Thursday morning, as I wrapped up my contemporary political theory seminar, I jokingly told my students to make sure to ask any questions they had for me now, because “tomorrow there might not be a Berkeley.” They tittered nervously. “Too soon!” one called out.
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As Thursday evening drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of relief. Ben Shapiro’s talk had gone off with barely a hitch. He spoke, as was his right. Protesters protested, as was their right. People accused him of racism, transphobia and bigotry, as was their right. And others defended him against the charges, which was their right as well. But there was no serious disruption, violence or anything censorial at all. There was speech, and there was counter-speech. As it should be, on a college campus.
We should take a moment — though I doubt many will — to give due credit to the people in the Berkeley administration, who worked exceptionally hard to ensure just this outcome in an environment where many, many people wanted them to fail.
Some on the left wanted them to fail because they hoped the speech would be shut down. They don’t believe in free speech, and make very little pretensions about their disdain for the concept.
Some in the center wanted them to fail because they had already preloaded their weekend columns with sober leads about illiberal and intolerant college students who cannot tolerate an opposing view, and there is nothing a New York Times columnist hates more than to have to jump narratives mid-season.
And many, many people on the right wanted them to fail because they actually couldn’t care less about presenting a “different idea” and were really just itching for another free speech martyr. There was almost an erotic ecstasy at the sight of all the police cars, a fetishistic searching for every potential arrest or disturbance — look at us few, we beleaguered few, so very vulnerable and frail!
And let’s be clear — this is why Shapiro was invited to Berkeley by the Berkeley College Republicans. It was not his penetrating insights or “different ideas,” or an attempt to illuminate our benighted campus with his intellectual candlepower. When your September lineup goes Shapiro, Milo, Coulter, Bannon, it’s not hard to figure out what the strategy is.
More than sharp-tounged
Many of these people assumed that the Berkeley campus and the Berkeley administration would behave exactly as they confidently predicted they would. They were wrong. The virtuous among them will update their assumptions about the University of California, Berkeley. Most will cast about, searching for other avenues that prove they were right all along.
They will attempt to recharacterize Shapiro as a generic, run-of-the-mill conservative — perhaps a bit sharp-tongued, but a man whose ideas need to be reckoned with. They will overlook the time that he called transgender people “mentally ill,” or when he sat on television and smugly kept calling a transwoman on his panel “sir” — knowing how it hurt her, knowing how it wounded her. They will excuse his declaration that “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” Yes, he’s still better than Milo. But the second coming of Edmund Burke, he ain’t.
Or they might concede that Shapiro is no paragon of intellectual attainment, but they will argue that’s epiphenomenal. Liberals, they’ll contend, now think any opposing idea is tantamount to intolerable bigotry — it’s a matter of happenstance that Shapiro happens to have said things that fully justify the charge.
They will ignore the fact that this term, Berkeley is also hosting Reihan Salam, executive editor of the National Review and an actual intellectual rising star in the conservative movement, at one of its workshops. And not just any workshop — a workshop dedicated to matters of immigration, borders and citizenship.
Unlike Shapiro, Coulter, Milo or Bannon, Salam really was invited because of the different view he offers, and I am confident he’ll do an excellent job defending it. I am equally confident that he will be met with no protest, disruption or censorship whatsoever, because it turns out that Berkeley students have no quarrel with people who actually are coming to campus to present a different and challenging idea.
To pretend that Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon represent the ideas wing of the modern conservative movement is a patronizing indulgence that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually takes seriously.
The difference between Salam and Shapiro isn’t that one dissents from Berkeley orthodoxy and the other doesn’t. Both would find themselves distinct intellectual minorities here.
The difference between them is that Salam is a genuine thinker, whereas the only reason Shapiro isn’t part of the alt-right is that they happen to hate him too. The anti-Semitism Shapiro has endured from neo-Nazis is appalling and inexcusable — no Jew, no matter how horrible I may find his politics, deserves that. But (as conservatives love to remind us) even genuine oppression does not confer virtue, and it’s no accident that the website Shapiro helped build became the alt-right’s platform. In both substance and tone, they are scarcely distinguishable from one another.
And so we get to the last refuge: Berkeley’s infamous offer of “counseling” for students who felt “threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe.” It’s notable that this offer didn’t reference any particular speaker and Berkeley administrators noted that it was specifically meant to include conservative students who might be feeling alienated on campus.
But leave that aside and focus on the colossal lack of empathy on display — as if “I may be torn from the only home I’ve ever known at any moment and a sizeable portion of what I thought was my community will cheer as they drag me off” is just some annoying triviality that a 19-year-old should be able to shrug off before acing his calculus final. The student in that scenario who wants to talk things out is not fragile, weak-willed or intolerant — and it’s an embarrassment to the profession that so many pundits lack the basic empathy to imagine otherwise.
Indeed, what’s become increasingly clear is that the conventional narrative regarding Berkeley students and their close-minded intolerance has almost nothing to do with the violence (primarily perpetrated by non-Berkeley students, I might add) we saw during the Milo protests. Not only, we’re told, should students not violently protest even dehumanizing speech (correct), but they also shouldn’t protest it nonviolently, or write op-eds or fliers against it (at least where such columns contain the dreaded –ism or –phobic suffixes), or even have the temerity to feel sad about it. All these responses, it seems — equally and equivalently — are viewed as being threats to open dialogue. It perhaps isn’t the Berkeley kids who misunderstand what free speech actually is.
Enough. Law professor Steven Lubet has spoken of the “reverse Voltaire,” the notion that one does not truly support someone’s right to speak unless one also agrees with what they have to say. When marchers are being beaten and explosives are being hurled, one can reasonably elide the merits of the speech in question to focus solely on the juridical right of the speaker to speak. But once the juridical question is settled — and for Ben Shapiro, it has been — then the focus should be on the merits of the speaker, and the intellectual and ethical bankruptcy of those who think this is the speech worth hearing.
Berkeley students, after all, have the right to invite Shapiro, Milo, Coulter and Bannon as much as Louis Farrakhan, David Duke or Ismail Haniyeh. In none of those cases is violence warranted. In each of those cases scorn very much is. And in each of those cases, if/when an invitation is extended, we would be fair in believing that something had gone very awry in the academic community — that putatively intelligent students thought this was the contribution necessary to the campus debate.
Free speech is an important value to defend. The Berkeley administration stepped up and did so, and the campus community by and large followed through as well. They should be lauded for it. But other values — of compassion, empathy and basic evaluative reasoning — have been on shorter display. Those who insist on keeping the focus on “free speech” violations that didn’t occur should ask themselves what conversation they’re afraid to begin.
David Schraub is a lecturer in law and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Follow him on Twitter: @schraubd.