Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I'm Sick of Smug-Takes on Berkeley Offering "Counseling"

Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro is coming to campus this week. Shapiro will be followed this month by Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, and Milo Yiannopoulos, as part of a Berkeley "free speech week".

In a long email outlining the various campus policies that would be in place to facilitate all these speeches (and as I've consistently argued, having been invited by authorized community members they do have a right to speak free of censorship or material disruption, though of course not from non-intrusive protest or criticism), Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Alivisatos mentioned that, among other things, counseling services were available for any students who felt "threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe."

And the internet went wild.

I don't need to collect links -- here's an example, but they're not hard to find. Across the entire political spectrum of the mainstream media -- you know, center-left to hard-right -- there was near-uniform glee in dumping on coddling Berkeley administrators and infantile Berkeley students who need counseling just because they're hearing "ideas they disagree with."

I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing this. It's lazy, it's a cheap shot, it's intellectually incoherent, and above all it's mean-spirited. Berkeley isn't wrong here. And it's detractors are showing more about what's missing in their character than the most stereotypical Golden Bear hipster.

For starters, Berkeley is a big place. Its total enrollment is over 40,000 students. These young people come from a range of backgrounds, and at any given time across that 40,000 there will be persons who are struggling, or experiencing crises, or feeling threatened, or any other permutation of personal circumstance and emotional troubles you can imagine. I've already written recently about how all of us -- self-satisfied declarations notwithstanding -- intuitively understand how certain speech can truly wound deeply, in a manner which we can all empathize with. That doesn't mean we ban it (and offering counseling doesn't "ban" anything), but it does mean that there's a genuine phenomena that we can and should attempt to address

So let's be empathic. Let's imagine, amongst Berkeley's 40,000 students, that there is a student who is struggling. Maybe he's away from home for the first time and having difficulty adjusting. Maybe she feels in over her head in classes, finding that work that got her an A in high school is barely scraping a C at Berkeley. And then let's add more to it -- maybe he's just found out that he's now at imminent risk of deportation from the only country he's ever truly known. Maybe she's found out that, though she proudly served her country and is a veteran of the American armed forces, the President of the United States publicly declared her to be a burden on the US military who should never have been allowed to wear the uniform.

Now let's remember who Ben Shapiro is.

Ben Shapiro thinks that trans individuals suffer from a "mental illness" and gratuitously misgenders them for the primary purpose of causing offense. He refers to DACA as President Obama's "executive amnesty". Pretty much the only reason he isn't an avowed member of the alt-right is that they happen to hate him too. He's not an intellectual. He's not one the great thinkers of the right. His oeuvre, his raison d'etre, is to be a hurtful provocateur. That's what he brings to the table.

And let's be clear: this, the above, was why Ben Shapiro was invited to Berkeley. It wasn't because he offered "a different view." And it certainly wasn't because of the intellectual candlepower he has on offer. The people who invited Ben Shapiro to UC-Berkeley did so because of, not in spite of, the hurt he will dish out to already-vulnerable members of the community.

The students I outlined above -- already struggling, buffeted by political dynamics which very much are designed to dehumanize them -- now have to reckon with the reality that a non-negligible chunk of their colleagues are glad they're feeling that way. They actively want to accelerate the process. They'll go out of their way to invite speakers to reiterate and emphasize the point.

Honestly, I don't blame them if they could use a venue to talk out their feelings a bit. It strikes me as spectacularly uncharitable, a colossal failure of basic empathy, to think otherwise. Then again, what is our polity going through now but a colossal failure of basic empathy?

After the election, I made a similar comment (which I cannot find) when people again made fun of college kids who expressed deep hurt and fear upon the election of Donald Trump. This, too, was attributed to fragile millennial snowflakes who don't know how to tolerate hardship. And I remarked that the man now faced with being expelled from the country is not scared because he's frail, and the woman who was the victim of a sexual assault is not despondent because she's weak-willed. We've seemingly moved past "don't punch people who think you're subhuman" (okay) to "don't be sad that people think you're subhuman" (really?).

