Despite Silent Protests, Bill Maher Encourages Berkeley Graduates to Be Freethinkers and “Fight Oppression” December 20, 2014

Despite Silent Protests, Bill Maher Encourages Berkeley Graduates to Be Freethinkers and “Fight Oppression”

***Update***: A video of the speech and an exclusive transcript are below.

A couple of months ago, we learned that comedian Bill Maher was invited to deliver the commencement address at University of California, Berkeley’s winter graduation ceremony.

The problem was that students were petitioning to stop him from speaking there:

Bill Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher’s public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities. Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities.

It was a pointless effort from the start. Maher’s job is to share his opinions and make jokes about touchy subjects. As far as opinion-leaders go, his biggest liability is that he talks about topics (like religion) most people want to avoid at all costs. While the bigotry charge was over-the-top, the racism charge was just baseless.

More importantly, I didn’t think Maher ever created a “dangerous learning environment” by pointing out the problems with religion and those who follow it a little too devoutly. If anything, he should be commended for inviting people who disagree with him on his show.

The “Californians” were the campus group that invited Maher to speak — and they rescinded that invitation following the public outcry. Thankfully, UC Berkeley’s administration wasn’t having it. In a public statement, they announced that Maher would be welcome on their campus:

The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. For that reason Chancellor Dirks has decided that the invitation will stand, and he looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them. More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.

That is how you do it. There are genuine hateful people out there; Maher isn’t in that group. He may go after sacred cows, which some people never want to criticize, but that doesn’t mean he should be disinvited from campus.

Earlier today, Maher gave that speech. It was hardly controversial, though Maher encouraged students (especially at Berkeley) to defend free speech, even if they disagreed with it:

“C’mon, it’s Berkeley. I think I can speak freely here,” he said. “I mean, I hope I can.”

The audience responded with cheers.

Maher indirectly referenced the controversy in his remarks, saying: “Liberals should own the First Amendment the way conservatives own the Second Amendment.”

“If you call yourself a liberal, you have to fight oppression from wherever it comes … that’s what makes you a liberal.”

He also urged UC Berkeley graduates to avoid the perils of group think. “That’s the last thing I’ll suggest to you — be a free thinker,” he said. “One reason our politics is so screwed up is that it’s gotten so tribal.”

That’s not to say there weren’t protests, but they were silent (and, it seems, pretty ineffective):

A handmade sign outside the arena read: “I’m oppressed by Islamophobia, not Islam.”

At one point during Maher’s speech, a group of protesters silently rose in the audience, holding up a series of placards that read,” Dear (administrators), don’t Maher our commencement.”

Not sure how Maher’s comments on religious extremism “oppress” moderate Muslims (or non-Muslims) at Berkeley, but at least that’s a better response than trying to boot him off campus. The Yale Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics could learn something from all this.

***Update***: Here’s video and an exclusive transcript of his speech:

This is your first graduation. This is my first commencement speech, so I’m just excited to be here. Is anybody here a college graduate or is that just a rumor? Is anybody graduating college today? Oh, I see…

Well, you’re both very fortunate and very deserving because this is a school that demands academic excellence. And in a way, we all start life twice, once when we’re born, and once when we leave school.

Now, I found the first years of my life after graduating college to be the hardest of my life, because in that second life that you’re now starting, you’re now infants in the adult world. You’re the youngest ones, the ones with the least experience, the least power, the least control… unless your father is Bill Gates or something like that, in which case you may not need this speech.

But if not, I have been given the privilege of talking to you for the first 15 minutes of your second life. It’s like you just came out of the womb and I’m the doctor who’s slapping you now.

So I’d like to take your first 15 minutes, with the phones off — maybe the last time in your life all the phones will be off — to try and save you anguish by passing onto you the important lessons that I’ve learned in my life. To do anything else is really not to understand why we’re here today, after all the hard work that you put in in those buildings out there.

This institution is all about passing on knowledge. You know, humans have gotten as far as we have because we’re selfish about a lot of things, but not about knowledge. When humans learn something good, they tend to pass it on. The guy who discovered how to make fire gave that shit away for free. I mean, at least until he figured out how to sell [unintelligible].

So the first thing you have to know is: It goes fast. Your life. I’m gonna be 59 next month and I know when I thought of 59 at your age, I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it was something that was never going to happen to me. There was just too big an ocean of time out there before I got there. No. It’s actually the blink of an eye. And because of that, people often say “Make each second count.” Don’t. Don’t do that. That’s too much pressure. That sounds like one of those vacations where there’s something scheduled every minute.

No, actually, some of the greatest times of your life and going to be idly goofing around. Like I have to tell you, a bunch of college kids! However, the other side of that is, don’t goof around too much. Taking time off to travel or to find yourself, that’s cool. But if you do it until you’re 30, you’ll probably find it harder to elbow your way into the rat race. Now you may not want to be in the rat race. That’s cool. But it’s also cool if you want to be in the rat race. It doesn’t make you a rat! This is America. There’s nothing wrong with competitive people wanting to win… Just do it with compassion and perspective.

