In a letter this past Monday to the full campus mailing list, Chancellor Birgeneau, together with with Vice Chancellors Gibor Basri and Harry LeGrande, claimed that the Principles of Community “require … a positive intent not to hurt, offend, or denigrate others while expressing a reasoned position,” the implication being that Berkeley College Republicans’ “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” somehow violated the Principles. The administration’s paraphrased version of the Principles of Community is simply inaccurate. Rather, the Principles ensure “freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities.”
There is no mention of anything resembling a requirement that campus community members self-censor by attempting not to offend anyone — and there shouldn’t be. Freedom of expression and open dialogue are impossible when each participant in a discussion must make sure not to offend anyone else. Speech that is unoffensive needs no protection, and any “commitment” to free speech that ends at offense is no commitment at all.
The letter went on to “urge, but not mandate” civility (the Principles of Community mention “civility and respect”) on the part of campus community members, again with the implication that he was speaking specifically to the Berkeley College Republicans. On this issue, the Chancellor and administration have my full support. Civil discussion and debate form the foundation of a well-functioning democracy. No argument is so offensive that it ought not to be discussed and respectfully refuted.
It is for this reason that I found the absence of any reference to the recent demands put forth by a nameless “cross-cultural, cross-gender” coalition of UC Berkeley students perplexing. It is incredibly disingenuous and hypocritical to talk about equality and fairness while presumptuously demanding, for example, that all students be required to take courses in the explicitly political Ethnic Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies and African-American Studies departments.
General education requirements are intended to teach students how to think, not what to think. Demanding anything, no matter how trivial, is totally out of place among supposed equals. Then again, maybe demands are all we should expect from people whose first move at last Friday’s “town hall” meeting was to eject all reporters and dissenters by popular vote.
As much as the ASUC, the Chancellor and many other opponents of the bake sale would like us to believe their objections are based on methods, not content, the real issue at stake was SB 185. All the whining and whimpering about civility and respect for the feelings of all community members was inauthentic in the extreme — why not just say you disagree with BCR’s perspective? I don’t recall the ASUC issuing a unanimous emergency declaration condemning the disruptive protesters who interrupted classes last fall by marching up and down the hallways screaming. Nor do I recall Chancellor Birgeneau labeling the Wheeler Hall occupation “hurtful or offensive” (words he used to describe the bake sale), though I have talked to many students who were outraged at the time.
Indeed, in a string of mass emails during the 2009 Wheeler Hall protest, the Chancellor and other administrators noted that many of the 118 classes scheduled in Wheeler on the day of the occupation had to be canceled, but they did not condemn the methods of the student occupiers. In light of all this, an objective observer might be forced to conclude that on the Berkeley campus, it is acceptable to make a political point by preventing thousands of students from receiving the education they have paid for, but selling cupcakes to make an equally salient point is uncivil and offensive.
For my part, I find it offensive that at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, many of us still can’t seem to let other people speak. If you are really confident in your political opinions, you should be able to articulate them in a reasonable, measured and, yes, civil way — and let everyone else do the same. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth, and nobody has a monopoly on the right to speak. So go ahead, argue for your opinions, no matter how unpopular they are. If you’re wrong, chances are someone out there will tell you so. Isn’t that what Berkeley is all about?
Will Skinner is a junior at UC Berkeley and president of the Cal Students for Liberty.