Milo Yiannopoulos Is Not The Problem, Just A Symptom Of The Disease

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
During his swift ascension to First Amendments rights celebrity, Milo Yiannopoulos called fat people “fucking gross” and referred to feminism as a cancer. He accused lesbians of faking hate crimes, advocated for a “purge” of “local illegals”, and criticized a Muslim woman for choosing to wear a hijab. He made fun of Malala Yousafzai, referred to rape culture as “idiotic,” and declared Canadians and upper Midwesterners — especially anyone at UW-Madison — to be cucks. Not last nor least, he found time to dedicate at least 800 words to body-shaming Lena Dunham. The list is ugly and long.

For these insults, in combination with his personal brand of flippant vulgarity, Yiannopoulos was amply rewarded. In 2016, he embarked on a speaking tour of universities — including a canceled stop at Berkeley, which served only to expand his notoriety — titled "Dangerous Faggot." In December, he also received a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster, and just this month, he appeared as a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher and was offered a prime slot on the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) schedule.

But now it seems that his fifteen minutes of being the most offensive man on the internet may be coming to a close. This week, the book deal evaporated, CPAC rescinded its invitation, and Yiannopoulos lost his Breitbart platform, resigning in the midst of self-made controversy, so as not to “detract from his colleagues' important reporting.”

So, what finally put him over the line? Comments he made on a podcast last year, which allude to the idea that we should soften the stance on sexual relationships between adult men and young boys. Turns out, there is still one thing that everyone from right-wing nationalists to the progressive left can agree upon, and it’s that pedophilia is beyond the pale.

But let’s not start congratulating ourselves on this rare moment of bipartisan solidarity quite yet. The fact is, when pedophilic sympathizing is ground zero for what we find offensive, then it’s time to start investigating the health of our common collective morality. Shame on us — all of us — for letting things get to this point. Has decency in America really slid so far that the only thing the left and right can rally against together is the molestation of boys?

To answer that question, we have to take a look at the past, specifically to “political correctness” and its subsequent deconstruction. “Political correctness” has been in usage since the late 1700s. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that this word combination began to take on the meaning as we understand it today: Surrounded with invisible air quotes, it's a verbal alert that we might be broaching taboo territory. As in — "I know this isn't 'politically correct' to say out loud, but..." It's a precursor to airing offensive thought.

The fact is, when pedophilic sympathizing is ground zero for what we find offensive, then it’s time to start investigating the health of our common collective morality.

The campaign against political correctness — and, by extension, the campaign to make no subject off limits and all conversations within the realm of acceptability — began during the late ‘80s, starting in academic circles before it ringed its way out into larger cultural dialog. Criticisms against the so-called “McCarthyism of the left” hit a fever pitch in the ‘90s; the first President Bush equated it with with a “rise of intolerance”— a label that “replaced old prejudice with new ones.” In a speech at Stanford University in 1991, he added that Americans should “conquer the temptation to assign bad motives to people who disagree with us.”

It was a savvy allusion, which aligned political correctness with language policing and censorship —and it worked out exactly as intended. In effect, the right took this enhanced definition of political correctness and placed it in opposition to freedom of speech. These expanded boundaries protected inflammatory language in the name of "telling it like it is" without rhetorical window dressing. The backlash against P.C. culture has only grown harsher in recent years. It remains the mocked territory of overly-sensitive liberal causes — a ready-made phrase politicos whip out as a means of seeming more relatable to conservative constituencies, often an excuse to spill filth and undermine common decency under the guise of First Amendment rights and no-bullshit authenticity.

Except that: It is bullshit. Leaning into political correctness is proof of party alignment and a certain subcategory of self-importance. It's a strategic position, meant to court a particular section of public opinion. Over the last three decades, alleging political correctness has been the right-wing antidote to identity politics, to safe spaces, to trigger warners, to rape culture. It’s been a defensive bulwark against affirmative action, hate speech, and same sex marriage. It’s freedom fries and liberty cabbage. It's just another way of saying, “Stop being a pussy, I have the right to say whatever I want.”

And while, yes — short of yelling “fire!” in a crowded cinema — that’s more or less true, the problem isn’t entitlement to free speech. The problem is that a rejection of political correctness often takes the form of rejecting common decency — the idea that we owe one another a certain level of respect, simply because of our shared humanity. And when we abandon that civil ideal, we wind up excusing behavior that is actually inexcusable, in the name of protecting the First Amendment.

In real time, that looks like normalizing “locker room talk” and laughing at rape jokes; rationalizing phrases like “grab her by the pussy” and letting the man who said it slide. Those words — the right to say them — might not be illegal, but they’re irresponsible. And isn’t that what decency is, after all: Acknowledging that there is a certain standard of responsibility we should uphold for one another?

Which brings the conversation around to Milo Yiannopoulos, and the statements that came back to bite him. When his comments about relations between men and boys surfaced, he stepped forward at a press conference, the full text of which was shared to his Facebook page, and gave context to the circulating quotations. Though he predictably took issue with the way the controversy surrounding his comments was reported upon by establishment media, Yiannopoulos did concede that he had said things that he did not mean, and clarified that he was neither condoning nor supporting pedophilia in any format. A confession: When I listened to the entirety of that Drunken Peasants episode, that last part was obvious.

What he said was offensive. But that was the point. Yiannopoulos is a provocateur. His goal is to see how far he can push the line, until he discovers what makes his audience reel back in horror and then judge them for their judgement. Their appalled shock is the fuel that drives his cause célèbre: headlines, speaking engagements, book deals, guest start spots, all of which serve to edify him as an authority on First Amendment rights. Even that is a sort of misdirection, though. He's not pushing the line of free speech. He's probing our commitment to decency, to see how far we'll follow along.
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