Fixing UC Berkeley politics starts with rhetoric we employ

Beverly Pan/Staff

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On Oct. 5, BridgeUSA co-hosted a symposium with the Berkeley Center for New Media — BCNM — and the Graduate Assembly centered around free speech in the age of social media.

To briefly recap: The event went well.

Robert Reich and Chancellor Carol Christ delivered excellent keynote addresses, the panel speakers were compelling, and we were even privileged with a protest by a panelist who requested to remain unnamed and whose criticism against BridgeUSA and the administration was delivered via Carol-Christ-Costume.  Professors who were invited and chose not to attend had their criticisms delivered anonymously, and I earnestly believe a good job was done in attempting to represent a diversity of perspectives on the issue of free speech on this campus.  

As a member of the leadership in BridgeUSA, I’m proud of the event and I look forward to working with BCNM, the Graduate Assembly and the campus in the future. We will learn from this event and continue to grow as a still-young organization to foster more political conversation on this campus that fits with our vision of virtuous discourse.

As a student and member of the UC Berkeley community, however, I am frustrated that the event was necessary at all, despite my pride at its execution. As well as this event went, its mere existence doesn’t bode well for the praxis of politics on this campus.

My concern centers on the very idea that partisan monopolies on the issues of “Free Speech” and “Equity” — proper nouns — have become the political footballs around which we’ve framed the rift on this campus. Let it be clear: “Free speech” and “equity,” as both practice and goal, are non-negotiable. If you stand in opposition to the practice of free speech or the struggle toward equity, you have no place here, nor should you anywhere.  

What we ought to debate over is what is entailed in the respectful practice of free speech, most especially to affirm the impermissibility of hate speech designed to make parties, especially vulnerable parties, feel unsafe or targeted. Somewhere in the framing of the tumult at our campus, the issues of “Equity” and “Free Speech” became diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive and partisan.

When Milo Yiannopoulos came, students and protesters shouted him out of town. Conflicting responses to this event abound, but most believe, justifiably, that Milo came here as a provocateur first and a disputable pundit second. He sought to challenge the equity of our students and was purported to be planning to threaten vulnerable communities. That’s unacceptable, and to many here, that action entails hate speech.

Unfortunately, however, in allowing him to hide behind the rhetoric of “Free Speech,” we can no longer interrogate his action as hate speech. His hate speech is not hate speech — it’s free speech. We’ve ceded “Free Speech” as a conservative issue, and what’s more, we’ve ceded it to the same provocateurs who would bear the torch of free speech only to illuminate their hateful praxis.

When BridgeUSA came to understand that Ann Coulter would be coming to this campus, we sought to see her stand for her beliefs and grant us better understanding of our own or see her fall with her beliefs under the interrogation of UC Berkeley students.

Her practice of free speech is often reprehensible. The sniper threats that forced her cancellation are also impermissible. Now, for having not stood before interrogation, she gets to hide behind assaults on “Free Speech” without saying nor defending a word. The UC Berkeley community gave her an out.

I lean left in my own personal politics and I’m sure that bias is obvious here, but we of UC Berkeley’s political majority are not wholly innocent, either. The issue of “Equity,” too, has become a bludgeon for dangerous normative social pressures from our side. I will not equivocate black bloc groups with Nazis, but I lament that Antifa is the arbiter of “Equity.” I lament that assaulting innocent bystanders, accusing me of Nazism, and wanton endangerment of students who felt threatened by mass police presence in absentia of Antifa because it “wasn’t worth their time” are excused under the guise of preserving “Equity.”

Free speech is not hate speech, and equity is not unspecific assault. I can’t stand for Nazi punching when I’ve been called a Nazi by my very own political compatriots — which has happened — merely for my organization’s former association with Pranav Jandhyala of the Berkeley Patriot.

BridgeUSA will continue to attempt to reform campus politics toward conversation instead of conflict, but calling it “Free Speech Week” doesn’t help, nor does calling the haphazard swing of a baseball bat “Equity.” Events like ours will help, but we need a substantive rhetoric reform to dissolve the partisan divide on issues for which there can be no compromise; otherwise, there can never be conversation. BridgeUSA believes that the path toward political progress is paved by the conversation and debate between divergent political principles.


John Rider is a member of BridgeUSA’s Berkeley chapter.