Editorial: Reaction to contentious bake sale misguided

Seemingly, the function of satire has been inexplicably overlooked in regard to a recent event at the University of California, Berkeley.

The “Increase Diversity Bake Sale,” hosted by the Berkeley College Republicans at Sproul Plaza, aimed to satirize SB185— proposed state legislation that enables California’s public universities to consider race, gender, ethnicity and “other relevant factors” in their admissions process.

By selling baked goods at a price-scale determined by the buyer’s race and gender, the BCR intentionally established a discriminatory sales practice as a way of demonstrating what the organization believes to be an admissions policy tantamount to affirmative action.

That is to say their actions were purposefully racist and sexist in order to provoke discussion of a
complex issue—a clarification that seems necessary given what followed.

Not surprisingly, the event aroused considerable controversy, attracting the attention of national news media outlets and spurring further demonstrations for and against similar policies.

What is surprising, however, is how grossly misunderstood the BCR’s actions have been interpreted by the university’s campus officials and community. It is appalling as to the ways in which the BCR and its members have been harangued and threatened by their peers on a campus that traditionally values its right to free speech.

Adding insult to injury, the BCR was excluded from a town hall meeting arranged by community leader, which was supposedly sought to create an avenue of multiculturalism and open dialogue—the very activity the BCR hoped to promote.

Further, the ASUC Senate, Berkeley’s student body government, saw fit to convene an emergency meeting to draft a bill condemning the BCR’s well-intentioned, albeit contentious, political commentary–ultimately condemning an exercise of their right to speak freely.

In a statement addressed to the campus community, UCB Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau described the bake sale as an event “occurred that was contrary to the Principles of Community we espouse as a campus,” and “firmly” endorsed the ASUC Senate’s decision to shun future instances of what they perceived as inflammatory.

Birgeneau added that “the issue is not whether one thinks an action is satirical or inoffensive, the issue is whether community members will be intentionally—or unintentionally—hurt or demeaned by that action.”

Wrong, Mr. Birgeneau—the issue, indeed, is that the bake sale was satirical, and to condemn the act as “hurtful or offensive” without careful consideration of the message is to make an irresponsible and hasty generalization.

Former Associate Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William O. Douglas once argued that “literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor,” and his statement is poignant here.

Satire seeks to criticize that which the satirist believes is in need of reformation through both humor and shock. It is aggressive by nature, but presupposes the presence of an educated audience, which the University of California, Berkeley should be.

If a community is to engage in the “intelligent debate” Birgeneau suggests it celebrate, it must attentively consider the opposing argument, regardless of how thoroughly it challenges its beliefs and assumptions.