On Saturday, organizers of UC-Berkeley’s Free Speech Week announced that the event had been called off. Aw.
The cancellation of UC-Berkeley’s Free Speech Week serves as something of an ideological Rorschach test. For people concerned about free speech on campus, it’s a distressing sign of the state of college. For those who find the ideas that would have been expressed dangerous, it’s a relief.
It’s neither of those things. It’s a stupid, cynical and self-perpetuating ouroboros of pearl-clutching self-righteousness.
From a distance, the attack on free speech on college campuses is distressing indeed. Headlines paint a picture of a postsecondary educational landscape driven by radical professors and their malleable barely-legal sycophants, young, dumb, and full of ummm, willing to resort to violence in the name of keeping their liberal snow globe free of new ideas. It’d be unfair to say there isn’t snowflakery on the left.
In Berkeley, site of the ill-fated right-wing bonanza, students had planned a protest march. On other campuses, students formed human chains, equated speech with violence, shouted down conservative speakers. Hell, college kids have shouted down allegedly liberal speakers who are liberal in the wrong ways. All of those expression of dissent are within the rights of a student body. Free speech goes both ways, from podium to protest.
But to say Berkeley Free Speech Week-style events are held for entirely non-cynical reasons is also a misrepresentation. Part of the push in favor of these events on the right is a publicity grab.
On a recent episode of On The Media—one that has turned out to be even more prescient given Saturday’s announced cancellation—historian Angus Johnson points out that these events serve as little more than free PR for the self-anointed provocateurs that make up its slate of speakers.
Among the slated speakers for the provocateurstravaganza were chunky-highlight enthusiast Milo Yiannopoulos, hug opposer Ann Coulter, and deodorant agnostic Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon was scheduled to be in a different city on the day he was scheduled to speak in Berkeley. Ann Coulter wasn’t even trying to pretend that the event was legit in the days leading up to its kickoff, telling right-wing radio hosts that she wasn’t sure the event would even happen. Milo tried to pretend the show would go on, but he’s almost as bad an actor as he is a writer, and thus did so unconvincingly. Other speakers scheduled to speak told the Los Angeles Times they were surprised by their inclusion on the schedule, as they were unaware that they’d agreed to speak. Still, Milo claims something something sabotage, because something something liberals.
The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets, noted this week that the event seemed more like a shiny piece of bait for left-leaning campus activists. The upside for promised right-wing speakers was more notoriety among a crowd that, despite its disdain for perceived liberal weakness, loves nothing more than a martyr for the cause. Even if the cause was never actually going to occur.
One organizer of the “event” told the LA Times, “It is extremely unfortunate that this announcement was made at the last minute, even as the university was in the process of spending significant sums of money and preparing for substantial disruption of campus life in order to provide the needed security for these events.”
Is there a German word for feeling simultaneously suspicious and bored?
On OTM, Angus Johnson implied that the failure of Free Speech Week will allow its “victims”—the Milos and Coulters of the world—to pretend that Berkeley always wanted to cancel the event, thus granting them unearned status as free-speech activists when really they’re only out for themselves. It also is a disservice to the actual thoughtful—albeit, perhaps, wrong—people who were scheduled to speak.
And that’s how things are playing out. Milo is already whining about how censored he is, despite the fact that he’s got a bigger audience than most other human beings. Ann Coulter’s always going to whine about liberals, so is Bannon. It’s sort of their thing.
And in the meantime, the protesters, who perhaps thought they were doing a good thing by standing against something they found repugnant, became unwitting cogs in the fringe rage media machine.
It’s easier said than done, but from where I’m sitting, it seems the best way for dissidents of fringe speech to register their displeasure is to either engage with it in a way that’s honest or ignore it like that Subway ad with the five dollar foot long jingle. You know the one. Just look the other way. See a movie. Call your mother. Read a smarter person’s book.