Campus needs more respectful engagement

The recent election cycle, with its intense political debates and subsequent events, has created an environment that feels unlike any other in recent memory. In the last month in particular, I have been struggling with how to help our community move forward and process key takeaways. I’m sure many students have felt the same.

I’ve met with students on all sides of current issues who feel they have been silenced during the past few weeks. I have met with students who are fearful of being singled out and targeted by very public means. I have sat with students from all sides of the political spectrum sharing their concerns and, to be honest, sharing their tears. The stakes are real, as many in our community are feeling dehumanized or vilified.

These recent issues aren’t just confined to our campus. Nationwide, rhetoric feels more heated than ever given recent political events and actions taken by the new presidential administration. Many students, especially from minority or marginalized communities, will see these legislative actions as personal attacks while others in our community will see them as validating their opinions. Regardless of how one feels about the current landscape in Washington, D.C., or here at home in Berkeley, now more than ever we need to be mindful of how to have respectful conversations even when we strongly disagree.

I realize that recently there have been many people in places of power, privilege or visibility making what I find to be troubling comments about members of many different minority or marginalized communities. Understandably, free speech is a topic that’s become a hot issue in the last few weeks. Who should feel free to say what, and how does one balance the potential harm in someone’s speech against the need to ensure we aren’t censoring unpopular speech? These debates can wind up sounding very philosophical and academic, which may not feel very caring to those who feel their identities are targeted.

As associate vice chancellor and dean of students, my chief concern through these weeks has been how can I ensure all of our students are feeling supported. The reality is, in this current climate, I struggle with how to be fully successful meeting this concern. Along these lines, I’ve also spoken with students who have been “doxxed” — a nefarious practice of placing someone’s personal information online — or have received threatening emails or phone calls. Nationwide, there have been troubling stories of people being doxxed, trolled, harassed or bullied online — where the perpetrators have the extra advantage of anonymity. Regardless of medium or method, the result is the same: to instill a sense of fear into someone with whom one disagrees. We cannot, in good conscience, allow threatening or intimidating behavior toward any of our fellow students, even the ones who hold viewpoints we strongly disagree with.

One of the primary reasons I came to UC Berkeley is because of the strong commitment to activism on the part of the student body, and it disheartened me to see our students being depicted in recent media as violent or unable to have peaceful disagreements. I believe violence is not an acceptable response when protesting, nor is threatening or intimidating those with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye. It can be very difficult to deal with speech that we feel runs deeply counter to our values of tolerance, inclusion and diversity. Peacefully and nonviolently protesting does not mean you condone someone’s message.

I also want to make sure students know I am here to support them. If you’re a student, please reach out to my office, and we can connect you with campus resources to support your well-being, physical health and mental health.

I would really like to focus on how can we understand the thought processes of those with whom we disagree, to understand how they arrived at where they are. In so doing, we can better get to the roots of our disagreements and make reasoned arguments without the need for name-calling or perpetuating violence. Understanding and civility does not mean having to let opposing views go unchallenged.

I am, above all else, calling for everyone in our community to adhere to our values of social justice and equity, staying true to being positive change agents in the world in these times. And part of this integrity means sticking to our values of nonviolence and peaceful protest, respecting the lives and human dignity of others. Without civil discourse, we risk becoming those whose tactics we abhor. I know UC Berkeley is bigger and better than that. And if we wish to share and make our campus principles clear, we need to seek to understand and treat each other with humanity.

Joseph Defraine Greenwell is associate vice chancellor and dean of students. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.