Milo Yiannopoulos is a despicable person. In addition to his racist alt-right views, his entire platform is built upon internet trolling. The means by which he gains followers is to solicit “persecution” from “political correctness” by engaging in malicious ad hominem attacks. In this sense, he is the embodiment of the toxicity that American conservatism has acquired in the Reagan age. He exudes the opposite of the character qualities of authentic conservatism like patience, integrity, discipline, and temperance. Yiannopoulos was permanently kicked off twitter in response to a brutal targeted harassment campaign against Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones.
While I agree with the decision to ban Yiannopoulos from twitter since it’s no longer a freedom of speech issue when you’re organizing violence against another person, I have reservations about student protests to prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on college campuses, like what happened at the University of California at Davis this weekend. Yiannopoulos and Martin “pharma bro” Shkreli were due to speak together to a gathering of College Republicans when the event got shut down by leftist protesters, which is precisely the kind of censorship that is the entire foundation of Yiannopoulos’ platform.
Trying to silence troll agitators by preventing them from speaking on campus seems akin to trying to put out a grease fire by dumping a bucket of water on it. I recognize that I don’t know how this protest fits into the context of local movement-building and campus culture, so I’m not criticizing the UC Davis activists specifically. I just think it’s worthwhile to reflect on movement strategy and have some honest conversation about censorship. It seems to me that too much leftist activism right now is focused on making sure that other people speak correctly. As a post-evangelical, it triggers a lot of memories of the hyper-focus on correct doctrine in conservative evangelicalism.
It seems like leftist protesters and alt-right agitators are in a cyclical symbiotic relationship right now with each side providing the other the grounds of their legitimacy. By doing a college tour, Milo Yiannopoulos gives leftist protesters a reason to mobilize. Likewise, his entire credibility as a figure is dependent upon their protests. The reason College Republicans invite people like Milo to speak is to create a “freedom of speech” issue. As long as they can count on the progressives to censor their events, they get to think of themselves as fighting for their civil rights, which helps them recruit and maintain institutional momentum. They can subsist entirely off of leftist censorship rather than having to think of any actual constructive ideas. (Of course if I were a conservative with any self-respect, I would be emailing the UC Davis College Republicans right now to say why are you making all of us look like an assholes.)So what would it look like for student activists to respond to a white supremacist troll by providing an alternative vision rather than solely trying to silence him? I’m not saying that Milo should be engaged directly in a polite panel conversation. Trolls aren’t entitled to polite discussion. But I do think that progressives need to think evangelistically. How many politically moderate white frat boys at UC Davis have been pushed to the right by seeing this act of censorship take place? Doesn’t shutting down Milo’s speaking events give him free media attention and control of the narrative?
Recently I recorded a Crackers and Grape Juice podcast interview with Ched Myers who observed that too much political struggle takes place in the realm of “placeless” abstract discourse. Myers talked about the way that the Standing Rock protest was such a tremendous contrast to the ineffectual placelessness of white progressivism, because it had the spiritual foundation of a group of people defending their land. As a non-indigenous person, I don’t have land to defend, or rather, I belong to a race that presumes to belong everywhere. I can’t fight for my land. But I can fight for positive things like health care for my family, equitable resources in our school system, and the dignity of immigrants in my community.
I just don’t think it’s a good investment of my political capital to try to keep speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on the campuses where I work. I’d rather help create spaces that say, “Another world is possible.” I’d love to see student movements shift their focus away from speech regulation and spend more time figuring out how to support low-income campus workers and marginalized people in the surrounding community. If you disagree, I’d be happy to listen and learn.
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