‘Free speech year’ panel at UC Berkeley talks harm by hate speech

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Jenna Wong/Staff

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Chancellor Carol Christ hosted a panel Monday on the harm that can come from unrestricted speech.

The event, titled “Beyond the First: Healing and Harmful Speech,” was moderated by Eva Paterson, a UC Berkeley alumna and co-founder and president of the Equal Justice Society. The panel included professors with backgrounds in psychology, linguistics, law and ethnic studies who discussed the impact of harmful speech on physiological, psychological and emotional levels.

Sharon Inkelas, special faculty adviser to the chancellor on sexual violence and sexual harassment, worked with Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Oscar Dubón, Jr. to coordinate the event. The event was the second in a series of faculty forums in what Christ has called a “free speech year.” Christ said in her opening remarks that the second panel’s theme was chosen after audience members and panelists at the first panel brought up “injury” and “harm” in relation to free speech.

Both panels come at a time of several free-speech-related controversies at UC Berkeley. “Free Speech Week,” a joint effort between campus publication the Berkeley Patriot and controversial writer Milo Yiannopoulos, was set to take place on campus in September until its cancelation. Conservative writer Ben Shapiro’s campus talk Sept. 14 drew about a thousand protesters.

“The ‘free speech’ events of this past fall had a big impact on the community, especially among groups and individuals with a past personal or cultural history of oppression,” Inkelas said in an email. “The goal of this panel was not only to characterize that negative impact through scholarship and empathy but also to suggest helpful responses to harmful speech, and healing mechanisms.”

Panelists went into detail about the tangible impact of slurs, discrimination and hate speech. Victoria Plaut, a panelist and campus professor of law and social science, said exposure to hate speech can have a variety of effects on the victim, from feelings of exclusion to existential pain, hopelessness and dehumanization. Panelist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a campus psychology professor, said oppressed groups often face uncertainty regarding how and when they will face discrimination, which leads to increased and chronic stress.

“Hateful speech and speech acts … always exceed the immediate context,” said panelist Lok Siu, an associate professor of ethnic studies, during the event. “They conjure and evoke personal memories and collective histories.”

Each panelist provided insight on healthy ways to address the negative impacts of “harmful speech.” Suggested techniques ranged from engaging in critical self-care — including eating ice cream, according to Paterson, Mendoza-Denton and Siu — to talking openly about the issues, protesting and rallying.

“If whatever you are doing is leading you to feel helpless, (it’s) time to do something else,” said panelist Robert Levenson, a campus psychology professor. “I started feeling better about myself when I was out yelling and organizing and marching.”

Several audience members and panelists raised questions about the role of the institution in combating harmful speech. Plaut said during the panel that ensuring “culturally responsive counseling and mental health services” and connecting campus community members around these issues are important steps for institutions like UC Berkeley.

“(Discussing these issues) is important, just for having people go through their day-to-day lives,” said Basil Kyriacou, a campus sophomore who attended the event. “If it helps one or two people make sense of everything, I think it’s worth it.”

Contact Olivia Nouriani at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @olivianouriani.