Deconstructing occupation

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NOVEMBER 21, 2011

I’m a rhetoric major, which always seems to beg the same question from snickering science students: “What do you plan to do with that?” While I would like to think that Michel Foucault’s insights on power could help me in a job interview one day, I realize that most of what I’ve learned will serve no practical purpose after graduating. However, one useful skill that I have developed throughout my rhetorical career at Cal is the ability to thoroughly examine arguments.

Central to rhetorical analysis is identifying logical fallacies. All too often arguments skate by unscathed by logical scrutiny. Politics is particularly prone to this problem. From ad hominems to slippery slopes, political figures frequently cut corners in their reasoning to appeal to what is charming rather than coherent (I’m talking to you, Herman “9-9-9” Cain!).

Unfortunately, our campus is not exempt from these errors either, as recently seen through Occupy Cal. Over the past two weeks, this ragtag movement has captivated our campus’s political consciousness and subsequently given rise to several logical fallacies. Bust out your Jacques Derrida books everyone, ‘cause Casey Given’s about to deconstruct this bitch.

The biggest fallacy Occupy Cal subscribes to is false analogy. On the posters of their encampment, in the speeches of their rallies and even on the opinion page of The Daily Californian, several occupiers have compared their struggle to both the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s. If the likening of suburban students’ tuition troubles to African-Americans’ systematic discrimination isn’t absurd enough, there are two major differences that invalidate any analogy.

First, regarding their objectives, Mario Savio and Martin Luther King’s movements fundamentally differ from Occupy Cal in that they sought protection of negative rights rather than positive ones — a critical distinction in political theory. Negative rights oblige inaction, like the inaction of violating another’s life, liberty or property. Contrarily, positive rights oblige action, like the governmental action of providing a good or service. Whereas Savio’s fight for the First Amendment and King’s campaign for legal equality were struggles to secure negative rights, Occupy Cal claims a positive “right to education.”

Not only does Occupy Cal differ with respect to rights, but it also contrasts in methods as well. While all three movements champion civil disobedience, it is only those of the ’60s that truly follow in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps.

After all, a fundamental tenet of civil disobedience is to accept arrest when protesting injustice. Both Savio and King respectably submitted to incarceration, with the latter writing in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Contrarily, the occupiers squeal at the sight of the police, having demanded “amnesty for all protesters.”

Agree or disagree with Occupy Cal’s message as you may, no honest thinker should fall for their false analogy to the celebrated movements of the ’60s.

However, the occupiers aren’t the only ones spewing logical fallacies. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is arguably worse by succumbing to the fallacy of composition — the assumption that a view held by some is true of all. In his Nov. 14 email response to Occupy Cal, our sagacious chancellor urged the “campus community” to “join together and focus on our common goals” like “working to repeal Prop. 13,” California’s cap on property taxes, and “finding a way to reverse Prop. 209,” the state’s anti-affirmative action amendment.

Considering that both initiatives were democratically enacted by California voters, with 209 passing by 54.6 percent and 13 by a whopping 64.8 percent, I fail to see how their repeal is, paradoxically, a “common goal” among Californians. If so, I suppose I’m not part of the “campus community!”

Instead, the Chancellor is deceptively projecting his political views onto an ambivalent student body. While it is certainly true that a loud faction of students support said goals, it can hardly be claimed to be true of all. Indeed, this fallacy of composition is a mistake that is made too often on this campus — the belief that all UC Berkeley students share a normative liberal worldview. The truth, however, is that our student body is radically apolitical.

Rather than “occupying” Cal, most students are busy “occupying” the Main Stacks and receiving the world-class education they came to UC Berkeley for in the first place. Until we recognize the existence of this silent “99 percent,” our campus’s politics will continue to succumb to such logical fallacies.

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NOVEMBER 21, 2011