Necessary conditions

Ken White at Popehat takes the Chancellor of Berkeley to task for an email he sent to students faculty & staff on the subject of free speech. You can see what’s coming a mile off, can’t you – the Chance said free speech is very nice but you can’t say anything Offensive.

Well he didn’t, really, although he did say something tending in that general direction – free speech to work properly should be civil and respectful yadda yadda. But Ken thinks he said it With Menaces, so to speak, and I don’t really think he did. Several commenters don’t think so either. (For a piquant detail I’ll add that before I saw this post of Ken’s, I saw a tweet of Sommers’s on the same subject, and I read the Chance’s email then, and thought it was more advice than commands. Who knows, maybe if I’d seen Ken’s post first I would have agreed with him. Priming, doncha know.) (Mind you, I did think it was depressingly woolly bureaucratic buzz-speak even then.)

Let’s take a look.

…it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.

Well, no, not really – that’s a woolly generality that doesn’t really mean very much. But I don’t think it’s particularly worrying. I think it’s just some advice, not an announcement of new Rules For Speaking.

After some more wool, there’s even more wool.

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.

Now, Ken takes that “requires” literally, as the Chance telling everyone that civility is required:


Civility is an admirable value. It is right and fit that we ask it of each other and impose social consequences upon the uncivil. But speech need not be civil to be entitled to robust protection.

But the Chance isn’t saying otherwise. He isn’t saying it need be civil to be entitled to robust protection, he’s saying it need be civil to be available and usable for everyone. It’s a different kind of “needs” or “requires” – not literal, but the condition of something else happening. “I need to inhale some coffee if I’m going to stay awake for the Chancellor’s talk.” That’s not someone compelling me to inhale some coffee, it’s a necessary condition for my staying awake. That’s what the Chance takes civility to be for everyone’s ability to exercise her right to free speech.

That’s what I think anyway.


  1. steve oberski says

    I have to agree with Ken White on this one.

    “Advice” from Chancellor Dirks, who by the way used his very official title in his very condescending letter, is advice given from a position of power to those who have less power. Let Mr. Dirks try sending the same advice without hiding behind the trappings of power and see how it is greeted.

    On a personal, anecdotal level, I offer this revelation – it was precisely statements that the author of this blog made that I found very uncivil that caused me to reconsider my position on matters that impact the right of women to have autonomy over their own bodies. I found some of your statements oh so very offensive, to the point where I was forced to examine the evidence and change my position.

  2. PatrickG says

    He isn’t saying it need be civil to be entitled to robust protection, he’s saying it need be civil to be available and usable for everyone.

    Forgive me if I’m failing to read for comprehension, but isn’t this a classic example of a silencing tactic, e.g. if only black people were more polite/if only LGBT people wouldn’t be so strident/etc.?

    I may be misreading you here — it’s very late. But frankly, I’m absolutely appalled to hear this kind of tripe from my alma mater.

    Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas.

    Tomorrow, I will I cancel my alumni membership and recurring donation to the UCB College of Engineering. I haven’t decided yet how polite I will be (though I do plan to be very polite to the person who has the misfortune to receive my call — and has to transcribe the less polite things I say about the chancellor).

    Because, y’know, as a Cal grad, I find this fucking insulting.

  3. PatrickG says

    Also, apologies are due, Ophelia Benson. I felt I included you in my accusation towards Dirks, which wasn’t my intention.

    I wish to clarify that as an alumnus, I found the response of the administration (under Birgeneau) to the Occupy protests absolutely horrifying. This, to me, reads as a thinly veiled threat, with subsequent chilling effects.

    Be civil, or we’ll deploy the riot police again.

  4. says

    Patrick, yes, it could be. It could be heavy social pressure, which is all the heavier coming from the Chancellor. I was mostly just testing my understanding of the ambiguity in that one sentence – “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.” That’s because a couple of guys on Ken’s thread implied I was stupid for saying it was ambiguous. I still say there’s a real and significant difference between saying “we want to get there by 8, so that requires us to leave no later than 7” and saying “your job requires you to do X.” It’s the difference between possibility and impossibility, versus orders. It’s the difference between description and prescription.

  5. says

    If the chancellor is talking about not harassing and threatening people, I can agree with him. If he’s talking about banning or discouraging some kinds of protests, like sit-ins and or “uncivil” works, then I would have a problem. Sometimes protests have to be uncivil to get attention.

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