Guest opinion: A welcome dialogue on campus speech
It seems there’s no escape from a showdown between far-left and far-right activists.
They’ve made California, and UC Berkeley in particular, into a sort of ground zero for a battle of words — and sometimes more than just words.
While free speech and political correctness are the hot buttons, something even broader is at stake. Americans are anxious and uncertain about whether we still have what it takes to practice politics together in a face-to-face way, not just as members of contending teams or tribes, but as fellow citizens. But, in spite of the many grievances surrounding prior street clashes and the complicated cancellation of an address by Ann Coulter, the latest encounter between polar opposites at Berkeley has given Californians and Americans a good look at our better angels.
Several days of protests culminated not in hand-to-hand combat but in the sort of dialogue and conversation that national leaders have so often called for, but rarely been able to lead in an unscripted and spontaneous way. Such episodes can seem fleeting and marginal to hardened cultural warriors, and, indeed, often they are. Nevertheless, amid the current climate of mutual hostility — and confronted with the well-intentioned but reactive brittleness of Berkeley administrators ultimately unwilling to risk what activists on both sides were able to — last week’s peacefully interactive protests gently threw down an unexpected gauntlet to campuses across the country.
As campuses have become fraught, paralyzed places, the gatherings at Berkeley have raised the question of whether a better social education will have to be found elsewhere, or at least outside the auspices of our institutions of higher learning.
To be sure, while some agitators and provocateurs have a vested professional interest in seeing crowds pushed to the breaking point, if not beyond, too many colleges and universities have spent years tying themselves into the kind of emotional and political knots that beg for a cathartic moment, however angry, to cut people loose. A half-revolutionary, half-bureaucratic movement to sanitize and control all interaction has gone too far, and more in a social way than a political one.
“Correctness” today too often means far more than observing the right political pieties. It pushes deep into the intimate details of students’ and others’ lives, hearts and minds, taking on an authoritarian cast that isn’t diminished by administrators’ sense that justice or sensitivity might demand it.
Meanwhile, everyday Americans, often possessed of relatively extreme or unusual opinions, have found a way — absent organized violence from “antifa” anarchists — to sidestep the toxic cloud of campus anxiety and take one another as they find them: as human beings who share deep concerns that America has wound up at a crossroads where politics as usual can’t continue without breaking down. Theirs is a spirit and a practice that ought to be second nature to administrators and students on any campus — certainly at Berkeley, where the contemporary free speech movement began in earnest during wildly more troubled and dangerous times.
If colleges and universities can no longer provide students — and the rest of us — with a basic model of free citizenship, we’ve learned in the past week not to lose hope that we can still count on one another to deliver.
Orange County Register, May 2