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Not on the same page

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2014

“On the same page, or deja vu all over again?”

Those were my thoughts upon reading Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ message of Sept. 5.  It came late on a Friday afternoon — one of those irritating, one-way messages that signs off in bold, “Please do not reply to this message,” thus clothing an imperative — “do not reply” — in the language of civility: “please.”  This valediction is an instance of administered speech — no wonder some readers worried that Dirks’ message might be a statement of policy. Dirks now assures us that his remarks about the need to balance “civility,” “courteousness” and feelings of safety against the “right to free speech” did not signal a policy change. But those remarks must still seem less a celebration than a repudiation of the Free Speech Movement he claims to commemorate — especially to those who have read this year’s selection for the campus On the Same Page program: “Freedom’s Orator.”

In marking the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Dirks ignores certain relevant facts about the movement: facts easily gathered from reading “Freedom’s Orator.” It was, after all, through “uncivil” acts of disobedience that the movement succeeded in extending free speech protections to students on campus. And to read Mario Savio’s most famous “Bodies on the Gears” speech is to find him calling a previous speaker “a strikebreaker and a fink” and referring to “the bigots who run the San Francisco Examiner.” Despite his undisputed eloquence, Savio was not always “courteous.” One time, Savio, frustrated by the inaccessibility of the dean of students, challenged the secretary’s claim that she lacked authority to interrupt a meeting. Insisting that she would interrupt it if the building were on fire, Savio yelled, “I’m on fire!” as if to challenge the very term — “incendiary” — that courts had used to distinguish between protected and unprotected speech.

There’s a reason we describe protests against perceived injustice and the defense of ideas as “raising one’s voice”: intensity of expression is often the best or only way to call to the attention of the public issues that have been excluded, willfully or unwittingly, from civil discussion. I think the freedom of speech defended by the movement must be understood precisely as including the freedom to say what prevailing conventions of civility have made “unspeakable.”

“Every idea is an incitement,” admits Oliver Wendell Holmes in Gitlow v. New York. Ideas are “on fire.” That’s why both the exercise and the protection of free speech require a kind of fearlessness quite different from the condition of safety that Dirks wishes to establish via the invocation of civility.

“Civility,” we know, is not a recognized limit on political speech. The Supreme Court upheld in Cohen v. California the right to wear clothing with the impolite slogan “Fuck the Draft” — a decision relevant again today, when “fuck the police” has become a rallying cry that calls attention to the increasingly uncivil — that is to say militarized — response of police to civil disobedience and other perceived threats. It was a cry heard on this campus in the aftermath of the events of Nov. 9, 2011, when students who had felt or witnessed the force of police batons were denied an opportunity, at the December meeting of the Police Review Board, to challenge former chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s own message to the campus describing them as “not non-violent.”

Our current chancellor invokes “courteousness” as a value. Courtesy — from which the word “curtsy” derives — initially described the condescension of superiors toward inferiors and the deference of inferiors to superiors. Set against it is the concept articulated by Michel Foucault at UC Berkeley in 1983.  Foucault gave a series of lectures on the Greek concept of “parrhesia,” most often translated as “free speech.” There are two types of parrhesia, according to Foucault: the “mere chattering” that Plato derides in his critique of democracy in the “Republic” and the fearless speech that risks reprisal.

“The fact that a speaker says something dangerous — different from what the majority believes — is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes,” Foucault comments.

In order not to be drowned in the chatter of administered speech — “Please do not reply to this message” — parrhesia may indeed need to raise its voice. Perhaps this explains the number and vehemence of public “replies” to Dirks’ message.

Celeste Langan is an associate professor in the UC Berkeley English Department.

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2014