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Rethinking Milo: A Criticism Without Outrage

I first heard of Milo Yiannopoulos in late 2015, when he was interviewed on a recently created Podcast & YouTube show titled The Rubin Report. He was funny and engaging, and had some interesting things to say. He also said a few outlandish things - overall he made the basic impression on me of being somewhere in between a journalist and a comedian.

Today he's a much more public figure, and is considered by many to be an alt-right figurehead who is a white nationalist, a racist, a transphobe, and all the rest. In other words, he's viewed as basically a gay, less socially awkward version of Richard Spencer. That's actually not what I see. I see somebody who has embraced a cause and gone on a crusade, but chosen the easy option. I see somebody doing essentially what Milo would and does criticize his opponents for - forgoing the hard work of actually trying to fix a problem in favor of making an easy buck, while hiding behind and constantly contradicting a set of laudable values.

I want to make my own opinion on Milo clear from the start. I'm not a fan of his, but when I heard about his planned cultural appropriation speech at Yale, to be delivered while dressed in traditional Native American clothing, I laughed. Before writing this I spent hours listening to interviews of him and reading his most controversial articles, and my blood never boiled with outrage. I have an entirely different problem here, and it's a problem that I think any fan of his who agrees with his stated values and motivations should share.

Just over a week ago a scheduled speech on Milo's college tour was cancelled due to a riot, which generated national news coverage. The event was canceled after an 'antifa' (Anti-Fascist) group smashed windows, threw molotov cocktails, and attacked some of Milo's fans, causing $100,000 in property damage. Milo has also been subjected to bomb threats, and is generally protested whenever he visits a campus. The severity of the backlash against him begs the question: what exactly is it about him that generates this kind of outrage?

"The only appropriate response to outrage culture is to be outrageous."
-Milo Yiannopoulos

I have no intention of making a complete list of the reasons Milo offends people. Presumably most readers are familiar, and if you're not there are plenty of other resources available - best of all his actual content so that you can make up your own mind. Put simply, there are two main reasons for the backlash against Milo and the protests of his college speeches: what he says, and how he says it. A common speech will feature, among other things, the wage gap and campus rape culture - his view is that they don't exist - as well as sharp criticisms of Islam, political correctness, feminism, and cultural appropriation, praise of Trump and his movement, and more. As for the way he delivers a typical screed, here's an example:

I don't want [women] to get drawn into lesbianism, for a variety of reasons - the lesbian obesity epidemic is one of them - the federal government spent 3 million dollars last year working out why you're all so fat...there's of course the domestic violence epidemic, do you know about this? the lesbian domestic violence epidemic, I wrote about it very sensitively last year in a column titled Attack of the Killer Dykes! - they beat the shit out of each other...
-Milo Yiannopoulos during a college tour speech.

This is basically Milo's schtick - a sort of backwards 'give the people what they want' approach. But what does he want? Why is he adopting these specific tactics? Is he driven by deeply held principles?

Milo believes, in a nutshell, that 'PC culture' has gone too far. In his view, Leftists on campus are enforcing a kind of manufactured civility at the expense of the truth. That's his basic definition of political correctness: the concealment of the truth to spare people's feelings. But this is at the ground level - at a higher level, he professes a commitment to certain principles, and claims that it's the commitment to those principles that has led him down this path.

Among those principles are, he says, a commitment to freedom of speech, free inquiry, the value of public debate and the free exchange of ideas. In other words, classical liberalism and the values of the Enlightenment. Those values, of course, entail certain opinions about individualism and the proper way for the different factions within a society to co-exist.

In a second interview on The Rubin Report, six months after the first, Milo said the following:

"The point of a civilized society...is to live with one another despite our differences, despite our prejudices...which is why I hate what the gay lobby does when it bullies and ridicules Christians. Christians aren't going away, you know, you're not going to bully Christianity out of existence, you're not going to ridicule Christianity out of existence."
-Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo, it's worth nothing, is a Christian himself. It's also worth noting that bullying and ridiculing is exactly what he does to 'social justice warriors' - on The Joe Rogan Experience he said, to paraphrase, that he wants to eradicate PC culture, and rip it up by the root. Herein lies my problem - I see Milo's actions as completely antithetical to his stated values, and so in my eyes he appears to be extremely insincere. A commitment to the free exchange of ideas and an Enlightenment-inspired conception of civil society does not pair well with a commitment to trigger your opponents into insanity. He often accuses campus protestors of having no counter-arguments to his claims, but this is like poking someone in the neck repeatedly while mocking them for flinching.

That isn't to say that his opponents do have counter-arguments. The point is that if you claim to want to improve the culture and the discourse then your actions should reflect that commitment. Milo's approach only serves to make partisan rancor even worse, and thus make the problem he apparently wants to solve even worse.

He's very clever in how he does this. Consider an article of his titled Here's Why There Ought to be a Cap On Women Studying Science and Maths - this was one of several Breitbart headlines being shared as evidence of Steve Bannon's character after the election.

This article does an excellent job of two things: making a deeper point than the headline would suggest and presenting it in a way, and with a headline, that is intentionally designed to offend. This format allows Milo and others, when confronted by angry readers, to chuckle to themselves and say "look how emotional they are! They can't handle the facts and arguments in this article, probably because they have no arguments themselves."

Anyone with a basic understanding of psychology knows that the headline and tone of this piece have effectively shut off the ability of almost everybody who doesn't like Milo to be convinced by, or even open to discussing, his arguments. One might reply by saying that the extra-offensive facade is meaningless, as Milo's detractors would be offended either way. Maybe so, but either way he's certainly handing his opponents more effective recruiting material. This kind of writing is preaching to the converted in a language only they understand, and mocking outsiders for not understanding. Milo knows this. So why does he do it? Is this what Enlightenment values in action look like?

The opposition to Milo is easy to understand, but why does he appeal to so many people? One reason is that there is, in fact, a real problem on college campuses. This problem can be defined in indisputable terms: conservative students on many campuses feel under attack. Whatever your political opinions are, whatever your beliefs about campus culture, it is a simple truth that conservative students feel under attack. In this context, whether or not they are under attack is irrelevant.

BBC News released a video that featured several conservative students explaining how they feel. Here's what Shep Gerszberg had to say:

In the liberal point of view if you're not in favor of their beliefs you're either racist, homophobic, anti-poor, sexist, etc. etc.

And, from Abigail Marone:

I'm called a racist, a fascist, sexist, on social media by people I don't even know.

Last, from Diego Rebollar:

People outside my dorm come up to me and say 'Hi, you're Diego, right? You're a Republican right?' And they'll just scream, 'F you! [Or,] Diego, you're Mexican, how can you be conservative, how can you do this to your people?'

This is the 'lived experience,' so to speak, of many conservatives on campus. The stage is perfectly set for exploitation by a funny, flamboyantly gay immigrant (how's that for an unlikely conservative?) who wants to fight on behalf of these students (and many alumni) and trigger their tormenters. He is the enemy of their enemy, and so a friendship is born. In short, to behave in this way is a clear path to greater fame, fortune, and influence.

Best of all - and we can be sure that Milo knows and shapes his style around this - the more that people want to censor your message, the more attractive it becomes to others. According to social psychologist Robert Cialdini in his book Influence, this is true regardless of what your message is. The path to the top of his profession is clear: go after the right people, so to speak, and hard enough that they try to stop you. Get yourself banned from Twitter. Taunt protestors. Call out individual students for ridicule, and generally do your best to infuriate 'the PC police.'

And how does Milo describe the flak that he gets? The terms in which he described his ban from Twitter are instructive. In a CNBC interview shortly after being banned, Milo said that "There is a systematic campaign against conservative and libertarian points of view on Twitter." In a statement made to his employer, Breitbart, he said the following:

Of course I didn’t break Twitter’s terms of service, they have a whole team of cybersleuths on the Milo beat, so what would be the point? Besides, I don’t need to break the terms of service to point out the mendacious hypocrisy of the left on social media. I suppose I did break Twitter’s unwritten rules by tweeting truths they’d prefer to leave unsaid. Twitter’s permanent suspension of my account makes a mockery of their claims to be a free speech platform.

He also appeared on Alex Jones' show after his ban, and said:

They can't beat me in debate - when they come to my university talks all they can do is shout me down, try to censor me, try to have me banned, so this is the last option they have available to them, they can't win in the court of public opinion, they can't win with ideas, so they just shut you down instead.

The battle of ideas. Debate. Speaking truths others don't want to hear. Enlightenment values. If Milo simply framed this crusade of his as an attempt to fight against the problems he sees on the Left that would be one thing, but to claim that he's fighting on behalf of Enlightenment is simply disingenuous. Kant lauded the public use of one's reason, not cynical political manipulation in the service of one's own popularity.

My basic gripe with Milo...is that he strikes me as fairly insincere...he appears to be trolling all of humanity at this point, and having a lot of fun doing it. And half of what he says about 'social justice warriors' and 'political correctness' and 'islamophobia' is very incisive, and amusing. But he seems to approach everything as a performance, and this leaves me wondering what he actually believes.
-Sam Harris

The Enlightenment also brought us an emphasis on the individual, and this idea is at the foundation of the distaste that Milo and many others have for identity politics. But his methods, in both theory and practice, lead to the same sort of identity politics - an identity of, basically, 'anti-SJW,' with a sprinkling of ideologically-based victimhood thrown in.

You can see this clearly in watching his campus lectures. From time to time he does, in fact, get a respectfully phrased question from someone far to the Left. Inevitably this is met with boos and shouts from the audience. As a result of his constant stereotyping of the Left and the tone in which he does it, what's being instilled here is a fundamental lack of curiosity about the opposing viewpoint, and an unwillingness to grant validity to anything said by people with the wrong set of core beliefs.

Another parallel is found in how Milo's rhetoric tends to portray conservatives on campus as, essentially, an oppressed minority. From a Breitbart summary of Milo being interviewed on FOX;

"[The Left] just cannot tolerate anyone on their campus who does not subscribe to their own crazy views"...He later stated that college campuses are some of the most oppressive places to free speech he's ever been to.

Again, in this case it doesn't matter whether or not you believe that to be an accurate portrayal of campus life - what matters is that Milo derides that sort of characterization, about any group, from the other side.

Everyone is entitled to their schtick, and I have no problem with his act purely in terms of the performance. Most of what he says, in fact, is offensive to many without crossing the line I'm drawing here. But...if you try your best to get censored or protested under the guise of promoting the values of the free exchange of ideas and the Enlightenment generally, you shouldn't loudly claim that your censors or protestors are opponents of those values - it stinks a little too obviously of hypocrisy.

Milo is engaging in a no-rules debate while claiming that he believes strongly in the need for dialectic, and at the same time bemoaning the fact that the other side isn't willing to participate. It's insincere, will do nothing to solve the problems he professes to care about and, worst of all, it's completely at odds with the values he claims to fight on behalf of. At his best Milo is funny, engaging, and intelligent, and as an outspoken gay conservative in the media he's somewhat unique - with a different approach, he could contribute to positive changes in the public discourse. Instead, his act has led to escalating violence in protests and a deepening in the partisan divide. And, of course, an increase in his fame, fortune, and influence.

Note: This piece was written before Milo's resignation from Breitbart and the surrounding scandal. Also, the URL features a typo of Milo's last name. The correct spelling is 'Yiannopoulos,' not 'Yiannopolous.'

If you thought this article was dumb and would much rather hear criticisms of the ideas on the other side of this issue, you can check that out here.

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