by Zabdi Salazar
The recent protests involving UC Berkeley students against the upcoming speech of Milo Yiannopoulos has sparked a deeper debate on first amendment rights. The ramifications of these developments are especially interesting in the context of the ongoing debate over political correctness. The left and right blame each other for ideological echo chambers and disregarding the truth. This is especially evident in Yiannopoulos’ tweet after the event: “the left is truly terrified of free speech and will do anything to literally shut it down”. Even more concerning is Trump’s tweet on cutting Federal Funds to UC Berkeley because of a violation of free speech. Yet, both comments are greatly misleading.
Yiannopoulos is obviously missing the point of view of students on campus. According to Brian Burks, a sophomore with knowledge of the protests, the violence was instigated by “Outside groups, e.g. anarchists and ANTIFA.” Further, Trump’s accusation that the university is against free speech is just not true.
José Zamora Zeledon, a sophomore student at UC Berkeley who watched the protests via Facebook live, described the contrast between the media’s portrayal of the protests and the reality. “It was somewhat inaccurate because they made it look like UC Berkeley was against free speech (especially Fox news). In fact, the University actually did everything possible to allow the event to occur, we even got several lengthy emails from the chancellor about listening to opposite views and respecting freedom of speech,” he said. Zeledon asserted that the university promoted and protected free speech and that most of the student body did not condone the violence that had occurred, contrary to Trump’s assertion.
However, left-leaning media may also be to blame based upon their possible contempt of Yiannopoulos. A Breitbart article quickly condemned a Bloomberg’s twitter post stating that “Milo Yiannopoulos sparks violent protests at Berkeley.” Bloomberg’s twitter post seems to imply that Milo directly instigated the violent protests. Whether such phrase was somewhat careless or intentional is in dispute. Regardless, the word choices are clearly not well thought out since Milo never even addressed the students. At the same time, one should note that Milo is a Breitbart news editor. The publication has also received much criticism over its provocative content.
Students participated in the protests for a diverse array of reasons.
Anthony White, a conservative student at UC Berkeley who saw the protest, described how even before the event, students were frustrated and that violence might become a consequence. He had watched students earlier during the day dressed similarly to the ANTIFA group. Further, he asserts that many protesters already knew that anarchists would be at the event, and that many turned a blind eye. White stated that the “Protesters cared so much about shutting down the event, that they would rather let agitators help uninhibited and then claim that is was just the small minority, instead of preventing them and carrying out peaceful protest.” Thus, students said the goal of the protesters was to end the event, and some even justified violence in order to achieve this goal. But violence has only added fuel to a “blame game” among the right and the left, rather than resolving the issue.
Despite the different perspectives of UC Berkeley students, everyone was affected by the events. As a student protester wrote in the New York Times, “A Trump supporter was hurt. A Syrian Muslim student was hurt. Does either of those statements seem more outrageous than the other?” This statement highlights a key point on how it is not just a single group who is victimized or oppressed, but rather that anyone could be a casualty in this ongoing debate over what is free speech. This is important to note in order to recognize that such a discussion is of great need on college campuses, and society in general.
Free Speech and Offensive Speech
Universities have taken precautionary approaches to Yiannopoulos due to security concerns and possibly their liberal tilt. NYU decided in October 2016 to cancel Yiannopoulos’ visit based upon security concerns. But many students condemned the decision on free speech grounds. Right-leaning voices argued that the left sought to hinder free speech and to stem the flow of different ideologies.
Does Yiannopoulos present an ideology conducive to a free marketplace of ideas?
The manner in which Milo Yiannopoulos addresses topics such as microaggressions, feminism, and cultural appropriation is disrespectful and dangerous to society. Further, he doesn’t represent differing views in a truly respectful manner, and much of his speech is based on building his own brand and publicity. While he has a right to free speech, Yiannopoulos condones offensive speech. I believe that this is at the core of the issue and the problem with many left leaning students. Enrique Lopez, a sophomore at UC Berkeley who participated in the protest movement stated that his motivations stemmed from sending Yiannopoulos a clear message: “Standing with every community he has attacked and letting them know that they have a right to feel comfortable at OUR school, our home.”
In the perspective of Lopez, Yiannopoulos has “attacked” certain communities, and his involvement in the protest movement was a demonstration of solidarity. Although Yiannopoulos may seek to “mainstream bigotry” or “offensive speech” in order to confront the politically correct culture of the left, he effectively alienates his audience to the point that they would no longer even want to initiate a peaceful debate over certain topics. Although Yiannopoulos may not care about debating issues, and would rather provoke, this is a terrible goal as nothing valuable is achieved. On the contrary, communities feel ostracized, and associate conservative ideas with a negative stigma. This is a grave consequence from condoning offensive speech. Universities take pride in the intellectual value of discussions and debates, but if students feel attacked during the process, those discussions may not expose them to an alternative view. At the same time, unlike conservatives, liberal students rarely confront opposing views of their beliefs, and they may not know how to handle such situations and criticisms.
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White, a conservative student, also said that the protest was “the fault of a large crowd with a blinded sense of justice from some sick elitist moral high ground…If liberals really wanted to ‘win’ they should have welcomed Milo and debated with him personally. That’s what the Free Speech Movement is all about, not determining what is and isn’t protected, but being open to converse and disagree peacefully.”
This perspective is similar to how Yiannopoulos views the left, believing that the minority groups and communities are now becoming the “oppressors.” In the case of instigating violence and preventing Yiannopoulos from lecturing on campus, this is also a problem of a social justice issue gone awry. The conservative student also brings up a good point in how the debate should focus on the topics at hand instead of what speech “is and isn’t protected.” Yet, if some students believe that their communities have been attacked because of Yiannopoulos’ views on what should be acceptable speech – such as offensive speech – then it’s difficult to have an intellectual debate as they’re unwilling to listen to his point of view.
Some argue that students should be exposed to the strong language and style of Yiannopoulos to reflect upon their own beliefs on free speech and what they think are the limits to their style of communication. Yet, I still think that respect and peace — from both conservatives and liberals — when debating is unquestionable and already a given value. Yiannopoulos is distracting everyone from debating and learning about real issues. At worst, tearing apart communities and widening the liberal and conservative divide. There may also be the problem of students even adopting and condoning hate speech, especially if Yiannopoulos is serious about proliferating and normalizing his brand of free speech. This is a legitimate concern since such speech has the potential to divide our nation.
Milo Yiannopoulos at Trinity University
Protest movements on other college campuses have been frequent, as Yiannopoulos continues with his college tour. A few months before the ordeal with NYU, a conservative group at Trinity University invited Milo Yiannopoulos to campus on April 2016. This event was definitely controversial, but students did not protest actively yet post panel dialogues were held. The reason his lecture on our campus didn’t erupt into major protests is probably because our university is much smaller than UC Berkeley, and more conservative to some extent. At Trinity, we have a sizable conservative group with a prominent voice. However, the same rhetoric ensued of how the liberal institution sought to censor the event, and thereby free speech. Similarly, the facts were misconstrued. The Trinitonian reported objectively about the series of online misinformed articles, the miscommunication and controversy over resorting to crowdfunding, and the alleged censorship of the university.
At Trinity, a student who identified as a libertarian was excited about hearing Yiannopoulos speak, but he was disappointed. “It will be that much harder to convince the left-leaning college population to give those ideas a chance when they were confronted with the vulgar display that was Milo’s lecture,” he said.
Although, this is clearly just one opinion out of the many who attended, it demonstrates that some students are not fond of his methods of generating public dialogue. Similarly to the sentiments of UC Berkeley student protesters, the key problem with Yiannopoulos is his own form of speech – the use of strong and hateful language. In light of the events at UC Berkeley, it is understandable why some students have felt compelled to protest because of a perceived threat against them, not strictly because he has an opposing view.
The issue may not be as simple as the violation of free speech or the integrity of intellectual diversity.
Rather, the problem may be society’s lack of unifying values and morals that should be at the core of both conservative and liberal students. No one should feel threatened or ostracized in our diverse university communities. Thus, a uniform and widely acceptable foundation on what is free speech, is critical to foster productive public dialogue that primarily focuses on issues in their complex and multifaceted manner. Fortunately, after Yiannopoulos’ lecture at UC Berkeley, many students came together early in the morning to clean up the school and the streets. Hopefully, we can also come together as a nation and repair our broken pieces.
Zabdi Salazar is a sophomore Political Science and Business Administration major, as well as the Director of Business operations for The Contemporary. Email Zabdi: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The cover photo above was taken by Joe Parks, can be found here, and is under a CC BY-NC 2.o license. The graphic in the body of the article was created by Andrea Acevedo, Art Director of The Contemporary.