It’s official. Free Speech is dead. At least that’s what we are being told by the Berkeley campus protesters. And what better source could we have for this bit of news, considering U.C. Berkeley was the birth place of the original Free Speech movement in the 1960’s? Full circle. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
The current crop of protestors wasn’t alive back then. Maybe they’re jealous and that’s what’s making them so righteously indignant. Or maybe they are unaware of history. More likely the case because if they were the irony would be unbearable.
I was not only alive at the time, but I attended U.C. Berkeley from 1970-1972, and then from 1973-1974, taking a year off in between to play the guitar and generally give myself a chance to figure a few things out. Time well spent, but that’s another story.
When I got to Berkeley as a freshman the Free Speech thing was pretty well settled. We’d won and we could say anything we damned well pleased. Thank you, Mario Savio. There was still plenty to protest, though, and we exercised our hard won right to free speech vigorously to denounce a variety of outrages.
Chief among these was the war in Vietnam. That war was something we did not understand. We had not been attacked by the Vietnamese and it seemed unlikely they were planning an invasion. Nevertheless we were being drafted, inducted, shipped over seas and killed by the thousands. The purported reason for our involvement was to stem the spread of communism into Southeast Asia. We sensed there was something more, and less altruistic, to it than that and many of us wanted no part.
Unlike the great world wars, which brought our people together to fight a common enemy and preserve our nation, the war in Vietnam was divisive. It pitted students against students, students against administration, students against government, children against parents, and gave rise to a serious mistrust in corporate America, which many thought was at least partly to blame for the whole mess and profiteering by it. These sentiments persist to this day.
There were other causes as well. Free love, feminism, (not necessarily the same thing depending on the angle you were working), and the liberation of People’s Park, a somewhat sad plot of ground around which the city of Berkeley had decided to erect a fence to discourage pot smoking and squatting, among other things, and which many of us felt was public property, and, as members of the public, ours.
Throughout all these skirmishes the unifying theme was our ability to speak our minds without fear of censorship. Free Speech. But over time it became apparent, at least to those with a somewhat cynical view, that speech was free only if it was acceptable to those around you.
It was common knowledge in Berkeley that corporations were evil, drugs were good, The Man was not to be trusted, having a job was un-cool, and being bourgeoise was synonymous with being a pig. If you agreed with all this you were free to speak about it. You were among the enlightened.
If, however, you felt otherwise the going was not so smooth. You were vilified for your apostasy, ridiculed for your lack of wisdom and insight, and despite all the free love going around it was highly unlikely you’d be getting any. What, they asked, gives you the right to say such shit?
If you were to respond by referencing the first amendment to the constitution you would be met with a blank stare, a sneer, or a ‘man, that’s fucked up’. Yes, it is.
What Mario Savio forgot to mention during his many bullhorn-enhanced screeds was that he wanted free speech for himself, to say the things he believed to be true. He had no interest in the opposing viewpoint other than its giving him something to rail about. It was not a conversation. It was a lecture, and the faithful lapped it up.
This version of ‘free speech’ persisted for another fifteen years or so, but then things began to change. Realizing that for some time they could say whatever they wanted, provided it only offended those who did not share their views and therefore deserved to be offended, the free speech warriors then asked themselves a question and it was, “Just because I can say this, does that mean I should?”
The newly discovered sensitivity and awareness that words can hurt was a form of politeness at first. It was hard to argue that perhaps you shouldn’t call someone an asshole, or a faggot, if boor and gay would convey the same meaning without the value judgment inherent in the more crude descriptors. OK. I’ll try to watch it next time.
Soon, though, the more militant members of the free speech crowd began to insist that certain language not be used at all and should instead be replaced by something called ‘political correctness’. The list of forbidden words grew exponentially and those who prided themselves on being politically correct began speaking something that sounded like a new English dialect. Women were not chicks, even though in the 60’s they were, and no offense intended. And on and on with sexual orientation, ethnicity, occupation, appearance, (plus size, not fat), socio-economic level, you name it.
Eventually things got to the point that entire subject matters were no longer suitable for discussion. College campuses, once ground zero for free speech, became no speech zones, with ‘safe spaces’ for fragile students afraid of being exposed to ideas foreign to them, suffering from ‘micro-aggressions’ carelessly or purposely committed against them. We have now an entire generation of weenies who will become apoplectic at the sound of ‘dyke’ but who for some reason have no problem calling you a motherfucker if you disagree with them.
Which brings us back to Berkeley and the recent rioting. The anti-free speechers are determined to abolish the first amendment. In order to do this they are exercising their rights under that amendment to protest. Most of them were not around in 1989 for the Tiananmen Square massacre. There was no first amendment guaranteeing the right to free speech in China in 1989. Hundreds of young protesters gathered in the square to confront the communist regime were simply mowed down by automatic gunfire. End of story. Take that. Shut the fuck up.
Because we have the first amendment, and, despite the young college neo-fascists, a long history of abiding the sort of verbal and cultural assaults they are mounting, it’s unlikely we will have an American massacre similar to that of the Chinese. Unless, of course, the free speechers suddenly become pro-gun and arm themselves. A truly frightening thought.
So free speech on campus isn’t dead. It can’t be, because it was never really alive in the first place. I’m sure there are some professors aware of the damage the current war on expression is doing to the educational system but they appear to be in the minority and afraid to speak out. So the weenies will become adults and at some point will be set loose into the world. The Chinese, and those who share their world view, are salivating. The weenies will be eaten alive.