The Great Wall of UC Berkeley vs. Baby Face Shapiro

Photo by Gage Skidmore | CC BY 2.0

The UC administration has gone AWOL, deserting their posts and responsibilities as leaders of one of the world’s finest public universities.  The  current threat is Baby Face Ben Shapiro, a smart aleck, wisecracking, racist, sexist, misogynist, Islamaphobic jerk to be sure. The little bully right wing prodigy argues that transgender people are delusional and suffering from mental illness — after all, so many commit suicide during their transitions —  and  that Israel is a victim state justifying its verging on its  genocidal human rights abuses against Palestinians, that Black people are poor, criminally inclined, drug addicted, homicidal losers because of their undeveloped culture, that abortion is evil and women who have an abortion should be criminalized, that the concept of white privilege is an  excuse for racism against white people, that ‘Black Bodies Matter’ is a stupid and violent mobilization of people who hate police, law and order.  He thinks it is a crime against American families  that schools educate young students to respect gays and transgender students in their classrooms. And these are just a few of his talks available on You Tube.  So he’s a jerk and the university is giving this schmuck all the publicity he wants, and he wants there to be riots – he tells the media that he expects riots,  and he says it with a smirk. Gotcha, Berkeley!

It is unbelievable that our university —  and can we still call it ‘our’ university when there is no shared governance in these decision — is  putting up  obstructions, temporary walls but walls all the same  to close down the very  center of the student free speech arena. Not only is this ridiculous, overkill, it is insulting to our student body and an unintentional dog whistle to our students to riot. The majority of our students have no idea who Shapiro is, but they know or will know as soon as the barricades go up, that he is a very dangerous, extremely controversial,  physical threat  them.  Meanwhile,  Baby Face is laughing, making fools of the free speech campus and basking in the narcissistic  personal drama.

If the clichéd but useful  answer to hate speech  is more speech, why is the university closing down buildings that include  the student centers including the   student learning center (for  students with disabilities)  and canceling  lectures, closing meeting rooms and classrooms, and in our department of anthropology canceling our 2017 Distinguished Lecturer, Prof. Anna Tsing (UCSC)  because her talk was to take place later this month during Milo Yiannopoulos herald return to the Berkeley campus.

Why aren’t department leaders, faculty, GSIs  and  Student Organizations  hosting counter events, teach- ins, timed and presented during  the controversial atl right line up of fall speakers:  Shapiro,  Milo,  and Coulter’s tirades?  Where are the  alternatives? Its not to late to hold conferences, debates, public events  and non-violent  demonstrations around  these talks.

Our university administrators’ fall back position is: ignore it, turn you backs, don’t go there.  Or, Feeling bad? feeling sad? We will provide free counseling and tissues. Your classes are interrupted, your student union is closed by the disruptions?  Why not go shopping?  See a shrink? We shrinking ourselves. We need to be as strong as we can be.  Its OK to cry, its appropriate to feel sick to your stomach, but  look for support from your friends and colleagues on campus.

The university simply cannot play possum any longer.  We have values, mores, rules of conduct, rules  of engagement, all of which are being overturned by fear: fear of law suits, fear of the ACLU, fear of wealthy donors, fear of being more than a passive instrument surrounded by lawyers in  closed door meetings.  We need transparency.

And, we absolutely do not have to accept every single ‘hate man’ or woman who wants to the right to demean, dehumanize , threaten,  provoke and upend our primary university mission as seekers of truth and guardians of intellectual freedom.  The first amendment is a work in progress. It evolves, there can be and have been amendments.  At present we are ’stuck’ with the Skokie affair that gave the right to the KKK to march through the village of Skokie (National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie432 U.S. 43 (1977).  That ruling needs to be corrected.  We need strong legal  scholars and thinkers and researchers  to push against it, to recognize when the rule of law is illegal (  as Laura Nader put it).  The current  law  fetishizes free speech to include  the rights of a neo-Nazi organization that is  to this day responsible for killing Black citizens in Alabama and disposing  their bodies in the Alabama River. (see Scheper-Hughes “No on Sessions” Berkeley blog). The KKK in Mississippi beat up Mario Savio in 1964. In 1967  I was in a truck with local civil rights leaders, Jesse  and Ethel Brooks of Wilcox County, Alabama when a car of  KKK guys shot a bullet that grazed Ethel Brooks’ forehead. The KKK are still killers today.

Beyond that, hate speech harms people;  there is no doubt about it.  “Words are deeds”, according to Wittgenstein.  J. L. Austin (1975) and John R. Searle (1970) wrote  books and essays on speech act theory.  They identified  “performative utterances “ and  “illocutionary acts” that only assert facts or values but that actually bring about some new state of affairs.

Hate speech can make people hate themselves, it can  make one want to crawl into a  corner and disappear.  It can makes one wish one was dead or worse had never been born, the  ultimate existential black hole.  Hate speech is a speech act  that can harm the central nervous system, it can result in PTSD, and  when used by police and jailers to humiliate prisoners   hate speech is  psychological torture, a civil rights and  human rights violation.  In short, Hate speech is an act of violence.  The First Amendment is ignorant of the vast research on these topics by medical anthropologists, clinical psychologists,  and neurological scientists.

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Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology, University of California Berkeley. Scheper-Hughes participated in a Vatican plenary on Human Trafficking in April 2015. She has published a series of articles on the “conversion” of Pope Francis, including, “Can God Forgive Jorge Bergoglio?” (2013, CounterPunch,;  “The Final Conversion of Pope Francis” (with Jennifer S. Hughes),  and “Face to Face with Pope Francis”  (2015), Huffington Post.  

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