Not like a Republican.

I’m kidding, of course. No, keeping perspective is maybe the most important way to stay sane throughout your life, and losing it — losing perspective — is a great way to sabotage what otherwise could’ve been a really good life. Do you know that opinion polls this year, in America, were very bleak? People thought that this country, and the world in general, were going to hell in a handcart.

They saw a passenger plane just disappear. They saw black-hooded ISIS fighters behead innocent people on YouTube. They learned that Ebola can get across the globe in less than 24 hours. Unless it’s on United.

My point is: We all want perspective. The world seems scarier than ever, but the truth is, is that the world, although still very troubled, is actually less violent, less engaged in war, and more prosperous than it’s ever been.

As a species, we do seem to be advancing. And when I think about my own life, I feel very lucky that I was born in what could prove to be a real sweet spot in history. I was born after electricity, after antibiotics, and (thank you Jesus) especially after indoor toilets. I was born after those things, but I was born before climate change and environmental destruction could make life a living hell. Which could happen in your lifetime.

You know, I had my fun with the planet, but you need it to be around and in good shape for another 50 years. So I hope all of you here today consider the environment to be paramount among the many challenges we face, because unless we solve that issue, there are no other issues.

It’s true. We need a place to live. We’re humans. We need a crib! And the world desperately needs a generation — your generation — to make this a priority the way the Vietnam generation — on this very campus — made stopping that war a priority.

Now some people would say, well, the Vietnam kids, they had skin in the game. They didn’t want to get drafted. You have skin in the game! You don’t want to get roasted!

All over the world, we see the devastation that pollution is causing: heat waves, oceans that are dying and rising, glaciers melting, species disappearing, droughts, wildfires, Frankenstorms. This is an awful lot for Pat Robertson to blame on gay sex.

We have no more time for dithering on this. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned: No politician is perfect. But in every election in your life, there will be one choice that is better than the others. Go out and vote for that one.

Make a difference. That’s what you owe everyone who came before you and died so you can live free. And that’s what you owe everyone who’s sacrificed for you, like your parents. And it’s also what you owe yourself, because you’ll feel a whole lot better if you do make a difference. And also: making a difference is why I’m liberal.

Now, you don’t have to be a liberal… although, c’mon, it’s Berkeley. I think I can speak freely here. I mean, I hope I can. [Pause for effect]

But let me say something about liberals. I think most liberals would agree that their liberalism springs from one thing above all: compassion. Mine does, because that’s how I was brought up by two liberal parents. In my family, we were always on the side of the underdog and those who were being treated unfairly. I grew up in an all-white town in the 1960s, but my parents made sure, that even as a little kid, I understood whose side we were on in the civil rights battles that were going on. We were with Kennedy and against Southern governors who wanted to stop certain people from merely going to school.

Now, there are people in the world who have the goal of stopping people from going to school. We see it on the news all the time. But what my parents taught me about Southern governors standing in doorways has stayed with me my whole life, no matter who was getting the shaft: black people, the poor, immigrants, gays, women, people who were bullied, people getting raped in the military, veterans, victims of police brutality, people getting poisoned by greedy corporations, you name it. In my house, the only thing we did not have tolerance for was intolerance.

You don’t have to be a liberal, but if you call yourself a liberal, you have to fight oppression from wherever oppression comes from, especially of women, gays, minorities, and freethinkers…

That’s what makes you a liberal.

And that’s the last thing I’m going to suggest to you: Be a freethinker. One reason our politics is so screwed up is because everyone has become so tribal. As you go down the path of life, ask what’s true, not who else believes it.

Be unique. Stay vigilant for busting yourself for falling into groupthink. You know, everything good and smart started out not by the mainstream.

Steven Hawking once said, the think about smart people is they seem to be crazy people to dumb people. Don’t be afraid to be a crazy person.

You know, I had a funny moment recently. I was sitting in a promo meeting in my office. You know, in television, at the beginning of every new season, networks buy billboards and TV ads for their shows. And they put on the billboard some short punchy advertising slogan like “He’s a robot! She’s a lesbian!” You know.

But for my show, and for what I do, over the years, we’ve had slogans like “Enter at your risk” or, you know, “With this Bill, you get change.” You know. Some of them are lame, it’s true. But this year, the promo department was showing us the new slogans for the new season, and I could tell they were a little afraid to show me the last one, and I said, “C’mon, let me see it! how bad could it be?” It was a picture of half my face, no smile, and it said, “He’s not in it for the Likes.”

I said, “I love it! It’s so bad ass! It’s the best one ever! It’s exactly what I wanted to grow up to be!” Don’t be afraid to be a crazy person and understand that the truth is not always popular.

I recognize that this university, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley free speech movement, made a statement by choosing me for this speech, and I would like to say I appreciate that, and I’d also like to say: I think you made the right statement.

Never forget that we are lucky to live in a country that has a First Amendment. And liberals should want to own it the way conservatives own the Second.

Thank you so much for having me.

(Top image via s_bukley / Shutterstock.com. Large portions of this article were published earlier)


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