Saturday, February 04, 2017

Basic Values

Here is the core problem with Chancellor Dirks' position on Milo Yiannopoulos's free speech rights:

While we have made clear our belief that the inflaming rhetoric and provocations of Mr. Yiannopoulos were in marked opposition to the basic values of the university, we respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group. The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation.

At the very moment that he is supposed to condemn the violence that suppressed Yiannopoulos's right to speak (and his audience to hear), he denounces Yiannopolous's speech. At first pass, this might look like a version of "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But it is undermined by its own verbiage. Dirks does not just "disapprove" of Yiannopolous's rhetoric; he describes it as "opposed to the basic values of the university". And he does not go so far as to offer to defend Yiannopolous's rights to the death; he says merely that the riots, too, were "an attack on the fundamental values of the university".

Notice that this casts Yiannopoulos's "rhetoric and provocations" in the very same role as the protesters' violence. It suggests that speech can be as much in opposition to the "fundamental values" of the UC Berkeley community as the violence intended to suppresses speech. What Dirks' has forgotten is that (with a few famously debated exceptions) no speech is against the basic values of a community whose fundamental value is free speech.

3 comments: said...

I am intrigued by the possibility that the Chancellor purposefully separated basic from fundamental values so that he did not explicitly equate the actions of the protestors to the rhetoric of the invited speaker. This allows him, as you note, to excoriate the words (that were never spoken) by the invited speaker at the same time he denounces violent action (which did occur). But he avoided noting whether he really thought the violation of basic values was more heinous than the violation of fundamental values. What is your guess about which attack was a bigger violation of the Chancellor's values?

Thomas said...

The thought did occur to me. It is possible that Dirks was making some intentional distinction. If so, he was being careless, in my opinion, in his public pronouncements. His readers could not be expected to make any distinction, nor to easily decide whether basic is more fundamental than merely fundamental or fundamental more basic than merely basic. Both expressions indicate an "existential" threat, i.e., a threat to the foundations of the community. It sets up a Catch 22.

Thomas said...

PS. I think the Chancellor was excoriating words that had been previously spoken by Yiannopoulos. But you raise a good point about free speech. If you shut someone down before they've even spoken, you can't do it on the basis of what they've said. You have to take away their right to speak as such.