Last month, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ issued a powerful statement reminding the university community that the 1st Amendment protects "even speech that most of us would find hateful, abhorrent and odious" and that "public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university."
That was a welcome announcement. In earlier episodes this year Berkeley had stumbled — canceling planned appearances by conservative firebrands Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos for fear of violent protests. Now, however, it is going ahead with a scheduled appearance Thursday by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. That's a win for free expression on campus, where provocative ideas and civil debate should be encouraged rather than squelched.
Still, even as the university took that step forward, it may have muddied its own message. In a Sept. 7 missive to the UC Berkeley community headlined "Ben Shapiro visit: Logistics and resources," Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos described security preparations for Shapiro's visit, called on protesters to demonstrate peacefully, but then said this:
"We are deeply concerned about the impact some speakers may have on individuals' sense of safety and belonging. No one should be made to feel threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe." For that reason, Alivisatos wrote, the university was referring students and faculty to "support services," including "mental health counseling" for students.
Why did that bother us? It's certainly justifiable — even laudable — for UC Berkeley to offer counseling to students in distress whatever the cause.
Still, there seemed to be a troubling implication that listening to views that offend you is hazardous to your mental health.
That happens to be an increasingly popular idea in higher education. Two years ago, in an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned: "A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense." The authors argued that this trend "presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche." The same assumption seems to inform Alivisatos' letter.
Shapiro is conservative and, from what we've seen of his speeches, he is blunt about what he believes, regardless of whose feelings he might hurt. In one appearance, for example, he said that a transgender female is "a boy who thinks he's a girl."
If students who hear him feel "threatened or harassed" and believe that counseling would in some way help them, fine. But university professors and administrators should make sure they send another message as well: that college is a time to broaden one's thinking, to listen to others, to re-examine preconceived opinions, to entertain new ideas. And that disagreeable, uncomfortable and even noxious opinions are often clarifying rather than harmful or dangerous.