UC Berkeley recently announced that Bill Maher was chosen as the keynote speaker for the fall 2014 commencement. The announcement follows recent media attention to Maher’s persistent Islamophobia and sexism. For students who regularly confront the bigotry and racism perpetuated by Maher’s rhetoric, the decision comes as an attack. Bill Maher spews hate. On his HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” he routinely makes incendiary, Islamophobic statements mischaracterizing Muslims and Islam. Such preachers of hate should not be given the privilege of speaking at our commencement.
Maher’s disturbing rhetoric includes statements such as, “It’s a culture of suicide bombing which is hard to deter from people who want to kill themselves,” and “(Islam is) the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing.”
There is no question Maher has a right to speak on campus; but the question is whether commencement, a time of celebration for all students, including those victimized by Maher’s commentary, is the appropriate forum. UC Berkeley undoubtedly must remain committed to principles of free speech. But this is not a matter of free speech — Maher can iterate his beliefs on campus at a debate or club event. This is about granting Bill Maher the honor of being our commencement speaker when he clearly spreads ignorance and intolerance affecting the very people he would be addressing. When the exercise of free speech invokes hatred, we must stand up against that hatred. Statements demonizing all members of any religious group have no place at our university — be they anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, or anti-(insert your religious or lack of religious affiliation here). We may criticize the actions of individuals, we may challenge the actions of nation-states, we may condemn the actions of individual institutions of any faith, but to generalize about all members of a faith is bigoted and ignorant and does not promote positive reform.
Maher’s bigotry toward Islam and Muslims is already a problem in our campus community. For example, have a look at the comments section following the Daily Cal article reporting on Maher’s invitation itself. When members of our community argue that “Islam is indeed a crime against humanity,” it is clear that we do not have a safe, tolerant community. Honoring Bill Maher only fans the flames of intolerance.
Because we value public debate, we forcefully reject Maher’s reliance on violent stereotypes and misinformation in his critique of Islam and political events occurring in Muslim-majority countries. His divisive tactics could encourage hate crimes, bigotry and racism that endanger Muslim citizens as well as U.S. pluralism. As Reza Aslan explained aptly in response to Maher’s comments, “We’re using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That’s actually the definition of bigotry.”
Maher’s hate speech is not limited to Islamophobia: He also normalizes sexual violence against women and other communities of color, tweeting, “‘Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u — u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her,” and exclaiming on his show, “New rule: stop acting surprised someone choked Tila Tequila! The surprise is that someone hasn’t choked this bitch sooner.”
Over the past few days, students have worked hard to bring these issues to the attention of administrators, but the campus has failed to acknowledge the significance of these concerns. Instead of taking a principled stance against hate speech and rescinding Maher’s invitation, the campus has chosen to elevate his voice — a voice that spreads racism and bigotry across the United States. Ignoring the effect of this choice on the students and community who suffer because of Bill Maher’s remarks represents a complete disregard for students, a pattern that hasn’t changed since the days of the Free Speech Movement.
Though we strongly disagree with the substance of Bill Maher’s racist, sexist and homophobic language, we value the university’s role as a public academic institution committed to preserving the free exchange of ideas — even when those ideas are at odds with our own. If the administration worries that it is discouraging debate by revoking this invitation, the administration is welcome to invite Maher to an open forum on campus instead.
Commencement is a celebratory event in which family and students come to commemorate the achievements and experiences of an accomplished group of students. The commencement speaker is traditionally given a honorarium for their services. In addition, the speaker traditionally dons ceremonial gar, and is included among faculty and administrators in a ceremonial procession. This is a clear honor that is being bestowed on Maher, an honor that is frankly insulting to the hundreds of students who have to live with sexism, racism and bigotry because of problematic remarks such as his.
This is yet another example of how the campus has failed to support marginalized and vulnerable communities on campus. The UC Berkeley administration has failed to publicly address concerns regarding UCPD’s participation in allegedly Islamophobic trainings at Urban Shield’s recent military police training expo. The campus is facing a Title IX investigation due to allegations of poor response to sexual violence. Developmental programs for students of color do not receive adequate attention.
What is even more disturbing is the fact that the administration has decided to disrespect student voices on a completely different level. The Californians, a student group involved in the organization of the commencement ceremony, decided to rescind the invitation to Bill Maher. On Wednesday, the administration released a statement saying they “cannot and will not accept this decision.” There is no greater disrespect for students than this. By silencing and misrepresenting students, the administration has perpetuated an even more negative campus climate.
It is time the campus starts taking ownership of its mistakes. It is time the value of the students is elevated above ratings, statistics and politics. It is time UC Berkeley start addressing campus climate issues and actively listening to the concerns of students rather than falling into the trap of special interests, public relation stunts and privatization. This time has come and the students “cannot and will not” wait any longer.
Marium Navid is an ASUC senator.
Caitlin Quinn, external affairs vice president
Madison Gordon, senator
King Xiong, senator
Haley Broder, senator
Austin Pritzkat, senator
Juan Manuel Heredia, senator
Baltazar Dasalla, senator
Mon-Shane Chou, academic affairs vice president
Justin Kong, external vice president
Lavanya Jawaharlal, senator
Dree Kavoussi, senator
Yordanos Dejen, senator
Vinay Ramesh, senator
Grant Genske, senator
Paul Lee, senator
Melissa Hsu, senator
Siddhant Puri, senator
Middle Eastern Muslim Sikh and South Asian Coalition
Black Student Union
Muslim Student Association
Afghan Student Association
Pakistani Student Association
Arab Student Union
Sikh Student Association