Published: The California Aggie. June 11, 2017. View here.
While at the Silo, Pete Srivarom overheard a group of individuals vocalizing inflammatory and discriminatory messages. One of the preachers began to personally attack Srivarom on the basis of his ethnicity and sexual orientation.
“He asked me if I was gay and I said yes,” Srivarom, a first-year environmental science and management double major, said. “He said, ‘Oh, were you a child prostitute living in poverty and some young American gay molested you?’ What kind of person does that?”
Michelle Occhipinti, a first-year communications and managerial economics double major, decided to post in the Freshmen Class of 2020 Facebook Group and share her thoughts on how best to react to these potentially hurtful messages. Her post received over 157 comments and 165 reactions.
“Many people were personally targeted and that is not okay, but attacking them back doesn’t help,” Occhipinti said. “They’re not going to change their mind if you call them mean names or if you insult them the same way they insult you. Do something to spread a positive message to counter it.”
Occhipinti’s Facebook post resulted in a slew of separate discussions, some more contentious than others. Srivarom was one of the individuals who commented their disagreement with Occhipinti’s opinions.
“She was saying that we should give respect to him, but he’s not giving respect to us,” Srivarom said. “Saying we should take the high road and attack the idea not the person, but why doesn’t that apply to him?”
UC Davis is one of many colleges nationwide grappling to find the proper response to repugnant speech on campus. Responses by UC Davis students and faculty to the controversial Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled speech earlier this year included reserving tickets to the event, protesting outside of the reserved building and writing a letter demanding a cancellation. Dr. Jeffrey Weiner wrote an op-ed about reactions to the event, which was ultimately shut down due to safety concerns.
“Now we’ve gotten to the point where we have the regressive left that controls not just this university but every university [and] they don’t allow people they disagree with vehemently to come,” Weiner said. “That’s a real problem, because it teaches students that the response to things that are distasteful is to shut it out. [Instead], you may go to Milo Yiannopoulos’ event, […] walk out and say, ‘What a jerk, but at least I listened.’”
Weiner said he advocates for open dialogue in the face of offensive speech. The UC-wide “Principles Against Intolerance,” which was adopted by the Board of Regents in 2016, promotes fighting “abhorrent” speech with “more speech.” Daniel LaBolle, a first-year wildlife, fish and conservation biology major, also supports open discussion.
“Even if other people’s views are possibly factually wrong, to hear them and understand why they’re understanding the things they’re saying is essential,” LaBolle said. “If you’re going to convince someone and actually really change their mind, you have to first hear their view and then respond to it.”
However, fourth-year history major Elly Oltersdorf said that there is a time for open discussion, but not in response to hate speech.
“When it comes to someone who holds completely open white supremacist views, transphobic views or Islamophobic views, to engage in a dialogue with that is just to validate something that is, at its base, completely irrational and not defensible,” Oltersdorf said. “When people hold views that invalidate the existence of somebody else, then it’s not appropriate to engage in a dialogue with them. Even by stepping into a dialogue with [that] opinion, you are giving it a sense of platform and legitimacy.”
In the case of suppressed speech, both Occhipinti and Weiner warned of potentially dire consequences.
“When people can’t express their opinions, when they can’t express their ideas, that’s when a lot of conflict comes,” Occhipinti said. “It’s very limiting. That’s not the kind of campus that we should be, it’s very hypocritical.”
Oltersdorf was one of the students who was able to infiltrate the interior of the building Milo Yiannopoulos was planned to speak inside of and risk arrest in efforts to help shut down the event. Oltersdorf said they make a personal distinction between what reaction is appropriate in response to individuals informally making inflammatory comments and individuals who are given a platform to make such comments.
“In the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, I am actually of the opinion that the school shouldn’t have allowed him to speak, specifically because he had targeted students,” Oltersdorf said. “There were rumors of him giving out lists of undocumented students. You’re pretty much directly inciting violence against those individuals and putting them up for target. I think the school should have stepped in and I was really proud of our ability to shut him down.”
In the face of deciding how to respond to the presence of such pointed and upsetting speech on campus, first-year undeclared student Adriel Ramos said he believes the university should be doing more to ensure students make informed choices.
“We need people to tell the students […], ‘Let’s take action, but let’s do it in a proper way,’” Ramos said. “We need more knowledge, more education on this situation. A little more push from our faculty. Maybe UC Davis can have students volunteer [to hold] a discussion about it.”
Additionally, Weiner has been pushing for the establishment of more first-year seminars centered around contentious topics which he said would provide a place for students with different mindsets to openly discuss without fear of backlash.
“Making these kinds of talks part of the university curriculum is important,” Weiner said. “There is an opportunity for the faculty to talk to students […about] how is it that you engage with somebody who you feel is antithetical to who you are. You’re 18-22, you don’t even know yet what your political positions are […] so it’s foolish to react in such a strong, emotional way.
At UC Davis, a three-part discussion series open to students was held to discuss the legality of protected speech on campus. The title of the third installment in the series – “Hate Speech, Free Speech, More Speech or Less Speech: The Quad as Free Expression Zone or Safe Space?” – poses an important question.
“Free expression and safe spaces can definitely exist in tandem,” Oltersdorf said. “So many spaces that I’ve been a part of at university where people are trying to be mindful of larger, oppressive systems are full of disagreements […] and yet people find a way to express themselves [in a way] that’s not condemning someone for their existence. Ideally, a university should be a place where we strive to challenge each other but we’re real about the commitment to inclusiveness.”