September 20, 2018

Reason on Campus

This week UCLA’s chancellor, Gene Block, issued a strongly worded statement regarding the planned speech of a political extremist on campus.
The speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a British born former Breitbart reporter who was an ardent Trump supporter with connections to the alt right. His modus operandi is to provoke and prod and generate as much notoriety as possible. He has relished campus invitations where he could rail against political correctness and minorities and bask in the controversies and confrontations that follow.
His penchant for pushing folks’ hot buttons has caused him serious problems. In 2016 he was banned from Twitter for “inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse of others.” In a 2016 podcast interview he defended pedophilia.
He argued that sexual relations between thirteen-year-old boys and adult men or women can ‘happen perfectly consensually’, because some 13-year-olds are, in his view, sexually and emotionally mature enough to consent to sex with adults; he spoke favorably both of gay 13-year-old boys having sex with adult men and straight 13-year-old boys having sex with adult women. He used his own experience as an example (Wikipedia).
Needless to say, many of his speaking engagements were cancelled, he lost his position at Breitbart and a book contract evaporated after his “unusual” views became widely known.
His plan was to address the UCLA Republicans on the topic of “10 Things I Hate about Mexico.” Early this week the young Republicans voted to cancel their invitation—stating that their “leadership was polarized.”
There is little doubt that Yiannopoulos was not coming to UCLA to offer a travelogue about Mexico or a thoughtful critique of Mexico’s political, social or intellectual communities. Rather, he seemed intent on living up to his reputation—as the Los Angeles Times wrote this week— a “rabble-rouser.”
In the wake of the decision to cancel, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued the kind of statement that, in my more than four decades in the civil rights field was all too rare. A firm explanation of the university’s values, an acknowledgement that the students could invite whom they want (i.e. no censorship) but that a speaker like Yiannopoulos was coming primarily to “insult, demean and spark outrage…. not to engage in reasoned discussion.”
Over the course of my career I had occasion to speak to chancellors and university presidents beseeching them to speak up when bigots, neo-Nazis, David Duke types or other intolerant extremists-left or right wing—came on campus. The aim was not to ban them but to let the campus community know how antithetical bigotry and hate were to the principles of civil debate and reasoned discourse.
More often than not, administrators were reluctant to speak up for fear of provoking a militant backlash from the rabble-rousers and their friends. One prominent university chancellor informed me, “I’m not going to comment about it if I can’t prevent it from happening.” An odd notion of how education and moral leadership occurs.
It is especially refreshing to see an academic leader neither accede to demands to ban unpopular speakers nor be silent in the face of extremism and bigotry. It is a very fine line to tread and Chancellor Block seems to have done it in this instance. Tolerance of differing ideas is not the antithesis of having and expressing a moral position.
Block wrote,
Free speech and intellectual debate, even when uncomfortable, are critical for thriving communities. And yet some speech, although legally protected, is intended primarily to insult, demean and spark outrage among members of our community.
Recently a student group invited an outside speaker to give a talk on campus. The title of the talk referenced what the speaker “hated” about Mexico – a country with deep ties to our city, our state and our nation. This is also a country that is an important part of the heritage of many Bruins. The expression of disdain did not appear to be an attempt to engage in reasoned discussion, but rather a move by the speaker to gain notoriety through a mean-spirited, racially tinged publicity stunt. This kind of tactic and his rhetoric are totally contrary to our values. I was grateful to learn earlier today that the sponsoring student group decided to cancel the event.
As a prominent university, we will continue to be a target for such provocateurs. I hope we will all continue to resist such provocations and further nurture our campus culture, which values ideas over hatred.
 Block’s letter is especially timely. Today’s Wall Street Journal has no fewer than two articles (here and here) about the challenge of promoting open intellectual inquiry in today’s campus environment.