In late October, students at University of California-Berkeley posted a petition online aiming to prevent comedian and political commentator Bill Maher from speaking at a commencement event. The petition cited numerous examples of Maher’s comments, particularly about religion and Islam, claiming that their offensive nature made Maher an unacceptable choice as a speaker.
What proved most concerning to me when reading these students’ position was the use of a single word: “dangerous.” The petition’s description on Change.org argued that Maher’s “dangerous rhetoric” will perpetuate a “dangerous learning environment” at the university.
First, I would like to point out that Maher will be speaking at a commencement event, not a forum or debate. His remarks will be focused on the students who are graduating and the advice he can offer them, not his views on Islam or religion. The fact that his views on those topics are deemed so “dangerous” that he should be prohibited from speaking on any topic demonstrates a concerning attitude toward differing views and speech, especially in an educational environment.
I support the right of any student at UC Berkeley to disagree with, or even abhor, Maher’s point of view. But to frame that point of view as a significant danger to a learning community misses the point of academia entirely.
Education, especially at the college level, is not about hearing only ideas that are amenable to you. In fact, for those who truly want to learn something, it should be about the opposite. The lifeblood of an academic community is debate, not protection from the possibility of being offended. College is an opportunity to build your identity: what you believe in, what you disagree with and why. A crucial part of that process is exposure to as wide a variety of opinions as possible.
Furthermore, your objection to another person’s opinion does not endow you with the right to silence them, or prevent others from listening. Moreover, attempts to shield one’s peers from controversial views show a startling disrespect for them and their right to form their own beliefs and opinions.
What is especially worrying is that UC-Berkeley is just one of a growing list of academic institutions having to face student efforts to disinvite speakers. Some examples of objectionable speakers from 2014 alone include International Monetary Fund CEO Christine Lagarde, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Washington Post columnist George Will, and Somali-born American activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
The complaints about these individuals range from association with an organization that strengthens “patriarchal systems” to working in a controversial political administration. In George Will’s case, his rescinded invitation to take part in a public affairs program at Scripps College followed the publication of a column on sexual assault. Ironically, the program Will was to participate in states on its website that “a range of opinions about the world — especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree — leads to a better educational experience.”
The latter three examples were also either disinvited or driven away by the outrage of students and faculty. Those who took offense kept their comfort; they and their peers were spared the risk of hearing any statements at all, whether they proved unsettling or inspiring.
The only true threat to learning is this kind of censorship, when university administrators bend to the delicate sensibilities of the offended instead of challenging them to open their ears and minds. Giving in to this pressure is the real disservice to students. Fortunately, school officials at UC-Berkeley have, so far, stood by their invitation, stating that the university “has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.” Here’s hoping that they hold firm and fight the real danger to the learning environment on college campuses.
Email Isabel Larroca at firstname.lastname@example.org.