Free Speech, Humus and a Koi Pond

Free Speech, Humus and a Koi Pond
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By Rodney Ferguson

I’m going to let you guys in on a secret: Oakland, Ca, despite its reputation, has many nice neighborhoods and beautiful homes. My last Living Room Conversation (LRC) took place in a home with a large wrought iron fence a beautiful dog and an outdoor table festooned with beautiful fruit, cheese, and bright yellow, orange humus under a large canopy. I didn’t notice the koi pond behind me with its radioactive-sized gold fish swimming about contentedly, because somehow I never expected to see a front lawn pond in Oakland.

Although I showed up late, I was cool. You see, this conversation follows on the heels of one where I, one from the bleeding-heart liberal team, actually had the audacity to say that crazy, misdirected violence was okay and that I actually cheered the Antifa and anarchists ‘crazies’ who vandalized University property, banks and other corporate business establishments in downtown Berkeley after the cancellation Milo Yiannopolous’ speech. At that conversation, even my progressive friends were aghast that I would offer a full-throated defense of violence against free-speech. The conservative side of the panel told heartfelt and heart moving stories about how their lives had been threatened and one had been assaulted and where the police were useless when it came to protecting their safety as protestors.

Both sides of the aisle were frankly shocked that I could steadfastly condone violence, not only against property, but also against the very people in the room who had been its victims.

At the end of that very contentious LRC, where the sides had decidedly morphed from the traditional 3 on 3 to 5 on 1, everyone thanked me for my forthrightness and honesty—the LRC way. But folks weren’t done with me. We revisited the topic online, which we never do, and we planned a follow up, second meeting, which ended up being at the koi pond house.

Officially, the topic at this conversation was speech codes on campus. This time two current, but non-Berkeley students took the place of the conservatives from the first conversation, who couldn’t make it. Another reason I was so cool, was this conversation happened a day after the events in Charlottesville where a woman was killed by a neo-Nazi who exercised his right to free speech by ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.


Conservative: How does what happened in Charlottesville apply to our current conversation?

Your hero: The mess went down at the UNIVERSITY of Virginia.

Surprisingly there was very little tension. Well, it is an LRC. We mostly focused on the college kids and their thoughts and experiences. One of these guys reminded me of Michael J. Fox’s character on Family Ties. He was too young to remember the show about the conservative son with liberal, ex-hippie parents, but I digress again.

Frankly, I was ready to rumble about how allowing crazy rightwing people on campus, especially a campus like Berkeley (or UVA for that matter), not only has the potential for violence, but makes violence all but inevitable. I was set to make the argument that the neo-Nazi “speakers” forfeited their right free speech because of the history of the Holocaust. I wanted to reiterate my point from the last the discussion that Milo, Ann Coulter and their ilk were mere provocateurs, looking for exposure and money. And mostly, I wanted to defend, yet again, not only the right but the responsibility of all Americans to stand up against hate, either peacefully or with violence when and where the situation warrants.

But that didn’t happen. Koi pond etiquette and the fact that the students were so bright-eyed, fun, and bemusing to us old fogies, that we couldn’t bring the fire of the last conversation.

Also, Charlottesville.

The digression above was the basically the extent we talked about Charlottesville. No one at the Roman feast table, had processed the events of the day before.

But some time has passed…

My friends would now tell me that not every campus is not like UVA and that, not every time some conservative speaks on campus will there be an eruption of violence. They would say, “Look, even Berkeley, your alma mater is calling this school year, ‘Free Speech Year.’

My response is this: The new University of California, Berkeley chancellor, Carol Christ, has the bright idea of holding, get this, “point/counterpoint panels to demonstrate how to exchange opposing views in a respectful manner.” In short, she thinks that by holding Living Room-like Conversations on campus would give folks a respectful and safe forum to hold discussion on hot-button topics. She thinks that this may limit, if not eliminate, violent confrontations that start on campus and spread through the community, then onto national and international headlines.

Funny she would say this, because I was thinking the same thing and said so at our fusion, Roman retreat conversation.

However, as I write this, it’s less than a week before August 27th, when there is a planned showdown between the “anti-fascists” and “neo-Nazis plus.” I haven’t heard of any conversations planned between the two groups, and I don’t know if such a conversation would be as civil as an LRC, but it’s great to see the first female chancellor in Cal’s history thinking like the female founder of Living Room Conversations.

Let us hope that UCB doesn’t turn into another UVA.

Go Bears!

Rodney Ferguson formerly worked with the U.S. Department of Education, and currently works at Literacy for Every Adult Project at the Richmond (California) public library. He recently published a book, Being and Happiness and enjoys blogging and teaching GED students on his Youtube channel.

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