After much hype over Bill Maher’s invitation to host Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on his show “Real Time” on Friday, the two got along famously, bonding over their shared love of free speech and the unifying power of humor in a one-on-one conversation. It seemed that Yiannopoulos had found a warm embrace on Maher’s set — but then the broadcast ended and Yiannopoulos sat down with Maher’s other panelists for the post-show “Overtime” segment, which airs on YouTube. Two of those guests told the far-right prince what they’d like to see him do to himself. (Hint: It rhymes with “cuck.”)
And during that, this was said.
Maher said he didn’t see it that way. At the start of his conversation with Yiannopoulos, the host explained: “I think you’re colossally wrong. But if I banned everyone from my show who I thought was colossally wrong, I’d be talking to myself.”
Maher’s guest agreed, saying, “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.”
The question of debate, and whether we should be debating someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, is one of only two interesting questions that he right-wing public bigot raises. The other is what it is about our culture that let’s someone as deeply banal as Yiannopoulos get so far in life when he has so little to offer.
We like to think of debate as a forum in which we calmly discuss rational proposals and through learned discourse arrive at sensible conclusions. This is easy to believe until you actually watch a debate. Debates are seldom won by reason, or evidence, or learned discourse. They’re often won by whoever can rattle off enough unexpected falsehoods to throw their opponent off balance. (This explains a lot about how Ted Cruz became a champion debater in college.) And Milo Yiannopoulos is, whatever else he is, a fount of falsehood. Before a TV host or panelist can start debunking his first lie, he’s already on to his third, and on television, where seconds count, this is the debating equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.
Further, debating someone like Yiannopoulos is inherently problematic because the mere act of doing so says that his “ideas” are still worthwhile debate topics among reasonable people. What are his ideas?
For his shopping trip to Gieves & Hawkes, Yiannopoulos calls for an Uber. The driver is a man, possibly because Uber’s algorithm has learned that Yiannopoulos rejects female drivers. Women, he says, have been scientifically proven to be worse at spatial relations, as have Asians. “It’s the only thing Saudi Arabia gets right,” he says about the country’s ban on female drivers. “Behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.”
He says he disapproves of all Muslims—except his boyfriend of 10 years. But it’s feminists who rile him most. During Gamergate, he targeted game developer Brianna Wu. Her address was posted on Reddit, and she received so many rape and death threats that she moved out of her home for a while and hired a bodyguard. “When you’ve faced difficulties in your life—growing up gay, being a minority, suffering from physical illness—you have two paths in front of you,” Wu says about Yiannopoulos. “Some people develop a fierce sense of empathy. The other side that’s available is to become something very dark. You can look at some of his poetry, when he was an adolescent, and it’s very clear he was hurting. He’s channeled that pain into hurting a lot of people and justifying it.”
So Yiannopoulos hates women and has contempt for non-whites. Are we supposed to be debating whether these are good ideas, sensible notions for a happier world? Are we supposed to hold a symposium titled, “Resolved: Behind every racist joke lies a scientific fact”, or does it lend racism a patina of intellectual legitimacy that its repeated and demonstrated failure as a way of looking at human beings would indicate it deserves? Racists like Yiannopoulos have been making the same fundamental errors for five centuries now. They’ve caused extraordinary harm. We know that. We can’t unknow it. Debating them is like debating people who think the Sun goes around the Earth or that Aristotle was more right about the descent rate of falling objects than Galileo was.
But what about Yiannopoulos’s feelings about free speech, the very reason Maher invited him on his show? Surely he has some thoughts of interest about that, right?
For one thing, Yiannopoulos has not had his free speech rights violated. Never. Not once. At no time has any government–federal, state, or local–enacted a law, ordinance, or rule that prohibited him from expressing himself. Milo Yiannopoulos is, by any measurable standard, freer to speak than anyone I know. Simon and Schuster gave him $250,000 for his upcoming book. He gets invitations to banter and chatter on national talk shows. Major magazines interview him all the time. Hollywood stars have to shell out big bucks to publicists to be featured in the media as often as our supposed poster boy for censored speech.
What has happened is that at times when he’s been invited to speak, people who disliked what he said, mainly because they were the targets of his and his fans’ abuse, have talked back. Guess what? That’s free speech too. Occasionally, those protests have turned violent, and that is a shame. But it’s not a violation of his right to free speech. Yiannopoulos is free to speak. The public that hears what he says is free to react. And there’s no law that requires their reaction to be polite, so long as no one gets hurt.
For another, if free speech is a topic you want to discuss, there are many more qualified people to expound on it: journalists, lawyers, judges, historians. Yiannopoulos is none of these. He’s a brain stem attached to a keyboard (sometimes, when his interns aren’t doing his writing for him). He has nothing of interest to bring to the conversation. So why talk to him?
Why has our culture let someone like Yiannopoulos get this far? What happened? Are we all this easily conned? Well, yeah. Yiannopoulos has found a way of hacking into our culture, bypassing what should otherwise be robust bullshit detectors.
Our culture has a fetish for putting old wine in new bottles. We reboot old TV and movie franchises, comic books, games, everything. We crave both novelty and familiarity, and like to get both at the same time if we can. Yiannopoulos is that in spades. If he presented himself as a cranky Public Access TV host, ranting at us with an American flag behind him, or as a Klansman on the Jerry Springer show wearing his sheet and yelling “White Power” as the studio audience boos, no one would give a shit about him. Instead, Yiannopoulos says everything the racist, homophobic, sexist uncle you dread talking to at Thanksgiving says, but he wears eyeliner and pearls. Wild! Different! What can we make of it? If J.J. Abrams were to reboot the worst of five centuries of western civilization–and I’m not for a moment suggesting he would or should–he’d have created Milo Yiannopoulos.
We should probably rethink our affection for newly bottled old wines going forward. The past is full of rancid ideas unfit for modern human consumption, and the world is full of opportunists all too eager to be the their trendy new face.
UPDATE: I neglected to add Advocate In Favor Of Pedophilia to Yiannopoulos’s list of titles. I became aware of it only after hitting Publish. Here’s the video. Anyone feel like this is one of those topics worthy of debate?