Last week, I showed my support for free speech by being on campus every day and holding all my classes. With terrorism, we’re told to live our lives as we normally would — otherwise, the terrorists win. So what does it say about us if the “alt-right” comes to town and we flee campus in search of a safe place to cower in fear? There’s still time to make a better plan, and here are a few terms and tactics to keep in mind while we do.
Boycott: A boycott is a specific tactic with a specific goal. It is designed to create a harm, usually but not necessarily in the form of an economic cost, against a person or group whose actions create or perpetuate injustice. If we boycott campus to protest the “alt-right,” who suffers the harm? Everyone except the “alt-right,” that’s who. We’re boycotting ourselves, which is nonsensical.
Walk-out: In its origins, the walk-out was also designed to create a harm against a person or group whose actions create or perpetuate injustice. Workers would walk off the job, walk out of the assembly line, thereby shutting down or disrupting production. The walk-out doesn’t translate well into institutions of learning and education. If ignorance is the cause of racism, for instance, how does walking out on education do anything to help? Any moron can walk through the street carrying a simple sign and shouting an even simpler slogan. A true activist knows that learning is the most powerful tool of resistance we have and thus stays in the classroom and plots long-term, radically constructive change.
Fascism: Fascism is fast becoming one of the most overused and misused words in our political vocabulary. Fascism isn’t, as many of its opponents seem to believe, anything that isn’t liberal. To use the word fascism in such overly broad terms is to render it meaningless, almost like saying “the weather today feels so fascist.” Fascism has a specific definition and refers to a political system in which political parties are dissolved, opposition is banned, democratic institutions are dismantled and the individual is suppressed into the community of the masses. If that’s what Ann Coulter is advocating, then fine, shut her down. But if she’s simply saying things that aren’t liberal, even offensively so, it’s not fascism. Shutting that down isn’t fighting fascism, it’s engaging in mass-based censorship. And just so you know, mass-based censorship is a central tactic of fascism.
Hate speech: Rule No. 1 with hate speech: don’t confuse hate speech with speech you hate. The ruling of the recent “Slants” case (Matal v. Tam) that the Supreme Court unanimously handed down over the summer made it very clear that just because someone’s speech offends you doesn’t make it hate speech. Hate speech has a very narrow legal definition, and it refers to speech that advocates an imminent threat to a specific target. Even speech that creates a climate of hate, however detestable, still isn’t hate speech, because the threat is nonspecific and the harm advocated is not imminent. Shutting down true hate speech is a valid act of justice. Shutting down speech you hate is censorship, the very opposite for free speech.
Resistance: The call to #Resist may seem empowering on the surface, but without a focused target to resist and specific goal to achieve, it devolves simply into the mobilization of pent-up frustration. Action without direction accomplishes nothing. Resisting everything isn’t really a platform, and in any case, it’s a lazy, uninspired approach. First make a plan, then resist. And remember, resistance is a means, not an end.
Speaking of making a plan, what if instead of lighting things on fire and breaking windows, we instead took the time to find some more creative ways to make our point? Here’s a few suggestions to start with.
Sleep-in: Got a speaker coming to campus? Instead of showing up and trying to shout them down or shut them down, why not have a little fun instead? If there are tickets, make sure you get as many as you can, and if not, then show up early to make sure you get a seat. When the speaker hits the stage, it’s time to take action, by which I mean go to sleep. Or at least pretend like you’re asleep, and stay that way until the event is over. Nothing defeats a provocateur like a determined army of tired sloths.
Text-in: Same as the previous only instead of sleeping, spend the whole time texting. Make sure you look completely indifferent and remarkably bored, maybe even annoyed that the speaker is talking. And don’t text about the event you are attending — that’s free publicity. Instead, text about more important things, like which Minion is the cutest.
Engaged kindness: This one might seem strange — and it’s actually very difficult to pull off — but really, few things disarm an adversary like kindness. As distasteful as it might at first appear, imagine what would happen if you were a group of progressives and you showed up at a conservative speaker’s event, determined to make sure their right to free speech is completely respected. Is it a hot day? Serve lemonade free of charge. Cold day? Serve up some chai (organic, please, this is Berkeley). The next day, no one will remember or care who the speaker was or what they said. They’ll be too busy reading the story with the headline, “UC Berkeley students show the world how it’s done.”
Darren Zook is a lecturer in the departments of political science and global studies at UC Berkeley and the author of Law School: A Guide for the Perplexed and The Cedars of Lebanon.