Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

When "PROTEST!" is wrong

By Bruce Newsome

Another protest, another unsafe campus, another strike against free speech.

On Wednesday evening, some protesters carried placards reading “hate speech is not free speech,” and they succeeded in stopping the free speech of an invited speaker (Milo Yiannopoulos).

What would he have said? What is the crowd’s counter-argument? Who represents a crowd? In this case, I had never heard of Milo Yiannopoulos until that morning, when I received an email from the university warning staff of a protest, and advising them to leave campus early, so I looked him up. In other words, the protest attracted attention to the person whom the protesters were trying to deny. Now the violence has attracted international attention to the speaker, his new grievances, and the unsafety of UC Berkeley’s campus.

What is the responsibility of the university’s administration? The university was supposed to have prepared, but its efforts to protect free speech were half-hearted and unsuccessful. The police did not man their own barricades, which protesters used as projectiles to smash the windows of the student union, and to turn over a generator, which burst into flames. Some students in passive support of the speaker were attacked with pepper spray, a pole, a bike lock, and fists. The event was canceled before anybody was even admitted. Campus was officially shut-down for hours. The protesters initially refused police orders to disperse, then marched through Berkeley into Oakland. Commercial properties were attacked with stones.

On Thursday morning, outgoing UCB Chancellor Nicholas Dirks emailed the whole community to blame the violence on “individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students, and used violent tactics to close down the event.” He went on to describe them as “100 armed individuals clad in Ninja-like uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior designed to shut the event down.” This claim is contradicted by the students who admitted to that behavior on the night, and, two days earlier, the student organizer’s use of the campus newspaper to call for students to help to shut down the event.

The Chancellor’s attempt to excuse the collapse of safety amounted to the statement that “The University went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate planning and preparation for this event, working in close concert with the Berkeley College Republicans. Dozens of police officers were brought in from UC campuses across the state. Numerous crowd control measures were put in place. But, we could not plan for the unprecedented.” He didn’t explain what was “unprecedented” about this protest, and I did not see anything unprecedented – prior university emails had warned of the potential for violence.

He concluded: “The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation. We are now, and will remain in the future, completely committed to Free Speech as essential to our educational mission and a vital component of our identity at UC Berkeley.”

There more hypocrisies and contradictions arise: his administration did not succeed in defending free speech; and the normative protests on campus are disruptive to learning: for instance, the “J20 Coalition” advertised on campus for a “UC Berkeley Walk-Out” on 18 January, and on the day of the Presidential inauguration two days later. What was the only printed justification? “an art-build, direct action skill share, and finalizing our campus’s plans” – in other words, a walk-out from academia in order to develop capacity for more protests with no stated purpose.

A coincidental flyer on campus advertised for “walkouts” to “shut down schools, universities, workplaces!” under the headline “Trump must go by any means necessary.” Really? By any means necessary? The same flyer ironically claims to be countering “a fascist movement in America.” Today, academia; tomorrow, democracy?

Some protests are always vicious and never virtuous, such as violent protests against subjects that have not shown any violence or incitement to violence, or protests against legitimate democratic outcomes - one might not like particular outcomes, but in any political system somebody must be disappointed, so to turn that disappointment into a campaign against a legitimate democratic outcome is anti-democratic.

In a free and fair democracy, the normative protests of our time are unnecessary, aimless, counter-productive diversions from more virtuous, old-fashioned forms of political engagement, such as researching the issues, deliberating, and developing an argument before writing to Congress. If that sounds burdensome, and protest sounds easier, you’ve realized one of the reasons for the decline in our political discourse.

Protesting is the least constructive form of engagement: it reduces discourse to what can fit on a placard or into a chant, encourages in-group/out-group separation, prevents discourse between groups, and encourages self-evaluations based on noise and burden, rather than the quality of evidence or argument.

The current normative protests encourage as many people as possible to show up, usually on flimsy justifications (as simple as to express outrage or to show solidarity), to become a big tent or grab-bag of grievances, erring to less and less coherence or focus, until they are aimless and inarticulate, and therefore easy to dismiss, and difficult to accommodate. I can’t imagine, and I have never observed, anybody passing a protest here feeling enlightened by the few words on offer, or the subjective mood of the crowd.

Most protests today seem to serve internal, egotistical, self-righteous needs, not external ends; some protests seem to be ends in themselves - mere excuses to perpetuate a cult or carnival of outrage, on flimsy pretexts, further separating the protesters from the opportunities to learn something true.

Such protests encourage both narcissism - the belief that protest makes one special - and prejudice - a prejudgment not justified by the evidence. Both are subjectively confirmed by being surrounded proximately by a like-minded in-group, but both are actually impossible to challenge objectively given the inherent remoteness from the out-group.

Protests against a person's views tend to be reductionist: what I saw on Wednesday night is exemplary: placards describing the visitor as a "fascist," or promising not to "tolerate" this speaker's views, or promising to “become ungovernable” and "this is war." These placards are prejudicial - oh the irony to claim to be anti-fascist while reducing other people to labels and to deny them free-speech: did he declare that he intended to speak in support of fascism? where is the evidence that he is a fascist? does he describe himself as a fascist? has he voted fascist? does he belong to a fascist party? did any protester define fascism?

The most virtuous way to show displeasure with a speaker would be to avoid his speech, and do something more engaging instead (some students organized a dance), but disrupters handed the ethos to the object of their ire by stopping his speech; they confirmed the speaker's prior view that "liberals" are ignorant because they don't listen, are intolerant, violent, and prejudicial towards their critics. While leaving campus, he posted on Facebook: "the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.” The President Tweeted on Thursday morning that “UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people.” They’re not wrong.