When Free Speech and Polarization Collide

Photo by Miranda Wheeler

A little over a week ago, a protest turned into a riot at the University of California, Berkeley, causing the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled talk. As a student at Berkeley, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss the significance of this event.

Protests are not abnormal at UC Berkeley. Historically, the campus has been entangled in protests and is known as ground zero for the Free Speech Movement. I encountered a protest when I first visited the school, and I continue to encounter them every few weeks around campus. However, these protests were nothing like the riot surrounding Milo.

In the weeks preceding Milo’s talk, there was an unusual tension clouding the campus. Flyers and chalk art from organizations advocated extreme action to stop Milo from speaking. After all, he spouts inflammatory remarks and hate speech. His imminent arrival on a historically liberal and politically active campus was analogous to holding a lit match above a field of gasoline.

Sure enough, thousands of protestors gathered in front of the venue that night. What began as a peaceful gathering of people turned into a violent protest complete with fire, violence, and vandalism, ultimately forcing the cancellation of Milo’s talk.

This is problematic for several reasons.

Berkeley touts itself as the home of the Free Speech Movement. So how is rioting to shut down a talk from a guest speaker consistent with this status?

Photo by Miranda Wheeler

To be fair, Milo is extremely controversial, and I vehemently disagree with him and the initial decision to invite him in the first place. However, silencing a person’s free speech (a constitutional right) crosses the line. This is not an argument against protesting—in fact, I was glad so many were compelled to assemble to show their disapproval—but rather against riots. We cannot silence those with whom we disagree.

Likewise, I must also speak out against the opposing bias. Some media outlets painted the university as a sort of dangerous dystopia, where dissenting opinions are discouraged and students are pressured to join liberal movements or face alienation.

While I do sometimes feel alienated for my beliefs, this is no fault of the university. Instead, this is reflective of a larger shift in our political culture toward increasing polarization.

We are constantly faced with an “in-group/out-group” mentality, where if you aren’t with someone, you’re actively against them. This mentality permeates all aspects of life—politically charged debates on campus, analyzing the different biases present in media, and even those all-too-familiar and uncomfortable political discussions with your family. While it might be more apparent in universities, it is not less present in other parts of life.

On the night of the riot, I was in class several hundred feet away. The windows shook and I was unaware of exactly what was going on outside. With steely determination, I had to brave my way through the crowd to get back to my apartment.

Photo by Miranda Wheeler

Walking through the crowd was terrifying. A tree was engulfed in fire, students had large makeshift shields, and many wore masks. I simultaneously worried about being identified as a violent student protestor by the media or as a dissenting non-participant by my peers.

Thankfully, I made it back home safely. However, this riot caused me to reflect on a deeper issue: How can we, as a country, move forward when we view non-support as opposition?

When we view our own opinions as absolute truth, we lose the ability to learn from other perspectives. Without this valuable insight, progress is inhibited.

This is not to defend hate speech or criticize civil disobedience, but is rather a deeper criticism of the current political climate in America.

When we have the courage to recognize others not as sources of conflict but instead as integral parts of a solution, then we will be able to more successfully affect change for the better.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Enough to Go Around – Federalist 10

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *