15 December 2016

Milo Yiannopoulos, the Alt Right, and free speech

If you have the good fortune to not know who Milo Yiannopoulos is, you have my envy ... and my apologies for ending your innocence. He is a gadfly critical of both the broad left and the mainstream right, notorious as a skillful troll, arguably the most visible figure in the pop segment of the “Alt Right”.

One is tempted to dismiss him as just an even more mean-spirited and erratically witty version of P. J. O'Rourke for the era of reality television, to try to avoid feeding his narcissism and transparent hunger for fame. But I think he is interesting and important. We must talk about him, to clarify some important things.

When I first heard that Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter a few months ago, I was ready to hold my nose and defend him on free speech grounds. My interest in understanding conservative politics had me watching his jokey, offensive provocations with one eye for a while, his range of racist, sexist, authoritarian, liberal-hating pronouncements positively begging to inspire outrage. (Homophobia has an peculiar role in his oeuvre, since Yiannopoulos is emphatically out as gay, which he deploys as a shield against social justice criticism of him and his allies.) Had the offensiveness of this stuff been Twitter's case against him I would call it wrong for them to remove his access to their system because Twitter has become a unique part of our public discourse, with sufficient influence that they have a free speech obligation to avoid picking which ideas they do and do not allow people to express, even if they have a legal right to deny service to whomever they choose.

But a little digging reveals Yiannopoulos doing more than just saying ugly things. As an early booster for the GamerGate movement which systematically harassed women in a cascade of insults, threats, and doxxing, he implicitly endorsed the use of those tactics ... and as his fame grew, engaged in them himself, identifying with a wink and nod targets for his numerous followers to harass. Twitter explicitly identified this — and not the ideas he expressed — as the cause of the ban.

People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.

Yiannopoulos has relished the ban which he was transparently courting, playing the martyr to the cause of free speech. He has turned to undertaking a speaking tour, doing talks at college campuses wherever local organizations invite him. Just a couple of days ago, I got a ping from an activist friend; he and some other activists were thinking about how to respond to a planned appearance at a local school, and he had been reflecting on my recent post expressing concern over the misuse of No Platform tactics to stop controversial speakers. I said that while I supported the Twitter ban because he was using that platform for abuse, trying to prevent Yiannopoulos from talking about his ideas at a college was probably skirting too close to being opposition to free speech, and they should consider other tactics instead.

I was wrong. Today I see a report of Yiannopoulos engaging in further harassment on the speaking tour.


Content warning: Yiannopoulos being a transphobic asshole

In critiquing leftist criticism of the phrase “man up,” Yiannopoulos said around the 49:52 mark, “I’ll tell you one UW-Milwaukee student that does not need to man up.” He then showed the student’s photo. “Have any of you come into contact with this person?” he asked. “This quote unquote nonbinary trans woman forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year.” He went on:

I see you don’t even read your own student media. He got into the women’s room the way liberals always operate, using the government and the courts to weasel their way where they don’t belong. In this case he made a Title IX complaint. Title IX is a set of rules to protect women on campus effectively. It’s couched in the language of equality, but it’s really about women, which under normal circumstances would be fine, except for how it’s implemented. Now it is used to put men in to women’s bathrooms. I have known some passing trannies in my life. Trannies — you’re not allowed to say that. I’ve known some passing trannies, which is to say transgender people who pass as the gender they would like to be considered.

He then referred to the photo, which was still onscreen, and said, “Well, no. The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him.” The audience laughed.

(More on the fallout from that talk from UWM student Cary Gabriel Costello and a reprint of the harassed student's letter to the university.)


Yiannopoulos wants outrage at the odious transphobia he expresses here, in part to misdirect you into missing the second layer of what he is doing. Consider the context he brings with him: the reputation which put him on that stage was born from his support for and organizing of systematic, targeted group harassment. When he does this, Yiannopoulos points his finger at a target. We should not defend that as free speech; we need to recognize it as an attack on free speech.

(Update: Similarly, at the UC Berkeley talk that was prevented by riots, Yiannopoulos planned to suggest that people report undocumented immigrants in the campus community.)

Driving women off of Twitter through harassment is an attack on their capacity to speak plus a move to discredit the idea of free speech. And then Yiannopoulos walked away decrying Twitter's ban as a demonstration that they — and liberals who he claims hold institutions like Twitter in thrall — do not respect free speech.

All this invites protest from counter-activists whom he places in a bind. Do they attempt to starve him of attention ... allowing his campaign of harassment? Do they give him the opportunity to paint himself as the victim of intolerant liberal opponents of free speech? Do they take the bait and accept his misrepresentation of “free speech”, coming to genuinely reject it because they understand “free speech” only as assholes' shield? Do they get drawn into debate, implicitly lending credibility to him as representing a legitimate position which must be considered? Do they simply mock him, letting him claim that they have no substantive objections?

Yiannopoulos chooses forums like Twitter and college campuses in part because their scale and openness offer opponents who stumble in threading the needle of how to respond to him, further helping him to cast himself as heroically standing athwart a tide of liberal foolishness.

This is a method and it has a purpose.

If we look at the history of far right movements, we can recognize the basic pattern. These movements are not simply opposed to liberalism-as-in-the-Democratic-Party; they are opposed to liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. They oppose universal human rights and equality. They aim to discredit liberalism by turning its systems against itself, making them impracticable, perverting the meaning of words like “free speech”.

One of Yiannopoulos' signature moves here presents particular interest. He exemplifies the Alt Right's jokey, coy, hyperbolic aspect. Call him out on his worst comments and he shrugs it off as his accuser being humorless and taking him too seriously. This is a variant on oblique winking we might recognize from previous hard- and far-right media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, married with jokey vulgarity-for-its-own-sake internet culture that runs deep in the roots of GamerGate. Watching Yiannopoulos for long enough, one feels struck by the transparency of his nihilistic insincerity, and this is characteristic of many other Alt Right figures like him.

Many say that we should understand the Alt Right as nothing other than neo-Nazis, and that points to the cold truth of what they really stand for, but the Alt Right's stacked layers of irony mark a style difference with significant consequences. Nazis regard speaking in bad faith as righteous political pragmatism, as we see in Yiannopoulos and other figures of the Alt Right, but Nazis have a demeanor of earnest sincerity. This makes the natural enemy of Nazi not violent counterprotestors — because violence is a language Nazis understand and embrace — but clowns who make them look buffoonish rather than scary. The Alt Right does not share this vulnerability; their own clowning makes them an effective foil to both leftist pomposity and leftist absurdity.

I don't know what Achilles heel Yiannopoulos and his crew have instead. And that gives me the cold spooky.

1 comment:

Catherine Kehl said...

When I read through the account of Milo at U of WI, I was struck by a couple of things. My brother has at least at times been an admirer of Milo. (I'm referring to him by his first name because I'm too lazy to check the spelling of his last.) I'm not ever entirely sure where my brother is coming from - I don't follow him that closely, a fact not helped by him being frequently banned by FB*, but I sometimes think I'd like to grow up to be Milo? (Or, maybe he doesn't care, as long as he can just get some group of people to revere him.)

The kind of tactics Milo was using against the transgender student would work really well against my brother. At thirty-four, he's a screwed up guy who cycles between megalomania and little self esteem, and with a past, and present, for that matter, he's deeply ashamed of. I'm not advocating this. Well. That's a little more complicated. I think resorting to those tactics would be horrifying, and I suspect it's most likely to come from my brother's erstwhile allies. (And at the same time, I'm keeping it in the back of my mind in case he resumes or amps up his game of stalking and threatening women.)

* to FB's credit, don't get me wrong.