Ostensibly, I am told, fascists came to Berkeley on Wednesday. On the morning after their occupation, amid broken shop windows and scorched heaps of rubbish, it did certainly look as if a fascist mob had invaded. Though, if I remember my history correctly, the Night of Broken Glass was not committed by kerchiefed anarchists.
Unlike the coterie of right-wing commentators enjoying a field day this week, it does me no pleasure to see something like this happen at my alma mater (one can almost feel the value of his diploma plummeting downwards).
Let’s get one thing out of the way, as this is how these things tend to go: No, I did not vote for Trump. No, I don’t care a fig for Mr. Yiannopoulos. I shall spare you any further list of liberal bona fides. As unpleasant as I find the little narcissist who graced our campus Wednesday, I arrived that night holding a ticket. Why? Suffice it to say, if there are hundreds of people trying to stop me from hearing a speech, it could just as well be a dog barking the alphabet and I would stand in line to see it.
During a rather tense drive home, I witnessed a taste of the damage wrought upon Shattuck Avenue. Much of the destruction was confined to the property of local banks. The boundless chivalry of Berkeley rioters is truly inspirational.
Despite the resulting chorus of apologists, what happened on the night of Feb. 1 was an unqualified disgrace. I expect you’ve heard the right wing talk about First Amendment violations and the need for healthy debate. You may be inclined to feel yourself attacked by such assertions, shamed for your desire merely to make your own voice heard.
But this issue is not one of legality, but of principle. It is the choice between having a society of free thought and liberal values, or one where dogma is set by majorities.
Were the First Amendment rights of the Berkeley College Republicans infringed upon that night? Almost certainly not — such protections traditionally constrain our government. But to pretend that the shallow standard of mere legality is sufficient to justify the events of last Wednesday is a grave mistake, one that I have a feeling many know they are making.
Two artful counternarratives have been marshalled to absolve student demonstrators of the charge that they have “killed free speech.” The first is that the violence was committed by a “small minority” of 150 individuals, the second, that student protestors were merely holding a counter-demonstration, not attempting to shut down the event. The first of these may very well have been prevented, the second is in large part merely false.
When violence erupted, I remained on campus, hoping to witness what I was all but certain would not happen. Students did not call off the demonstration, by then spoilt by anarchy. Instead — in a victory dishonestly won — they danced the night away.
And what else were they to do? Surely, relocating the event to another part of campus would have been impossible. Surely, we cannot expect students to withstand the nagging temptation to pull out their phones, grinning at the brutality befalling the scant company of Milo’s defenders in the crowd. And certainly, who could have foreseen this event erupting in violence? Infinitely optimistic, organizers chose to disregard the fact that this has happened half a dozen times before, enacting no apparent contingency plan for the possibility.
Then began the familiar cycle of half-hearted denouncements. Students assert they did not condone the violence, despite flooding the papers and social pages for the preceding three weeks with calls not to protest, but to shut down the event by, shall we say, any means necessary.
One such op-ed, published in this paper just a day before the event, called for “solidarity-minded” students to “(come) out en masse to kick Yiannopoulos and his hateful bile off our campus.” Still others took it upon themselves to determine what speech should not be tolerated, arguing that Mr. Yiannopoulos’ (ultimately non-existent) lecture was a matter not of speech, but of preservation of one’s safety in the midst of the “harmful and dangerous (actions) that Yiannopoulos incites.” That night was indeed harmful and dangerous, but it was not Mr. Yiannopoulos with the brick in his hand.
Still, some say, it is wrong to condemn hundreds of peaceful demonstrators for the actions of a few. If memory serves, no such courtesy was afforded those participating in Trump rallies last year. Back then, proximity was complicity.
Much blame has been cast against conservatives for, to employ the popular phrase, perpetuating violent rhetoric. As it often turns out, that street runs both ways. Voices encouraging the extrajudicial shutdown of a speaking event effectually lend rioters the rhetorical tools by which to justify their actions through some perverse sense of having the moral high ground.
There, of course, is a third defense employed by the more anti-liberal voices in our midst. Namely, that Mr. Yiannopoulos’ positions constitute “hate speech” and should therefore not be allowed expression. Setting aside that hate speech is fully protected under U.S. law, it should be noted that once we say some positions are too extreme to allow, a door is opened that won’t easily be closed again. And if history serves as teacher, it’s generally not people like you or me who end up getting to determine what “acceptable” speech sounds like. I ask my fellow Bears: If we are to regulate speech in such a way, in whose hands would you care to entrust that determination? In those of Congress? Perhaps in those of our commander in chief?
Some, I suppose, would prefer that the true bigots in our society hide and keep their repulsive machinations secret. I prefer that they show their face for all the world to see.
Was it good PR or wise for BCR to invite a ghoulish troll to campus? Such questions are obscurantist of the reality that a man rose to speak at a university of intelligent people, and rather than challenge his arguments in dialogue, students chose to cheer as a voice was silenced under threats of violence. All this, after BCR was compelled to pay $6000 for security to protect themselves from their fellow students, should the latter feel unable to resist the urge to assault them.
Perhaps, in their decision to invite this man, BCR was “asking for it,” as I’ve heard some say. Shall we let this then be the standard by which we hitherto decide which people deserve to be assaulted? I leave it to you to follow that reasoning to its logical end.
Students descended upon Sproul Plaza on Thursday to show the world they did not approve of Milo Yiannopoulos. Instead, the world is sneering at them. And worse, they see Mr. Yiannopoulos as a sympathetic victim.
If such anti-liberalism on our campus really cannot be cured, then so be it. At least we can appreciate the poetry of our unhappy situation — that the Free Speech Movement died at the same blessed plot as it was born. And, when students had the chance to save it, they chose instead to dance upon its grave.
Brendan Pinder is the former president of the Berkeley College Republicans and a former Daily Cal columnist. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter