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The Milo Yiannopoulos shtick shows the disconnect between Berkeley students and the meaning of free speech

For many, the lasting image of Milo Yiannopoulos in his fizzled “Free Speech Week” appearance on the UC Berkeley campus will be of the selfie he took as he was surrounded by a small throng of admirers and journalists.

For me, however, it will be the vast, empty space of Sproul Plaza, barricaded by orange Jersey barriers, moments after Yiannopoulos left.

On the very spot in 1964 where Mario Savio, surrounded by thousands, famously commandeered the roof of a police car to demand that students be allowed to express their political opinions, there was nothing and nobody, a potent metaphor for a ginned-up “Free Speech Week” starring the puerile Yiannopoulos. (How puerile is he? One of the signs he held high on Sunday said, “Feminism is cancer.”)

You could say “Free Speech Week” backfired; after all, none of the high-profile speakers (Stephen K. Bannon, Ann Coulter) touted by Yiannopoulos turned up, none of the proper permits were secured by the tiny student group that sponsored him, nor any of the required fees paid.

Sure, Yiannopoulos still came on campus — after all, speakers cannot be barred from the public square — but he would have no microphone, no bullhorn and really, not much of an audience because few people were able to get past the single security checkpoint by the time he arrived on campus just after noon.

For Yiannopoulous, though, it was a ringing success. He not only highlighted the hypocrisy of students who give lip service to free speech while trying to curtail it, but got a spectacular amount of publicity to boot.

“The most expensive photo op in UC Berkeley history,” declared the university spokesman, who estimated that about $800,000 was spent on security for the stunt.

Law enforcement officers had come from all over the state; a handful of sheriff’s deputies came from Kings County, five police officers came from Taft, four from Corcoran. Your tax dollars at work, all in service of a self-regarding chaos agent who has become frightfully adept at exploiting the intellectual weak spots of left-leaning college students and, sadly, too many of their professors.

Once again, a circus clown of the far right, whose rich benefactors have a stake in keeping the culture wars alive, had conceived and executed a plan to back the university and its overwhelmingly liberal community into a corner over the issue of speech.

University administrators and hundreds of police officers behaved magnificently.

I wish I could say the same for everyone else.

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At a moment when President Trump has told black professional athletes to shut up about their politics, called them vulgar names and urged team owners to fire players for expressing themselves in peaceful and powerful ways, it’s hard to overstate the irony of conservatives coming to Berkeley to give lectures about free speech.

And yet, Berkeley needs the lesson.

There is a distressing disconnect here between respect for the concept of free speech and respect for its exercise.

On Sunday, I observed several discussions between Cal students and practiced right-wing provocateurs who had come to campus to support Yiannopoulos and, if possible, increase their internet profiles. Some conversations were rational; most devolved into shouting matches.

Ben Bergquam, who runs an obscure Facebook page called Frontline Radio, was egging on black and Latina students, insisting the phrase “La Raza” is inherently racist, and insisting — bizarrely — that “most people who call themselves African Americans have never been to Africa.” (Not sure what his point was, but as soon as he said it, Viana Maria Roland, a black woman with long braids, stopped him in his tracks when she replied, “I have been to Africa four times.”)

Millie Weaver, a Valkyrie-braided agitator from InfoWars, the website of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (who has promulgated disgusting misinformation about the murders of first-graders in Newtown, and spread hallucinatory rumors about Hillary Clinton and a Washington pizza parlor), argued with Camila Elizabet Aguirre Aguilar about structural racism and reparations. A very frustrated Aguirre Aguilar eventually told Weaver to shut up — I could not totally blame her — thus giving Weaver the sound bite of which she had undoubtedly dreamed.

“I guess I came here to vent a little bit, I’m not gonna lie,” Aguirre Aguilar told me afterward. “I’m angry about everything that’s going on. Free speech once sought to legitimize the oppressed, and now it has been appropriated to legitimize oppression. The right to free speech is different from the right to having a platform.”

I appreciate her sincerity, and her willingness to show up to debate. But that sentiment, which I have heard many times from Berkeley students, gives me chills. Free speech is meaningless without a platform. Students at the nation’s foremost public university should not just understand that concept, but embrace it.

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How is it that the cradle of campus free speech has become a place where disagreeable speech must be drowned out or driven away?

I shuddered last week when I heard a Cal associate French professor tell KPCC’s Larry Mantle that she was taking her students off campus for classes this week, for their safety.

Good lord, why not teach them the immortal words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”? Or even remind them of the childhood aphorism, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”

How did skin here get so thin?

The new chancellor of Cal, Carol T. Christ, recently offered the most cogent explanation that I have heard.

In an interview with my colleague Teresa Watanabe, Christ said that today’s students “grew up having lots of instructions on anti-bullying, on what constitutes harassment. They’ve been told strongly and repeatedly that certain kinds of speech are inappropriate. And so they don’t understand the difference between how we say it’s right to act in a community — whether it’s a classroom or a dormitory — and what a public speaker is allowed to say.”

We’re doing a poor job of teaching kids the difference, a poor job of teaching them to rise above provocation, to ignore speech they find offensive, or to counter it with more speech.

This disconnect has allowed an intellectual charlatan like Yiannopoulos to build a business model in which he can pose as a victim of political correctness.

Don’t let him get away with it.

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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