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Berdahl: ‘Let us go forward with active debate’
Chancellor cautions against protest as a substitute for ‘reasoned discourse’

12 March 2003

Chancellor Robert Berdahl wraps up each edition of his online interview program “Bear in Mind” [www.berkeley.edu/news/chancellor/bim/index.html] with a personal statement he calls “Top of Mind.” He shared these thoughts with his audience at the conclusion of the most recent edition:

In the days after September 11, as the nation was traumatized, we had on this campus a remarkable memorial service. One of the things that I expressed at that event was my hope that — despite the fundamental changes wrought in our society and in our sense of invulnerability — we would not be changed too much.

And yet we know we have been changed by those events. As in past wars, fundamental civil liberties have been somewhat eroded. But even in those wars, which lasted for a limited period of time, there came a time when those incursions on our civil liberties ended, and things were restored to normal.

The war on terrorism has been projected as a war that will last for years. We must be vigilant in the defense of our country and the defense of our people, but we must be vigilant as well to the erosion of the fundamental rights we have as Americans and our role as Americans. One of the costs of this war on terrorism has been the fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Nothing is more unpatriotic, nothing is more un-American, than to accept without question the pronouncements of our government. Our country was founded on the principle of challenging unjust laws. From the Boston Tea Party through all of the subsequent years of our history, unjust laws have been challenged by people.

What’s on top of my mind is the virtual absence of debate in this country, for fear — it would appear — of being labeled unpatriotic. Not even in the halls of Congress, with very few exceptions, like the recent speech by Senator [Robert] Byrd, has there been an active debate about the future direction of this country. Protesting policies with which we disagree has been a fundamental part of the United States democracy. It has been certainly a part of our history here at Berkeley as well.

But protest is not a substitute for reasoned discourse. The purpose of debate, of discussion, is to persuade others who may disagree with us of our point of view. This campus is and should be a center for the debate. It is essential that we keep it open in every respect. That people with whom we disagree not be dismissed as being either unpatriotic or thoughtlessly radical. That debate and reasoned discourse do not give way to sloganizing.

We cannot persuade if we seek to silence those with whom we disagree. So as we think about the days and weeks ahead as a campus and as a country, let us go forward with active debate, disagreeing if we wish with those who formulate policy, and substituting for that position the arguments that we would make counter to it. This is essential to a university, and this is essential to a democracy.

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