December 3, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Freedom From Speech At Berkeley

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A civil war is raging within liberal thought, and it’s playing out at the University of California, Berkeley.

On the one hand, many liberals believe in the preeminence of their own values. To cite a few examples, they believe that recognition of “reproductive rights” is better than placing restrictions on abortion and contraception access, that larger welfare states are better than smaller ones and that secular, democratic forms of government are better than theocratic or authoritarian ones. Most liberals believe that protecting these values is essential to ensuring a just society, and that criticizing other value systems that fall short of their standard is not just permissible, but essential.

On the other hand, however, a lot of liberals believe in a particularly strict,relativistic form of multiculturalism that is reluctant to declare some value systems better than others. This is not always the case: Liberals are happy to rail America’s gun culture or the supposedly patriarchal norms of western society. When it comes to groups they subjectively deem to be marginalized, however, they consider almost all criticism of those groups to be offensive — regardless of merit — and will lash out at those who do criticize. In these cases, it is sensitivity and tolerance, not truth and justice, that become the most important objectives.

The tension between the two liberal camps underlies a battle surrounding comedian Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at commencement this month on the 50th anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. In an exercise of blatant irony, thousands have signed an online petition demanding that he be disinvited. The justification? That Maher — like nearly every commencement speaker in history — has said things that are offensive to some.

Reading the petition’s text, one cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy for its creators, who seem so incapable of actually grasping the arguments that their ideological opponents are making. Since they are on the “tolerance first” side of the liberal civil war, they believe that calling an argument offensive is just as good as logically rebutting it. As you might expect, this leads them to claim offense at everything that makes them even slightly uncomfortable, without any genuine appreciation of the ideas that they eagerly dismiss as unworthy of public consideration.

Consider one quotation of Maher’s that the petition’s authors consider “hate speech” and proof of Maher’s bigotry: “Rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you comes at a terrible price.”

In what world is this “hate speech?” Maher is expressing his opinion that believing in a deity makes one an irrational person, and that the world would be better off without religion. Nowhere does he advocate mistreating or persecuting those who do believe in the divine. Maher’s anti-religious view is not one that I personally share, but it hardly warrants disinviting him from a commencement speech. If the above statement is hate speech, everything is.

Here’s more “proof” of Maher’s bigotry, from the petition: “You have to understand, you have to embrace the values of Western civilization. They’re not just different, they’re better.”

This can only be considered “hate speech” if you believe that all cultures and civilizations are of equal moral weight. Of course, nobody really believes this. We make judgments about which values we consider preferable on a daily basis when we choose where to live, what to buy, who to associate with and what God to pray to. In fact, over the past century, millions of immigrants have come to the West precisely because they believe that the values practiced here are more conducive to human happiness than the values practiced in their countries of origin. Are these immigrants racist because they acknowledge that western civilization offers benefits not available elsewhere? Since all of us place some values over others, the fact that Maher’s favored values happen to be western in origin and prevalence does not make his prioritization any more racist than someone else’s.

Unfortunately, more than a few students subscribe to the misguided worldview that undergirds this petition. A larger and larger share of the student bodies of universities across the country want their schools to be “safe spaces” where those who hold positions they disagree with are kept out. These students are far more interested in using political correctness to silence beliefs they disagree with then having an honest debate. In Maher’s case, they want to go even further than that: They do not want him to speak at commencing regardless of what he says in his speech. His prior statements make his very presence on campus objectionable to them.

It is far more important to figure out whether an idea is valid then it is to figure out if it is offensive to some. That is why we have free speech to begin with — to create a marketplace of ideas where today’s unpopular view can become tomorrow’s majority view if it can withstand logical scrutiny, enabling the best ideas to win out. If we had adopted these students’ worldview, society would have immediately denounced major intellectual developments like Darwin’s theory of evolution for being offensive to some people’s beliefs, without even considering the validity of the ideas. There’s nothing liberal or progressive about that.

UC Berkeley should teach its students a lesson about the necessity of learning how to interact with people with whom you disagree. It can only do that by refusing to rescind Maher’s invitation to speak at commencement. If it gives into the pressure, the campus that spawned the Free Speech Movement 50 years ago will prove once and for all that it values freedom from speech over freedom of speech. We must not become a country where, to quote Bill Maher, “sensitivity is more important than truth, feelings are more important than facts.”

Free speech is not free if it only protects those you agree with. If our universities wish to remain centers of intellectual life, it is about time they understood that.

Julius Kairey is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Always Right appears alternate Thursdays this semester.