“This is war” was tattooed across the halls of UC Berkeley hours before former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak in Zellerbach Hall. Fifteen hundred people showed up to protest the proverbial voice of the alt-right; a group accused of overt racism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. As the minutes closed toward Yiannopoulos’ arrival, the student protest resembled that of a prison yard riot. Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers and bricks smashed through the windows of Berkeley; this man was not welcome. The damages Berkeley suffered were minor compared to the distasteful reality the faculty must now deal with. Among them was a student body that was incapable of handling unpopular opinion.
Historically, Berkeley has stood as the forefront university of numerous progressive movements. Time and time again Berkeley set the standard for the country to follow, from housing key civil rights protests as well as serving as the center hub of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Although Yiannopoulos’ views, tactics and rhetoric are profoundly contrary to those of the Berkeley community, they are bound by their duty as an institute of higher education to provide their students the full spectrum of opinions.
After Yiannopoulos was escorted off campus, the protests continued, causing $100,000 in damages. Two firsts happened to Berkeley that day: a school with a history of organized protests bled for the world to see, and a campus that held one of the first free speech movements barred a Republican from speaking.
The idea of barring someone from speaking their opinion goes against the very foundation of higher learning. As university students, we should be more accepting, understanding and even willing to debate a differing opinion. Silencing someone’s voice, no matter how refutable that opinion may be, undermines the cornerstone of Democracy that is “Vox Populi, Vox Dei.” The voice of thousands cannot silence the plight of one, because that one voice could change history.
Free speech’s greatest paradigm and the last stand of one of democracy’s greatest heroes is in Plato’s “Apology.” Socrates was brought to trial for not recognizing the gods, inventing theories against the theocracy and corrupting the youth of Athens – at the time Socrates had already been credited with breaking down and reinventing the moral concepts of “good” and “justice” along with fathering most of western philosophy. Socrates’ defense throughout the trial fell on deaf ears as the courtroom had already decided that he was guilty. When the hammer came down on Socrates, the judge asked him to decide his own punishment. He asked the court to put him to death. Plato watched in awe as his mentor and hero was carried out of the courtroom. He concluded that living in a world without a voice was worse than death.
Not that I am comparing the work of Yiannopoulos’ to that of Socrates, but both of their voices were radical and therefore silenced. Plato founded the world’s first institute of higher learning, and Western philosophy spread to the world from there. The founding fathers adopted the discipline Socrates and Plato once preached into a living, breathing document. No voice can silence another, and a university does not have a right to bar any kind of speech.
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