The University of California, Berkeley sustained $100,000 worth of damage after 150 agitators in black masks stormed the campus last Wednesday, burning vehicles, launching fireworks, throwing molotov cocktails and smashing windows. They attacked a student in a Trump cap with pepper spray, damaged the construction site of a new dorm and wrecked metal barriers. When police arrived, the projectiles were turned on them.
Though the rioters did eventually retreat off campus, they simply redirected their attention to the vandalism of numerous banks downtown. The purpose of this unrest? To prevent a Berkeley-hosted speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial — and admittedly contemptible — political celebrity.
Yiannopoulos is most notorious for his editorship of Breitbart, the right-wing news and commentary website, among whose founding members is Steve Bannon, the man recently appointed as Trump’s Chief Strategist.
Besides this, Yiannopoulos’ gone to great lengths to achieve political infamy. Despite his status as a gay immigrant, he was one of Trump’s loudest supporters during his presidential campaign, often referring to him as “Daddy” in interviews and acting as a model in the photoshoot “Twinks for Trump.” Yiannopoulos’ most recent exploits saw him hopping between universities, conservative and liberal alike, in his “Dangerous Faggot Tour.”
Among his lecture topics were hate-crime hoaxes, America’s borders and race wars. There was vocal opposition at nearly all events although much of it simply feeds Yiannopoulos’ ego; a good portion of Yiannopoulos’ celebrity appeal is his candid approach to dealing with hecklers. Berkeley wasn’t even the first university to cancel Yiannopoulos’ lecture after protesters resorted to violence, but it is perhaps the most extreme case so far.
According to reports, there were 1,500 peaceful protesters on Berkeley’s campus before the rioters arrived. Their legitimate display of dissent wouldn’t have been enough to cancel Yiannopoulos’ event, but it would’ve gotten a clear message across: that Yiannopoulos’ message is in the minority. But using violence to prevent him from speaking at all demonstrates a kind of fear of his rhetoric.
This is how campuses become echo chambers. The notion of the “safe space” expands until it encompasses entire universities, creating a bubble where professors, students and even guest speakers incessantly echo the same message. Without opposition, political opinions are made so extreme that they are in fact abstract, having little to no relation to reality.
Any opinion that appears outside of the strict borders of acceptable speech is quickly given some combination of the labels toxic, fascist or hateful. An innumerable amount of speakers avoid college campuses because of these so-called speech barriers. Robert Frost once said that “Education,” supposedly the primary goal of any university, “is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”
University of Tulsa students demonstrated this ability when they staged a silent protest at the arrival of Rosaria Butterfield, a woman who cited Christianity as being her primary motivation for converting to a heterosexual lifestyle. In that case, the students were not demanding that the speaker be barred from campus; they were simply present to remind students who might feel targeted by the lecture that they were loved and accepted by their classmates.
All that being said, the response to the Berkeley riots, namely President Trump’s tweet-threat that the university should lose federal funding, seems entirely unfounded. The violent protesters’ behavior was not sanctioned in any way by the university’s administration; quite the opposite: the administration condemned the rioters, whose attacks undoubtedly damaged the university more than anything else.
If Trump’s tweet is instead voicing his dislike for the peaceful protesters, he and Yiannopoulos will have to do just what they’ve been instructing everyone else to do: suck it up. Until then, the next four years are bound to consist of a cycle of left-wing tantrums and right-wing political threats.