Current Events

The Berkeley Mess

UPDATE: In case you thought I was making this up, see what Berkeley students have to say here.




There are certain strands of critical theory and postmodernist thought which hold that all speech is an exercise of power. On this view, to talk is to coerce. On this view, too argue for or defend social injustice, or even to discuss such ideas in the classroom, is a form of violence.

If you have that view, then of course you’ll think it’s appropriate to use violence to shut down speech you dislike. Of course you’ll believe professors or campus authorities have a duty to silence “bad” speech.

After all, on this view, when you smash windows or call in the authorities, you are not initiating violence against peaceful speakers. Rather, on this view, the speakers are acting violently by speaking, and you are merely using violence in self-defense or in defense of others.

On this view, the liberal defense of free speech is a hegemonic conspiracy, an attempt by white men to rationalize and justify their power over others. Speech is violence. When others talk, they oppress you. When you shut them down, you stop them from oppressing you.

The speech-is-violence view–a view propounded by many hard left faculty in the humanities departments–makes civil discourse a form of war. Speech is a negative-sum game. When others arm themselves with arguments, you arm yourself with sticks and stones.


  • sandy

    I don’t often see myself defending the left, but I don’t think it’s the Berkeley academics and students (postmodernist or otherwise) who were wearing ski masks and doing all the rioting and brick-throwing and beating.

    I’m pretty sure it’s mostly Antifas who came in from all over the Bay area, to get their fill of mindless violence.

    • Jason Brennan

      I agree. But what do the Antifas think? Where did those ideas ultimately come from?

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        My knowledge of the Antifas is limited, but my understanding is that this tendency first emerged during the anti globalization demonstrations of the late 1990’s. The Antifas were supposedly very influenced by a school of thought known as “Green Anarchy” or “Anarcho-Primitivism”. The closest thing these black clad protesters had to a guru was John Zerzan, an anti-technology proponent of “Anarcho-Primitivism”. In addition, Zerzan was an admirer ,and occasional confidant, of the Unabomber.

        • Theresa Klein

          What the hell does that have to do with Milo Yiannopoulos though?

          Ironically, the anti-globalization protestors should be on Donald Trump’s side. So they seem to have come a long long way from their anarcho-primitivist roots.

          • Sergio Méndez

            “Ironically, the anti-globalization protestors should be on Donald Trump’s side. ”

            You realize that an idea can be opposed for two complete different set of reasons? That the anti globalization on the right seems to be obsessed with the free movement of people and multiculturalism, while the anti globalization on the left may be critical of unfair trade practices (sometimes confusing them with free markets, and sometimes not)?

          • Theresa Klein

            Many Donald Trump supporters I have spoken with are anti-free trade, claiming variously that it is crony capitalist, or that since it is not perfectly free on both sides that it is unfair, or just the pain old fashioned “Buy American” argument. You’re underestimating how much of Trump’s support is due to his anti-trade stance. He’s drawing a lot of support from midwest domestic labor, the backbone of the old labor movement. And of course, they were always behind a lot of the anti-globalization protests.

            Side note: It’s kind of interesting to observe the ways in which certain memes seep across the ideological divide, like the way “Buy American” on the right morphed into “Buy Local” on the left, and the rationale moved from strictly supporting domestic labor to climate change.

      • Hansjörg Walther

        They have been around in Europe (especially Germany) since the 1980s, cf.

        • Hansjörg Walther

          I don’t think there is a direct connection with the Communist organization founded in 1932, only a rather vague inspiration: fighting it out with the other side, arguments are dispensible because all that counts is that your tribe prevents the other tribe from organizing or reaching an audience, etc.

    • Lycos50

      Suppose you are right. Berkeley knew there is a risk of unrest — why hasn’t it prepared itself and why hasn’t it squelched the unrest as soon as it started?

      • John Dougan

        Maybe they will…next time. Now they have proof of ill intent by many demonstrators. If you squash them before they have actually done anything obvious you run the risk of looking like the aggressor to the public.

        I don’t actually believe the Cal administration is this forward thinking. There is still a lot of nostalgia for the ’69 protests and it is fairly clear from their open letter ( ) that the administration wouldn’t have minded if Yiannopoulos’ had just cancelled early.

      • Jeff R.

        They tacitly support it?

        • DBritt

          Being an East Bay resident, former researcher at Berkeley and present affiliate at the national lab there I can tell you that the vast majority of Berkeley and nearly all on staff despise this sort of thing. Most people at Berkeley are there for academics. They had to work hard to get there. Some may like that Berkeley has a controversial past. But basically no one has anything but disgust at this violence.

