Saturday, September 6, 2014

Policing Civility

This guest post is an uncivil retort which demeans a viewpoint, written by an academic whose desire to remain anonymous is a function of the free speech climate that people like Nicholas Dirks and Phyllis Wise have created.

“Until 1959 Telegraph Avenue extended through the campus up to Sather Gate. Tables were stationed there, rallies assembled, and all types of literature sold and distributed. With the construction of the Student Union building, however, Telegraph Avenue ended at Bancroft Way. At this new gate to the campus, the traditional activities continued. The Bancroft and Telegraph sidewalk was generally regarded as being city property. Groups received table permits from the city of Berkeley authorities. In fact, the Dean's Office referred questions on the use of the area to the city police department. On September 14, Dean Towle informed the heads of all student organizations that the Bancroft and Telegraph sidewalk was in fact University property and that all University rules would henceforth be applied. No tables or speeches would be allowed. Only informational literature could be distributed; no advocacy was allowed”

From the beginning, an interpellation, a hail:

Dear Campus Community,

Of course, addressing the “campus community” is simply what he is doing, just a very formulaic opening, but that formula reflects the framework through which everything that comes after it is implied. For there to be a “campus community,” there also has to be a not-campus community, people who are outside the campus. But how a public university comes to have an outside to itself is an interesting question; how does a Californian become a outsider to a public Californian university? As the university becomes less and less “Californian,” in fact—turning to out-of-state students as cash cows—the terms on which the university is construed a community also changes: you have to buy your way in. Instead of getting a free education as a function of being a Californian (as it was, in the 1960s), you become a member of the community by purchasing your place. And one can be expelled from a community; if it’s a body of people, it’s also a place.

This Fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world. Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation and society – which is precisely why the founders of the country made it the First Amendment to the Constitution. For a half century now, our University has been a symbol and embodiment of that ideal.

Between the beginning and end of this paragraph, Dirks transforms a bitter, festering sore of an unresolved conflict into a unifying principle, using the power of intellectual dishonesty and bad faith. To be blunt: fifty years ago, the university administration censored its students, unreservedly and without hesitation. Student groups had begun to take part in civil rights agitation, and when the campus threatened to become a site where students and the community at large would do politics together—and when segregated businesses told the university to keep its students in line—the university told its students to sit down and shut up. Students who disobeyed were “suspended indefinitely”—a punishment which the university had to invent on the spot—and people like Jack Weinberg, who had recently graduated, were turned over to the police.

“At about 11:45 a.m., Dean Van Houten and a campus policeman approach one of the tables (CORE) at which about a dozen persons are sitting. Jack Weinberg, a recent Cal graduate, is told he is violating University rules and is placed under arrest when he refuses to leave the table. Students spontaneously sit down around the police car which has arrived on the plaza and block the car from removing Mr. Weinberg. Mario Savio, head of Friends of SNCC, removes his shoes and begins to address a crowd of over a thousand, from atop the police car. He discusses the position of the united front and the injustice of the Administration's response to their free speech demands. Many others also make speeches. The protest is extended by sitting-in in Sproul Hall.”

The founding event of the Free Speech Movement, the reason we remember it, and the reason Nicholas Dirks’ predecessors were prevented from censoring their students—as they had wanted to—is that students said no. They prevented the cops from expelling the “outside agitators” by putting their bodies on the machine, etc. They refused to allow the police to patrol the borders of their “campus community”; they made clear that the cops were the outsiders, and that Jack Weinberg—and other civil rights organizers—were part of the campus community. They won. Their disobedience prevented Nicholas Dirks’ predecessors from stifling the kinds of political activism that the local business community objected to: anti-segregation activism.

Let me underscore this with bulletpoints:
  • The Free Speech Movement began with students organizing to oppose segregation, being aggressively blocked by the administration, rejecting its authority to censor them, and winning.
  • The university administration was on the wrong side of history, and got taught a lesson by its students.
  • That lesson is this: when power tells you to sit down and shut up, the best answer is to tell power to go fuck itself.

