Proceed with caution: Re-evaluating ‘Berkeley in the Sixties’ amid John Searle’s sexual assault accusations

John Searle
Hannah Cooper/File

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In 1990, Mark Kitchell directed and produced a documentary called “Berkeley in the Sixties.” The documentary is an enlightening feature about the Free Speech Movement, protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the volatile politics of the 1960s — all specific to Berkeley.

The year it was released, the film was nominated for many prestigious awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It garnered positive reviews from many news outlets, earning praise for the contrast between archive footage and current interviews and its traditional, professional handling of the topic. Today, the film maintains a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Almost every interview offers essential, detailed analysis of what these moments and events really meant for the politics of the era. Almost every interview.

Former UC Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle is a recurring face featured throughout “Berkeley in the Sixties.” In his interviews, he gives colloquial details of how HUAC tried to villainize those protesting against its actions, of the Free Speech Movement and of the effect these power struggles had on the university. His insights are relatively inoffensive and informative, but given that Searle has been accused of sexual assault, it’s hard to find his defense of civil rights credible.

In March 2017, Searle was accused of groping Joanna Ong, a student who worked for him, and firing her after she rejected his advances. He was also accused of watching pornography while working.

This is not the first time Searle has been accused of sexual assault or harassment. UC Berkeley received at least three other sexual misconduct complaints over a span of years from students claiming that Searle had made advances or made sexist comments toward them. Yet Searle maintained his status as an esteemed professor and major intellectual figure until Ong’s lawsuit surfaced in 2017.

One would expect UC Berkeley, a university at the forefront of political activism and the movements for rights, to take complaints such as these more seriously and to seek swift justice for affected students. Students are supposed to be able to depend on their professors to guide them, teach them and help them get closer to accomplishing their goals. Instead, allegations reveal that Searle took advantage of his position of power to pressure students into relationships for the sake of their careers.

In an interview with New Philosopher, Searle said, “I don’t think philosophers should worry too much about what people think about them.” Apparently, this sentiment applies to more than his work as a philosopher.

Searle’s behavior is unacceptable and intolerable, and the allegations against him put his entire career as a philosopher into question.

Similarly, knowing Searle’s alleged history of sexual harassment mars the credibility and goal of “Berkeley in the Sixties.” Now, when Searle agrees that the Free Speech Movement is “a civil rights panty raid,” it doesn’t seem like just an unfortunate analogy — it seems like locker room talk he participated in.

To compare a movement for civil rights to a panty raid is either validating panty raids as a perfectly fine, “boys will be boys” activity or is belittling the imperative and pressing nature of the movement. Either way, knowing Searle’s character, the fact that Searle believes this comparison is an accurate description of the movement hurts not just his credibility but that of the documentary as a whole.

Searle discusses the new university, one that many anticipated to burgeon from the ashes of the ‘60s — a new type of education, a new place for collectivist culture. In his eyes, this new university must not have included improvements to women’s rights.

Discussing the Civil Rights Movement, Searle comments, “If you’re gonna fight this kind of long cultural battle you really are bound to lose if you don’t have a coherent, articulate, well-worked-out vision of what you’re trying to do.” To him, the women’s rights movement wasn’t coherent enough to win any type of respect.

With the information regarding Searle’s lack of respect for women, every comment he makes in the documentary — and outside of it — is scrutinized.

His alleged behavior directly discredits every statement he makes about civil rights, which in turn undermines the documentary as a whole. Civil rights do not exclude women’s rights — rights that Searle seems to believe aren’t deserved. Viewers cannot be expected to take his analysis seriously when he is clearly not qualified to address this topic. As one of the primary academics interviewed, any section of the documentary featuring him is weakened.

There is no doubt that “Berkeley in the Sixties” is a polished, diligent and informative record of the major political landscape of Berkeley during the ‘60s. Its illustration of the important events — black-and-white clips of students fighting police, signs asking for protections, HUAC digging for communists, mingled with eloquent interviews — works as a complete and reliable look into this historical political climate.

It’s disappointing that Searle’s alleged horrendous actions as a professor and mentor scar this film’s authenticity. The documentary as a whole should not be discredited. However, viewers should remember to proceed with caution when viewing. It’s our responsibility to hold Searle accountable by remembering that his personal, disdainful values are not exclusive from his opinions on the Free Speech Movement, but rather, they directly affect them.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].