UC Berkeley’s Dirks And The Bell Unrung

When UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, sent out his first email proclaiming the glory of the school’s free speech tradition, it was roundly criticized, from the blawgosphere to his hometown paper.  So in the best academic tradition, he backtracked and rationalized why his email didn’t mean what he wrote:

In this year’s email, I extended this notion of civility to another crucial element of Berkeley’s identity, namely our unflinching commitment to free speech — a principle this campus will spend much of this fall celebrating in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

My message was intended to re-affirm values that have for years been understood as foundational to this campus community. As I also noted in my message, these values can exist in tension with each other, and there are continuing and serious debates about fundamental issues related to them. In invoking my hope that commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other, I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom, as defined both by this campus and the American Association of University Professors.

I did, however, express my conviction that in the ongoing debates on campus about these and other issues we might collectively see the value of real engagement on divisive issues across different perspectives and opinions. By “real engagement” I mean openness to, and respect for, the different viewpoints that make up our campus community. I remain hopeful that our debates will be both productive and robust not only to further mutual understanding but also for the sake of our overriding intellectual mission.

The reaction to this follow-up was curious. Ken at Popehat forgave and forgot.

That’s quite good. It clarifies that civility is a value and sometimes in tension with free speech, but not a limit on free speech. It also shows how educators can urge the benefits of civility to productive discussion without making civility sound like a vague and arbitrary speech code. Civility is not a prerequisite to free speech, and it is not always sufficient to achieve the purposes of free speech, but it is often an admirable and worthy goal.

My thanks and respect to Chancellor Dirks both for the clarity of this message and for being willing to correct a prior statement, which is often against our instincts to do.

Perhaps he was attempting to reward Dirks for backing down, though that’s not quite what the second email does. He admits no fault, but rather explains his purpose in contrast to his words.  What he did not do is correct his prior statement.

Eugene Volokh similarly throws kisses at Dirks for his second email.

Much better than the original, and I say that as someone who thinks both free speech and civility are important to universities (and other places).

At least Eugene admits his academic’s bias toward civility, a sensibility with which non-academics occasionally take issue.  But as much as Eugene may be willing to overlook the substance of Dirks’ first email in order to smooth over the problems in the interest of softening the “sharp criticism,” why did Ken collapse like a cheap suit?

The second email is certainly better, though it straddles some of the problems created by his first.  Yet, it similarly ignores some very powerful rhetoric that was very wrong.

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.

The first sentence of his paragraph from Dirks’ first email is one of the most dangerously wrong assertions that free speech faces today.  This is the code of the CCR Initiative, that the speakers feel safe, meaning that they won’t be subject to the backlash of criticism that will hurt their feelings by calling them stupid, foolish, idiotic, dangerous. Is Ken good with this?

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.

Rarely has anyone with a modicum of intelligence accidentally presented such horrifically false dichotomies.  Every one of those dichotomies is not only completely wrong (to the extent it makes any sense at all), but feeds into the phony Orwellian narrative that obfuscates its common language.

This isn’t a matter of over-lawyerly parsing of words, but the mundane notion that political advocacy is core free speech.  And then, there’s the lie, the flagrant lie, that the boundaries “have never been fully settled,” feeding into the arguments conveniently proffered of late that every identitatarian group gets to make up its own flavor of where protected speech ends, and then act upon it, perhaps even violently.

Dirks’ second email may have sought to blunt the criticism, but it by no means admitted that it promoted a point of view that was substantively wrong, infected its readers with deceptive comparison and promoted a lie.   Dirks wrote these things in his first email. He can try to wiggle out of it by denying that’s what he meant, but there is no wiggling out of that’s what he said, in extremely clear and unmistakable language.

He softened his stance, but admitted no wrong.  He “clarified,” if you consider the second email clear, that he didn’t mean to suggest things he expressly stated in order to deflect criticism, but he did not address the problem.

He rang the civility bell, and explained his doing so with the code words and fuzzy rationales that everyone seeking to muzzle unpleasant speech is using.  His mea culpa is nothing more than obfuscating his words by empty rhetoric of his purpose.  He didn’t ever bother trying to unring the bell of ignorance manifested in his first email.  And yet he not only gets a pass, but a tummy rub for it for being such a good guy as to admit his mistake?

Sorry. Not here.  He admitted nothing, and his email praising the silencing of speech that fails to meet his sensibilities stands unmolested.  Civility is a fine virtue, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the parameters of free speech, and it is never, never, limited by anyone’s entitlement to feel “safe” and protected from criticism.

Every student at UC Berkeley who heeds their Chancellor’s words is stupider for having done so.  The harm has been done. It has not been undone.

3 thoughts on “UC Berkeley’s Dirks And The Bell Unrung

  1. Wheeze the People™

    Somehow, this story led me, for the first time, to the Chronicle of Higher Education website. And I have to say, while reading the comments there, I threw up a little in my mouth, whilst lamenting my children’s future. If academia is representative of our best and our brightest, be afraid, be very afraid . . .

    Really, after perusing that nonsense, you’d think that an ad hominem attack is pure kryptonite to an academic. They need to lighten up, lest someone call them an unflattering name like shit-eyes or shit-for-brains. Chancellor Dirks Diggler, I’m winking at you . . .

  2. John Barleycorn

    I am starting to think Dirks has never even had a single beer in Oakland. It’s possible he has never even been inside the city limits.

    Cheese and crackers are good and all but no meat on a clarification platter? No way you can get away with that shit in Oakland. Napa or San Francisco maybe, but not in Oakland.

    I am starting to think that not only does Dirks not drink enough beer on Oakland he just might be one of those guys that doesn’t care abo

  3. Pingback: Greg Lukianoff: Freedom From Speech | Simple Justice

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