Some are arguing that the real problem with offering counseling is that it doesn't teach the kids "resilience". First of all, I wonder what they think goes on in counseling sessions -- my strong suspicion is that they are precisely about fostering resiliency so that students are better able to cope with such annoying trivialities like "I may be torn from the only home I've ever known at any moment and a sizeable portion of what I thought was my community will cheer as they drag me off." The objection here isn't so much to lack of resilience as to the university having the temerity to try and teach it -- like objecting to wilderness training because shouldn't real men already know how to survive outdoors?

Second, it is hard not to hear in this objection a deep resentment at the fact that today, even now, some people still do proactively care about the feelings of others. The argument seems to be that "fifty years ago if someone felt marginalized on a college campus nobody gave a shit. Today, some people -- including a few holding administrative positions -- do care, and for some reason that's a step backwards for society." One can hear more than a little of the typical mockery associated with using therapy of any sort -- though I admit I hadn't heard it manifest this overtly in some time -- which suggests that only persons of pathologically fragile mental composition could ever need something as lily-livered as counseling. Again, I find this argument hard to relate to, seeing as its genealogy is so thoroughly bound up in nothing more complicated than pure cruelty. Shorn of the feelings of superiority it generates, can anyone actually defend this?

Others complain that students shouldn't be going to therapy in response to such speech, they should be responding in other ways -- debate, protest, donations, activism, any thing else. Of all the objections, this is the one that is the most difficult to credit. Does anyone think that the only way Berkeley students will respond to Ben Shapiro's speech is by going to counseling sessions? That Friday morning, all 40,000 of us will march into whatever center houses our mental health professionals and demand to be soothed? Of course not. Of course there will be debate, and protest, and donations, and activism. And you can bet that however such actions manifest, people will still find a way to denounce the entire response tout court -- unjustified actions like violence, yes, but also silent protest, but also waving signs, but also pure condemnatory speech (especially if that speech dares use the dreaded -ism or -phobic suffixes).

Finally, let's dispense with the notion that this is all being triggered by students who can't tolerate "ideas they disagree with." For starters, it's notable that while Alivisatos' email does not in fact refer to any speakers in particular, everybody simultaneously assumed they were talking about Ben Shapiro while at the same time being aghast at how anyone could possibly need counseling after hearing Ben Shapiro. Me thinks they protest to much. But more to the point: Berkeley regularly hosts speakers who will present ideas many on campus will disagree with. This week, David Hirsh is giving a talk on "Contemporary Left Antisemitism" -- surely, many on campus would resist his conclusions. Later this term, National Review editor Reihan Salam will be speaking on immigration policy -- with no known objections or protests planned.

So the problem isn't ideas people disagree with. The problem is Ben Shapiro, and Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos. One doesn't invite them to campus because they're presenting important ideas which need to be reckoned with. There are plenty of conservatives who fit the bill, and when those conservatives show up they are typically met with little fanfare. But if you're inviting this contingent, you're doing it because you like hurting people. That's their comparative advantage, that's the thing they can offer over and above all of their competitors.

It neither bothers me, nor surprises me, nor offends me, that this offends certain students. If some portion of those students are in an emotional place right now where they feel like they need counseling, I encourage them to get it. If others want to protest the speech, I support their right to do so within the parameters of the law. If still others want to attend the speech, or subject Shapiro to harsh questioning, or pen scathing op-eds in the Daily Cal, I applaud them all for it. And each of these options got pride of place in Alivistos' email.

All of these are valid responses. None of them are worthy of scorn, none of them signal any deficiency in our student body. What is far more worrisome is the reaction of the so-called "adults" in the media, who have grown so fond of bashing kids-these-days that they've seemingly forgotten the need to reason, much less to empathize.

1 comment:

Alan Jay Weisbard said...

Outstanding post, which deserves widespread circulation. Thank you, David.