Lessons from Milo
If you do not know who Milo Yiannopoulos is, stop reading now and hope never to learn.
Milo Yiannopoulos has fallen. As a self-identifying liberal, I hope he never returns. But before we liberals celebrate too much, we must remember that it was the Right that took him down. Instead, we should take a moment to reflect on why America was subjected to Milo in the first place.
It was the Left that enabled Milo. His scheme was simple, yet shockingly effective:
- A conservative college group invites him to speak on campus.
- University administrators, who believe in, are publicly committed to, and in many cases are legally bound by the ideal of Free Speech, allow him to speak and urge their students to follow suit.
- Liberals show up to protest en masse.
- Extreme elements associated with the Left commit violence.
- Milo is blocked from speaking, freeing him from having to say anything interesting or worthwhile.
- The media covers the shit out of "riots", because it makes ratings.
- Milo gets quoted in media and featured on TV as a tie-in to these stories, getting a vastly larger platform than a lecture hall.
- The university is forced to publicly apologize to him and the group that invited him, who in turn feel vindicated.
In short, we get played. Hard.
Note step 4 in this process—the use of violence by elements of the Left to block Milo from speaking. This was most prominently on display when he came to Berkeley, where the resulting protests-turned-riots received extensive national news coverage. A lot of generally thoughtful, well-intentioned liberals I know defended this, on the grounds that Milo's speeches were sufficiently harmful that mild violence was acceptable. Free speech ideals aside, this defense is incoherent. Long-term, these reactions to Milo gave him his platform, and without them he would not be a threat in the first place. Short-term, blocking him from speaking at a lecture hall in no way prevents him from saying whatever he wants; in the best case his supporters will watch him on Facebook and YouTube, but in the worst—as at Berkeley—he will be interviewed on cable and garner 1000x more viewers. If these tactics appear successful, because he does not say whatever you were trying to prevent him from saying, then either he wasn't going to in the first place, or he is choosing not to in order to incentivize violence and you are playing directly into his hands.
If violent protests didn't stop Milo from doing harm, what did they do? We have already seen that they are a key part of his scheme, both to extract political capital from (liberal) universities and to generate publicity. For Milo, this meant attention, an editorship at Breitbart, speaking fees, and a $250,000 book deal. I doubt he cared about anything else. But the collateral damage was great. Most news viewers didn't see a triumph of tolerance at Berkeley, or even a defeat of free speech. They saw men in black masks beating a man on the ground. They heard Milo's dark warnings about these "intolerant liberals" who would be coming for them next. And finally they understood that they need President Trump to protect them.
Are these viewers wrong? Probably. Milo was intentionally drawing the ire of the Left, and perhaps uniquely suited for it. But can they really be blamed for overlooking this fact, given the Left did as well? Perhaps they had nothing to fear as long as they were less offensive than Milo. And yet:
- They probably didn't know the most offensive things that Milo has said, and in fact were only exposed to his words when he was making an effort to sound reasonable.
- They don't understand exactly what is and isn't offensive to Milo's opponents, and so couldn't gauge how safe they were.
- Milo warned them that after he was gone, liberals would come for more and more moderate targets.
Given the above, it seems rational for them to view liberals as a threat, if only because they have an incomplete picture. And even if it weren't, irrational fears matter just as much in a democracy.
The Left needs to stop getting played. It's not just headache-inducing; it's deeply harmful to our political goals. As a meta-point, we need to stop lashing out at our allies when they tell us we're being played, or when they warn us that our enemy's "enemy" is not out friend. We need to examine why it is that we seem systematically vulnerable to this kind of bait, and what other ways we are sabotaging ourselves. We could accomplish such great things! Instead, we got Donald Trump elected.
The video that brought Milo down was dug up and spread around by the conservative twitter account @ReaganBattalion, in response to Milo's invitation to CPAC. The Washington Post published a timeline of the fallout from this and subsequent videos, which came almost entirely from conservative groups.
Public universities cannot impose disparate requirements on invited speakers on the basis of the content of their speech, except within very narrow limits recognized in 1st Amendment jurisprudence.
According to Berkeley's official statement, the violence was almost entirely the work of a group that marched in from off-campus—the so-called "Black Bloc". It is difficult to confirm this account, but it seems plausible to me. Unfortunately, it's all but irrelevant in the eyes of the broader world.
The example I have usually heard cited is that he outed a transgender student by name and made some remarks about them that could be interpreted as condoning violence against them. Whether being outed as transgender on the Berkeley campus puts one at risk of serious harm is debatable, but it is certainly wrong.
Berkeley wasn't that violent, but I—and perhaps a million others—saw:
- A man beaten on the ground with sticks.
- A woman hit in the face with a stick.
- An event light, a tree, and numerous trash cans set on fire.
- A car's windshield smashed in—which then drove off with a rioter on the hood.
- A driver pepper-sprayed—this one because some rioters had confused said car with the aforementioned one, despite them looking nothing alike.
The author of these tweets, Zeynep Tufecki, is an academic Sociologist who sometimes writes for the New York Times. I highly recommend following her on twitter for insightful perspectives on modern social phenomena and how social media drives them, which she should be expanding upon in her forthcoming book. She also has her own analysis of Milo's shtick in tweetstorm form.