          Keep in mind the Berkeley administration was very much the enemy of the free speech movement. And the student body is a totally different demographic today than it was in the past.

  • Jeff R.

    Epistocracy sounds great until you remember that our institutions of higher learning routinely pump out weapons grade stupidity of this kind.

  • Theresa Klein

    I get the idea that many people at Berkeley are disgusted by the violence, but what about the concept of denying a venue to the speaker?
    Are the protests aimed at shutting down the event otherwise acceptable or laudable, as long as they remain peaceful?
    I am asking because I have been in discussions with facebook friends in which many people of the campus left have basically endorsed the legitimacy of attempting to cancel the talk as a political tactic, they only disagree with the violent tactics of the Black Bloc/Antifa activists.

    Personally I do not believe this is a good idea. As offensive as what Milo Yiannopoulos might have to say may be, it is impossible to communicate an effective response if your primary message is that you don’t want him to talk at all. People out here in the real world beyond campus are only seeing the attempt to silence the speaker, they have no idea what your objections to his speech are, they have no idea what your response to his speech is (other than that you’re offended and want it to stop). This is a very bad idea since it creates sympathy for him among neutral observers and attracts a larger audience to his message, and lacking any effective response, they are only going to hear his point of view. The opposing view is just lost in the noise.

    • Sergio Méndez

      May I ask you a question…do you think nazis, open about it should have the right to speak in campus? Members of the KKK? What about islamic supporters of ISIS (if it only is words, I guess it doesn’t matter)…Is there any limit for anybody to speak in an university? Does a University, an institution consecrated to producing knowledge, harbor hate speech -which helps to produce that knowledge in no way- just in the name of “free speech”?

      • Theresa Klein

        Does everything have to be conflated to Nazis? If I say that no, Nazi’s shouldn’t be allowed, what happens is that people immediately drum up the hysteria, Milo is just like a Nazi! Therefore he shouldn’t be allowed either! Because that becomes the easiest route to silencing him. It’s facile logic, but more importantly (which is the point of my comment) it’s terrible tactically.
        Presumably the school has the right to set policies under which student groups invite speakers. Someone invited him to speak, and the school approved it. Do all student groups have equal rights to invite speakers? If so, then if a Muslim group invited some ISIS sympathizer, yes, they should be allowed to speak. Those are the rules that the University established.

        Here’s a good article by someone who wrote the conservative playbook explaining just how badly the left is playing into the alt-right’s hands on this subject. He;s basically saying exactly what I pointed out – that trying to silence someone just generates sympathy for them and attracts a larger audience to their message.

        • Sergio Méndez

          Actually, the nazi question was just to see if you had any limits on what is and is not acceptable in an university. But I see you have no such limit (aside from the will of the students who invite people), which is an honest answer, but…lacking, extremely lacking. And no, having rules to decide what is acceptable in an university is not the same as “trying to silence them”. Is not that nazis and right wing extremists don´t have freedom of speech or media at their disposal to propagate their message.

          • Theresa Klein

            Again, a question you haven’t really addressed is whether “acceptability” is even the main issue. You’re attempting to condemn certain speech as “unacceptable” rather than address the content of the speech itself. That causes problems, regardless of what you think of the speech. It’s is simply a tactical error. You create sympathy for the speaker, which attracts a larger audience to his message, and you cause that audience to hear only his speech and not your response (because you aren’t making one).

            You cannot simply treat every speaker you disagree with as beyond the pale and beneath debating. Sooner or later people start getting curious about what those verboten speakers are saying.

          • TracyW

            The point of a university is that free enquiry and free debate. That’s what’s acceptable.

            Trying to run a university without free speech is like trying to run an engineering firm without calculators. You’re handicapping yourself.

      • Lacunaria

        A couple key problems with your proposal are that: (1) the University uses government funds (taken from people), and (2) it requires a central arbiter of acceptable speech, behooving hypersensitivity and crying wolf which we already see on campus.

      • TracyW

        Why do you claim that hate speech has no hand in producing knowledge? One can learn a lot by debunking a claim.

        A question for you. Would it be okay for a university to ban any speech that the university claims doesn’t help produce knowledge? Would you be okay with a university banning a speaker calling for the university cleaners to be paid a living wage? To ban indigenous people protesting about the university’s mascot?

        Bans on speech are always liable to be used against the politically powerless.

  • garegin

    The way they think is that since trump is evil and milo supports trump then milo is evil.
    The best antitode to bad ideas is their exposition, not censorship.