How We Move Forward As A School To Lead The Nation

02/09/2017 07:03 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2018
Rearview shot of a crowd protesting outside a public buildinghttp://195.154.178.81/DATA/shoots/ic_781584.jpg
Rearview shot of a crowd protesting outside a public buildinghttp://195.154.178.81/DATA/shoots/ic_781584.jpg

Introduction by Bill Shireman

Last week, UC Berkeley made national news when protests forced the cancellation of a talk by Breitbart firebrand Milo Y, ostensibly to prevent him from spewing hateful right-wing rhetoric that would disrupt the campus's strictures against offensive speech.

As a part-time professor, I teach a class at UCB's Haas School of Business called Power & Purpose. It is one of the few places on campus where students can hear a range of uncensored political views - conservative, progressive, and libertarian - and understand their relationship to business and prosperity. My premise is that these three, which seem so contradictory, actually complement one another when considered together.

That's almost blasphemous at a campus that advises faculty to avoid terms that might offend the gentle and impressionable minds of youngsters supposedly too frail to deal with intellectual diversity. But I have yet to meet a single one of these students among the hundreds who have taken my course.

Milo got his wish at UCB. His cancelled speech attracted national attention, far more than he could have expected were he allowed to express carefully controversial views.

One of the students I work with on campus, a freshman named Pranav Jandhyala, grappled with the Milo controversy in the weeks leading up to the anti-free speech debacle. His first-hand account is exceptionally thought-provoking. Among the conclusions I personally drew from his essay is this: free speech and hate speech are inversely correlated. If we try to prevent disgusting and hateful speech, we simply get more of it. If we let it be expressed, without allowing ourselves to be gamed by the zealots trying to provoke us, then the extremism loses its power, while any legitimate ideas buried in the dung are able to emerge without the stench.

Pranav has taken action in response to the Milo mistake. With friends equally sickened by the polarization of politics from Berkeley to the Beltway, he has formed a new campus group, BridgeCal, dedicated to bringing left, right, and libertarian ideas together for robust civil discussion and debate. Find out more at www.BridgeUSA.org.

Pranav's experience reminds us that the best response to hate speech is neither angry hate-filled protests nor righteous censorship. These simply magnify its power. The best response is more speech, and more thoughtful speech, like Pranav's.

-Bill

How we move forward as a school to lead the nation


By Pranav Jandhyala

About 50 years ago, a group of Cal students were responsible for sparking a movement that became a pivotal moment in the fight for civil liberties in United States history. In the Free Speech Movement, student leaders protested against the ban of certain political speech on campus. They believed that the universal ability to voice one's own thoughts and listen to the thoughts of whomever one pleased was an indispensable part of living in a free society. Above all, they cultivated an environment in which students of all political persuasions could engage with each other respectfully.

These students debated, but the other side was simply viewed as a group of people one disagreed with. Sproul Plaza used to be an active space for peaceful political activity on both sides of the aisle. The steps of Sproul Hall used to be a space that anyone could reserve for a speech or rally. It was ultimately a space where ideas floated freely and disagreement was met with conversations that exuded a spirit of intellectual inquiry.

I learned all this from a Cal alum on the afternoon after the protests. As we watched broken glass being cleared away and wooden boards replacing the windows of the Amazon Student Store, I listened to this old man reflect on the history of his alma mater and of our nation 50 years after he graduated. 50 years later, our campus and our nation have become spaces where we no longer tolerate the other side. We no longer read their books, watch their news, or let them speak at our universities. And on Wednesday, the center of Sproul Plaza became a space of violence.

The violent protestors were opportunists looking for a platform like this controversial event to insert their arsonist fervor into. Because the rioting groups were dressed in all black and wore black masks, we don't know much about the student body's affiliation to them that we can say with certainty. But what I do know with certainty is what I saw with my own eyes. Some students cheered on the acts of violence and some engaged in brawls with others.

It may be the case that some students were involved with the coordinated violence against property and people. But if they were, they represent only a small minority of our student body. They don't represent the students or the Berkeley that I know. It is a shame that only the loudest voices get heard, and on this night, the loudest voice was violence and destruction. The scenes of hundreds of students peacefully assembling as a community were quickly replaced with scenes of rampage on national news networks. And UC Berkeley students quickly became associated with images of those who beat people with sticks rather than those who cleaned up their mess at 5 am in the morning.

In attempting to shut down the event because of fear of something Milo might or might not have said, the violent groups beat ticket holders, innocent bystanders, and journalists including myself, calling them "nazis". How can the pools of blood, the pepper sprayed eyes, the concussions, and the unconscious victims ever be justified? These despicable individuals merely used the pretense of attempting to protect groups that may be affected by Milo's speech to use others as targets for nothing else but their belligerent attitudes. And that's something that can never be condoned.

The political division on our campus and in our nation has created and stirred passions. And these passions are just now brimming over a glass that can no longer contain our exasperated and resentful bafflement towards those who just don't seem to make sense anymore. To both sides, the other doesn't seem to hold rational opinions anymore, they don't seem to make sense anymore. The left gets more left and the right gets more right every year, driven by the same tensions. In our inability to do the grunt work of healthy debate and compromise, of listening to the other side, we've dug ourselves into a debt. It's a chore we kept putting off, a regular assignment we started to do with less and less frequency that brought us to this place. It's a debt can only be solved with a political investment.

Shutting down speech in any form is a slippery slope to fascism and in the end creates far more problems than it purports to solve. We can't stand for those who silence speech simply because it is challenging to their beliefs. But neither can we stand for those who engage in hate speech or personal attacks. I truly believe that every single political opinion can be expressed without hate speech, whether it's support for the Muslim ban or a denouncement of Israel's actions in the West Bank. The challenge, then, is to create an environment of free and open discourse where ideas, rather than people, are challenged and intellectual empathy is fundamental.

The way forward, and the only way where we can exist despite our differences, is both simple and remarkably challenging. We, whomever we may be, need to start talking to the other side. We need to start understanding what they believe and why they believe it by immersing ourselves in a marketplace of ideas. We need to spark a new Free Speech Movement, a Free Discourse Movement, on campus and in our nation. One in which a space is created for all ideas to be voiced but also rigorously challenged. No one benefits by silencing speech. Conservatives on campus won't be convinced of any point of view when we don't create this kind of space. Milo's invitation to campus and even his rhetoric was years in the making. If such a space was created, the Berkeley College Republicans would not feel the need to invite such controversial speakers to prove a point in response to their perception of liberal intolerance. But now, their perception of liberal intolerance has only been further confirmed by the events on February 1st. Neither side is at fault, but everyone is afflicted.

As I continued to speak with others on Sproul Plaza in the days after the protests, my hope in this vision of a new political movement on campus grew. The conversations that I had with students and different political leaders, especially those that I disagreed with, were constructive, dynamic, and encouraging. UC Berkeley has lead this nation in the past, and we are in a special position to do it again. Healing the political divide in our country needs to begin at the epicenter and proceed forward with efficiency. We have a lot to do. So Let's get to work.