On February 1, 2017, libertarian commentator and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to deliver a talk at UC Berkeley on the subject of cultural appropriation. Two hours prior to the event, student protestors gathered to riot against Yiannopoulos’s arrival. They tore down metal barricades, smashed windows, set fires outside the school’s main building, and beat a woman with a flagpole.
The protestors succeeded in stopping Yiannopoulos from speaking. In doing so, however, they helped to prove his own point that freedom of speech is in serious danger at universities like Berkeley. Yiannopoulos explains this in his reaction to the protests via his YouTube channel. “The left has become so utterly antithetical to free speech,” he says. “They won’t allow students to listen to differing points of view. They are absolutely petrified by alternative visions of how the world ought to look.”
Destroying freedom of speech—the indispensable condition for pursuing a liberal education—is bad enough. The damage, however, runs far deeper. According to some on the left, those with opinions that do not conform to the progressive “social justice” image warrant more than a merciless ban from the ideological “safe zone.” They warrant violence.
Yiannopoulos sees this as the result of the left’s tendency to “conflate ideas with action.” For example, he says, conservative speakers are often cited as representing a threat to “student safety.” In other words, merely the speaker’s ideas are a safety hazard. “They do this,” Yiannopoulos says, “to legitimize their own violent responses to somebody else’s political opinions.”
In Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence, sociologist Roy Baumeister illustrates the danger of such emotional hypersensitivity. “Hypersensitive people who often think their pride is being assaulted are potentially dangerous,” he writes. “[Their] hypersensitivity to insults also makes it possible to understand what might otherwise appear to be senseless violence. . . . Many violent people believe that their actions were justified by the offensive acts of the person who became their victim.”
Universities are complicit in this. They actively pander to and fund student hypersensitivity that manifests in microaggressions and safe spaces. Ironically, microaggressions are often used as justification for actual aggression. In the case of UC Berkeley, female student Kiara Robles was the victim. As she gave an interview explaining why she had been excited to hear Yiannopoulos speak, a student protestor pepper-sprayed her in the face. Protestors continued to attack her even after the interview. “They hit you with flag poles, they hit all my friends with flag poles,” she said. “I had to jump over a fence. If they wanted to do some serious damage to me in that moment I would have been completely unable to stop them.” Robles was openly supporting Yiannopoulos, a speaker who is supposedly racist, sexist, and homophobic (despite the fact he himself is gay). Her ideas were cause for violent action against her.
What happened on UC Berkeley’s campus holds disturbing implications for the future of higher education. Students incited destructive political violence in reaction to a speaker who is, in his own words, “not even that conservative.” If this is the standard response to freedom of expression, then universities are no longer places of education, but indoctrination.