The problem with Dirks’ letter, up to this point, is that the university has been a consistent site of politicized repression. To the extent that the victories of the Free Speech Movement have been maintained, it has always been by students pushing back against administration efforts to police and control.

This letter is also an effort to police and control.

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.

“Free Speech” is not a delicate flower that needs compost and sunlight and watering; “free speech” needs the absence of repression. That’s it. For “free speech to thrive,” you need the administrators not to call the police on its students. You need people to know that having an opinion about an unpopular social issue—say, opposing the Israeli occupation, or opposing racial segregation in Mississippi, or for that matter the privatization of public universities—will not result in their being punished for their wrong-think. And if “free speech” can only thrive when it is “heard, listened to, engaged and debated,” Dirks and his administration have some soul-searching to do about how they will hear, listen, engage, and debate their students.

“Representatives of the Free Speech Movement have requested time to speak before the Regents Friday to present their side of the controversy. The Regents will decide today whether the "quite crowded" agenda will permit time for such a presentation, according to a University spokesman. The Free Speech Movement announced yesterday it has sent a telegram to Governor Edmund Brown requesting an appointment with the Board of Regents at their meeting tomorrow. "If this request is denied we must consider alternate action," the telegram states.”

The next passage is where Dirks transitions from bad-faith concern trolling towards his ultimate destination, incoherence masking a threat:

Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled. As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.

In this passage, Dirks asserts that “division and divisiveness” are threats to “a community’s foundation,” a rhetorical snake-pit that we will need to backtrack to understand. In the first paragraph he described how

“Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation and society – which is precisely why the founders of the country made it the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

At best, he’s constructed a tautology: free speech can lead to divisiveness which can undermine the cornerstone of our society, a society whose founders founded on free speech. Which, er, so wait: free speech is the foundation but free speech can put free speech in peril, so that’s why free speech can’t be free. Some kinds of free speech are more free than others and freedom isn’t free, I guess.

At best, then, this is just tautological nonsense. At worst, it’s an effort to define what kinds of speech are allowed to be free, and which kinds of speech have to be suppressed, in the name of free speech. Which one it is depends on how stupid you think Nicholas Dirks is.

I don’t think he’s stupid. I think he wants to create a campus climate where we accept that “free speech and political advocacy” are two different things, and where we fight over the difference. I think he’s smart enough to understand that political advocacy is explicitly protected speech—that it’s very specifically the form of protected speech which both the Free Speech Movement and the First Amendment specifically defend—and that this rhetorical gesture nudges his audience towards accepting indefensible trade-offs, to make it seem natural that you free speech means the freedom to say things that are not prohibited (because they’re political advocacy, demagoguery, irresponsible, or something else). It’s the same slight of hand as when National Security hawks tell us that there is a trade-off between freedom and security: what they mean is that we have to have less freedom, because security. Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Dirks seems to think there is a war on:

This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.

The community needs you to express yourself less freely. The disciplines of academic knowledge require you to be less open in your thought.

Issues will arise to engage and animate you; remember, your ability to dis-engage and dis-animate will be on the test, so study hard.

Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.

Is there anything more disrespectful than a letter from the chancellor expressing such a raft of poorly thought-through, nakedly dishonest, and intellectually bankrupt ideas? Does this make you feel respected?

A few years ago, students gathered on the Mario Savio Steps of Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, and were told to disperse, and then beaten by police when they did not. At UC Davis, of course, they were pepper sprayed. At UC Riverside, they were shot with rubber bullets. Does this make you feel safe?

Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously. This is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other – in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.

On its own, this letter is just an obnoxiously whiggish mis-telling of campus history. One would have expected that a historian would be reluctant to put his name on this garbage, but of course he’s not really a historian anymore—he’s a university chancellor. His job is not to say things that make a damned bit of sense; his job is to keep the people who matter happy.

This letter also does not happen in a vacuum. When he talks about the importance of civility, we recall that Steven Salaita has been fired for failing to be civil, gracious, and respectful. Nicholas Dirks’ predecessor defended police violence against student protesters by saying they were “not non-violent” and Dirks still hasn’t quite reached that level of dishonest ingenuity. But this letter demonstrates that he’s working on it.

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