Alt-right wunderkind Milo Yiannopoulos made his career through frequent and flagrant flaunting of free speech. Like the shocking disk jockeys who are his intellectual peers, Yiannopoulos used inflammatory jibber jabber as a shortcut to fame. He wraps bigoted ideas in the warm blanket of “free speech,” but the covering is a cloak, obscuring the fact this his notions are just repackaged hate mongering. He is a slightly more dashing David Duke, or as I called him last November, a telegenic Rush Limbaugh.
Yesterday, though, Milo’s rhetorical training wheels collapsed under him:
Milo Yiannopoulos, a polemical Breitbart editor and unapologetic defender of the alt-right, tested the limits of how far his provocations could go after the publication of a video in which he condones sexual relations with boys as young as 13 and laughs off the seriousness of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests. On Monday, the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded their invitation for him to speak this week. Simon & Schuster said it was canceling publication of “Dangerous” after standing by him through weeks of criticism of the deal. And Breitbart itself was reportedly reconsidering his role amid calls online for it to sever ties with him.
The individuals who espouse free speech as a first-among-equals political value were quick to defend Yiannopoulos when the targets of his ridicule were women, members of the transgender community, black folks, or the dreaded liberal protectors of “PC culture.” Moderates and conservatives alike cheered Yiannopoulos as he pilloried the PC-ers, but they are speechless now that their darling aimed his verbal weaponry at the victims of child rape.
The Milo melee reveals a few uncomfortable truths about mainstream conservative culture, which is just a more extreme manifestation of the white identity politics at play across political lines in this country. First, the defense of free speech was never about defending open discourse, but rather about the dominant culture drawing lines around whose humanity and dignity is worth defending. Some conservatives in my own field, public education, ridicule “PC culture” until their own views are challenged … at which point they furiously invoke the need for their own safe spaces. The platforms on which free speech occur are controlled by gatekeepers, most of whom are white and privileged. The defense of free speech collapses whenever the dominant white culture perceives that its own mores are being challenged.
Second, the reaction to Yiannopoulos demonstrates the extent to which most folks misunderstand the actual first amendment to the Constitution. The right to free speech guarantees that Congress will not make laws restricting speech; the Constitution does not prevent a person from being ridiculed, marginalized, or disinvited from the halls of dignified adult discourse for espousing ideas that harm people. Fortunately, the fact that Milo lost his book deal means that our broader American culture thinks that there should be some social costs for advancing harmful ideas. Unfortunately, the fact that pedophilia was the wire that Milo had to trip, means that neither racism nor misogyny nor transphobia seem to be on the list of mainstream white America’s punishable offenses. If you are surprised by this particular parsing of personhood, I invite you to observe the perspectives of the sitting president of the United States.
Finally, by drawing the virtual line-in-the-sand” at child rape, the conservative movement, which is almost entirely composed of white people, demonstrated what they have in common with white progressives: white people will defend their values with vigor, until their own children are involved. “Free speech” was the hill on which conservative critics were willing to die, until the topic was the sexual safety of their own children. Similarly, white progressives will thump their chests about social justice, until they are asked to enroll their own children in a racially integrated elementary school. In both cases – whether the topic is social justice or free speech – whenever children get involved, the political grandstanding of white folks morphs into a long discourse about “safety.” Political values have a way of becoming dispensable once they are tested on one’s own kin. If only the actual harm of the black child in America raised as many alarms as the hypothetical harm of the white one.
Yiannopoulos will have a few bad days in the media, after which he will almost certainly rehabilitate his image, get another book deal, and emerge as the victim of this whole affair. When that happens, and he rises like a White-Fragility-Phoenix from the ashes of his current self-inflicted shame, I hope that we remember why he was punished in the first place. There should be tangible social costs to perpetuating harmful ideas, particularly those that historically have served as antecedents to mass violence and cultural dissolution. The only upside of the Milo dustup is that America, in its own late-to-the-party way, is reasserting the idea that some ideas deserve to remain in history’s waste bucket. The next step is to decide that racism, white supremacy, transphobia, and misogyny belong in the barrel as well.