender for Silky Johnson’s Player Hater of the Year title on “Chapelle’s Show” — even if he hasn’t called in a bomb threat to the Special Olympics! But calling for haters to be silent only draws more attention to their cause and makes them appear as martyrs for free speech. Take Berkeley College Republicans’ Increase Diversity Bake Sale for example. Thanks to the outcry to silence it, the anti-affirmative action event drew national media attention to SB 185 that arguably ensured the bill’s veto — precisely what those dessert-selling “haters” wanted!
As FIRE notes in its “Guide to Free Speech on Campus,” “If prejudice, bigotry, or ignorance exists, it is far better to know how people actually think, to discuss such things, and to reply appropriately than to force such things underground, where they only fester and worsen.” So, in the future, our campus community should embrace controversial visits like those by Farrakhan and Simple Pickup as an opportunity to engage in discussion about sensitive subjects rather than shun them. Because, at the end of the day, haters gonna hate no matter how hard we try to silence them. So, the least we can do is learn.