Statement for the BBC on the Disruption of Berkeley Speaker Event on February 1, 2017
Last night, February 1, while I was teaching, a number of people came to the Berkeley campus to hear a speaker invited by the Berkeley College Republicans. A larger number came to peacefully demonstrate against the speaker--to express their belief that the speaker was not invited because people thought that he had great and important insights about politics and moral philosophy, but rather because he is a specialist in making Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Muslim, and other minorities feel small and unsafe.
About 20 "anarchists" used violence to upset this peaceful civil society gathering, and the police decided that the danger to life and limb was too great to allow the talk to proceed. This is a great loss: a university is, first, a safe space for ideas, and if members of the university to whom it has delegated the power to invite speakers do invite a speaker, that speaker should speak. This is part of a pattern of protests in Berkeley being disrupted by "anarchists" with goals unrelated to those of the university and its community. This is a shame. You cannot learn anything except by listening to the great insights of people who think differently from you: that is what a university is for. The "anarchists" do not understand what a university is.
A university is both a safe space in which ideas are to be expressed and a space in which those ideas are to be evaluated. When one sets forth ideas or causes ideas to be set forth in a university, one is doing so because one believes that these ideas are--potentially, at least--great ones. In so doing, members of the university are accountable only to, as Berkeley Professor Ernst Kantorowicz said in the 1940s, "their conscience and their God".
If the members of the Berkeley Republican Club believe that their invited speaker has ideas about politics and moral philosophy that are--even potentially--great, I really wish that they would explain why they think they are great. They have a duty to the university to do so. But perhaps they invited their speaker because they hoped he would make African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, and other minority members of the university feel small and unsafe. If so they need to examine their consciences and pray to their gods, and think hard about whether they understand the purpose of a university.
For a university is not just a safe space for ideas to be expressed, and a place where such ideas are then to be examined and assessed, but it is also a safe space for scholars. All members of the university have a duty to make all other members feel welcome, and feel that they belong. Violations of that basic courtesy also cast doubt on whether people understand the purpose of a university, and, indeed, whether their time ought to be spent outside one.
For the contrary position, Erik Loomis' advice to his undergrads and others who read his blog:
....And then of course, this brilliance.
[Video of neo-Nazi getting sucker-punched by masked person who immediately runs away.]
Now, you might say that you don’t want to see a Nazi get punched. Nonviolence and all. That’s an incorrect stand to take. You should always punch a Nazi. That said, I do have a criticism. Couldn’t they have stuck around for a second and kicked Spencer in the ribs a couple of times?
Your mileage may vary, but I've read about anti-Trump supporters going to his moronic campaign event today, and they'll need to decide which philosophy they follow. For what it's worth, I'll side with Erik Loomis - that is, Loomis from several years' back:
On Metaphors and Violence
The last couple of days have been a bit challenging for me. Being attacked by a David Horowitz wannabe for saying I wanted to see Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick has led to a world of fun, ranging from a meeting with the Rhode Island State Police last night to people inundating the University of Rhode Island community with warnings of their murderous colleague in their midst.
So to clarify, I want to make it blindingly clear that I did not call for the assassination of Wayne LaPierre.....
But let’s also be clear–these people KNOW I am not calling for LaPierre’s assassination....The fact that my intemperate language helped give them a lever to try and turn that narrative is unfortunate and I apologize for it....
And look, if I used violent metaphors, that’s a bad thing. I will admit that at certain moments such language might become part of my vocabulary....I probably shouldn’t use that language and certainly will be a lot more conscious going forward of not using it again, particularly since it doesn’t help in the battle against actual violence. Violence is a huge societal problem that influences all of us in various ways. Some may use violent metaphors to express their frustrations....
And to be clear, Loomis wasn't being metaphorical when he more recently suggested that people acquire criminal records and seriously endanger both other people and themselves. I just hope he reconsiders.