The University of California at Berkeley recently cancelled a scheduled talk by leading far-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos after students rioted. The students were both wrong and foolish.

Back in 1970 at Kent State University, four protesting students were shot dead by the national guard. The story was front page news across the United States. To this day, people continue to discuss, debate, commemorate, and remember this incident. Why? Because white students were killed. Meanwhile, six Muslims were killed at a mosque in Quebec less than a week ago by a right-wing nationalist, and people are forgetting already.

One of the reasons I oppose violence on the part of college and university protestors is that we in higher education (students and faculty) are among the most privileged members in our society, so it is highly unlikely that WE will bear the brunt of any retributive violence. Students in the Berkeley protest threw rocks and firecrackers at police and caused $100,000 in property damage. Members of the College Republicans were also assaulted. But no students were seriously injured (much less killed) as the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds. It is not surprising that the police were comparatively restrained. Students and faculty are typically middle to upper class economically, able to afford private attorneys, are articulate and conversant with the law, and are confident that “the system” works for them. Do we expect police to be as restrained with those who are not? Confucius lavishly praised one of his disciples because he “never transferred anger” from one person to another (Analects 6.3). But most of us (whether police or not) are not so virtuous, and often vent our frustrations with one person on those who are politically weaker and more vulnerable.

I fully realize that membership in the academic community does NOT insulate people of color and members of religious and other minority groups from discrimination, as my colleague Kiese Laymon explains in his disheartening essay, “My Vassar College Faculty I.D. Makes Everything Okay.” Nonetheless, those of us in higher education (especially white members of academia) have to recognize our comparative privilege, and acknowledge that it is irresponsible for us to do anything that may incite or be used as a rationalization for violence against those who are not protected by their social status.

The motivation for violence against the extreme right is completely understandable. Like millions of Americans, I spontaneously cheered when I saw the video of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face during an interview. However, as both Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized, non-violent protest is not only a moral demand (although it is that too); it is the highest strategic cunning.  The movements that Gandhi and King led were successful in large part because of the absolute moral disgust of those who watched their government use violence against peaceful protestors. In contrast, Nationalist Steve Bannon has explicitly praised the importance of “fear” and “anger” in politics, and Yiannopoulos, that foul excuse for a human being, strives precisely to incite violence. He is MUCH happier that his talk at Berkeley was cancelled due to a riot than he would be if he had given his speech. Any violence plays into the hands of these right-wing extremists. “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About The Author

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Bryan W. Van Norden is a leading expert on Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. He is the author, editor, or translator of nine books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (2011), Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century (2014, with Justin Tiwald), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed., 2005, with P.J. Ivanhoe), and most recently Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017). Van Norden lives in Singapore, where he is currently Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College. He is also Chair Professor in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University (PRC) and James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College (USA). A recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships, Van Norden has been honored as one of The Best 300 Professors in the US by The Princeton Review. His hobbies are poker (he has played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas) and video games.