Campus community must think beyond ‘Free Speech Week’ to understand speech and its effects

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As feminist scholars, we in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies have much to contribute to discussions of the politics of free expression, but, alongside the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, we think it is unfortunate that Milo Yiannopoulos’s manipulative framing of “free speech” has been accepted without criticism and circulated as a way to name the rise of white-nationalist recruitment on U.S. college campuses. Thus we are especially troubled that, in a quixotic defense of decontextualized “free speech” as an absolute, the campus administration has chosen to place its students, staff, workers and faculty, as well as its infrastructure, reputation, financial stability and the city that surrounds it, at near-certain risk of harm.

Given the risks of violence, we question the administration’s decision not to take advantage of reasonable measures to manage the time, place, and manner of the speakers coming to campus. We more generally question why the administration has worked so assiduously to compromise our campus Principles of Community, including the commitment to “the dignity of all individuals” and “strive to uphold a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated,” by accommodating a group of speakers notorious for their inflammatory rhetoric and by doing nothing for the communities directly affected. There is no special relationship between a college and this brand of “free speech”; to the contrary, the speakers’ claims are contradicted by decades of research in gender and women’s studies and adjacent fields.

Because of our areas of research and teaching — the imbrication of gender, sexuality, race, class, nation, colonialism, disability and more within densely interlocking systems that turn difference into injustice — and the composition of our student, staff, worker and faculty population, we are in continuous contact with the ways in which structural misogyny, coloniality, racism and class actually operate. We are acutely aware that the defense of certain rights over others can often be traced to the unequal access to levers of power, including the power to be heard. The targets of the upcoming polemics — feminists, Muslims, people of color, LGBTIQ+ individuals, students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, people with disabilities, immigrants — are people whose vulnerability is reflected in the need for specific protections in civil rights legislation.

Hate crimes against people in these categories have been rising, and the impact on our campus is not a future hypothetical; indeed along with the pace of hostile attention to this university, we as a community have already — and predictably — experienced doxxing, being followed, being harassed while teaching in our classrooms and verbal violence on this campus in the light of day. We have received little, if any, campus aid, or even response. This is a moment for us all to think deeply and creatively about how structures of inequality in our society affect the ways that an absolutist construction of the right to free speech has disparate effects and is, moreover, not equally accessible to all. It is also a moment for us to ask how, as a campus, we can produce a space that enables speech across differential power and privilege, and thus support a truly educational environment, not just a space where the best funded speech dominates.

The department of gender and women’s studies addresses these topics in our research and our teaching, and we invite the UC Berkeley community to attend our classes and take part in our department’s schedule of activities. Our classes focus on identifying processes of categorization and distinction, taking gender as a central, but neither defining nor homogeneous, organizing principle. In living counterexample to the speech currently invading our campus, feminist scholarship is not a practice of exclusion or blame but a multidimensional exercise in critical inquiry. Our department’s commitment to diffusing power, empowering the disempowered and transforming subordinating institutions and discourses is more essential than ever. As we look forward, beyond the week of Sept. 24th, we invite everyone to think about what scholarship and thoughtful, informed inquiry can teach us about freedom of expression, practices of silencing and, ultimately, the hope and possibility for justice.

Paola Bacchetta, Barbara Barnes, Mel Chen, Minoo Moallem, Laura C. Nelson, Leslie Salzinger, Charis Thompson and Minh-Ha Trinh are faculty members of UC Berkeley’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.