What Milo Tells Us About Free Speech And Decency
Recently the right-wing icon Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for supposedly spewing hate. I didn’t actually look at the exchange in question, but I’ve heard Mr. Yiannopoulos speak, and I’ve perused his “literature” before, so I didn’t find it all that necessary to delve into that attention-span-killing medium to find the exact battle in question. I can only imagine he didn’t take some new tack: hear a talking head regurgitate their ideological commitments once, you might as well have heard it a thousand times.
Perhaps we need more writers doing caricatures, rather than returning fire with similar sounding rhetoric or satirizing the situation upon which they choose to comment. We may be at the point at which, to quote the eloquent David Foster Wallace, caricature is “an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy,” and not a useful springboard for any type of action. The caricatures that could be done today, however, are much different from their more archaic versions: Max Beerbohm caricatured G.K. Chesterton, but only managed to do so in style and not in content. Today, I am confident a stylistic and intellectual caricature of Yiannopoulos could be easily accomplished. If nothing else, this just shows how boring of a talking head he has so quickly become.
In any case, in the wake of this pop-culture tragedy folks have, predictably, either rushed to Yiannopoulos’s defense or joined in the parade of, as the defense puts it, “fascism.” It is funny how quickly a Twitter feud can turn into a supposedly obvious situation in which the only answer coming from both sides is to raise the alarms of ‘civilization is at stake.’ If nothing else, we as a society have a penchant ability to see in the most trivial of happenings an instance of moral panic and existential crisis. In this case, obviously, is cast free speech versus fascism: I could imagine this being compared to—if it hasn’t been already in not so exact of language—the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in some not too far off history textbook.
The two sides in this incredibly simple fight are thus captured simply. The supposedly anti-Yiannopoulos, neo-Fascist rhetoric:
“Milo shows no remorse for the avalanche of misconduct he helped direct towards Leslie Jones, who is just the latest victim of the recreational ritual abuse he likes to launch at women and minorities for the fame and fun of it. According to the law of the wild web, the spoils go to those with fewest fucks to give. I have come to believe, in the course of our bizarro unfriendship, that Milo believes in almost nothing concrete—not even in free speech. The same is reportedly true of Trump, of people like Ann Coulter, of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: They are pure antagonists unencumbered by any conviction apart from their personal entitlement to raw power and stacks of cash.”
Notice, however, the significant lack of a free-speech threat: no one is saying the government needs to shut Yiannopoulos down. As far as I can tell this would be the only threat to free speech, much to the dismay of people wanting to force free speech into some societal law. And nor, as far as I can tell, are people saying Yiannopoulos ought be punished for his words: it seems as if—saving for a moment those radicals who would happily jail Yiannopoulos in a heartbeat—most just want a bit more honesty, sincerity, and intelligence at the table. No doubt meals that both sides should consume a bit more regularly.
The other side is summed up quite nicely too:
“The open society our grandparents fought for needs assholes like Milo Yiannopoulos—even though they’re often full of shit, even though their motives are frequently somewhat less than noble. The truth or falsity of what difficult people say is to some extent irrelevant, as is their mental health. Fixating on either of these questions invariably leads to a convenient rationalization for silencing them.”
As you can see, both sides see in this situation cause for raising the alarm, albeit for entirely different reasons. As an interesting aside, I’ve talked to a good amount of people on both sides of the political spectrum and the common consensus on Yiannopoulos is that, indeed, he is an asshole. The above statement in Yiannopoulos’ “defense” sort of tips its hat in this direction as well without necessary engaging in the content of what he is saying—for to do so would be to get people get caught in that sticky web of ‘no, I don’t agree with what he’s saying necessarily, I just believe he can say it.’ I’m glad we’ve set the bar low. Like most situations though, I see the pendulum swinging from side to side, stopping at the middle point of moderation for but a brief moment in which the more “serious” of the political bunch convince us that this is no time for moderation; or tell us to quit being naïve, for, again, civilization itself is at stake. We may well lose civilization, but it will be by persuading ourselves and others it is indeed slipping out of our hands, and thus convincing ourselves once and for all more desperate measures need to be taken against our enemies.
I just recently finished Robert M. Calhoon’s book Political Moderation in America’s First Two Centuries. It was about as eye-opening as it was surprisingly un-academic and digestible. So perhaps my wanting a bit more moderation in this situation is both predictable and an unconscious ode to this book and those nasty devils in history who, wanting to preserve the fabric of society, found it “more important for a society to move together than for it to move either fast or far.” Almost everyone on every side confronted these moderates with absolute disgust, yet, upon closer examination, the moderates at every turn seemed to bridge one more gap, apply one more bandage to the immediate problems they were confronted with day in and day out. These unsung heroes are far more inspiring than any of the work put in by that oft-flaunted ensemble of founding fathers—not to discredit the latter in any sense, but rather to realize that it’s not all that hard to write a Declaration of whatever when you don’t have to deal with the fallout of said Declaration in the towns and cities that were literally and physically being torn apart by rival factions.
Unsurprising, then, that I believe that a reasonable middle ground is available here—of course only in theory. To be sure, it is easier for the moderate to attack the pro-free speech camp. It is ironic, in a sense, that those defending Yiannopoulos are defending him with such high-minded academic jargon about democracy and the necessity of dissent when Yiannopoulos doesn’t, and has never, showed a shred of decency or care for that type of style or political engagement. This is all done under the pseudo-sage’s guise of “I do not approve of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” Those who like to flaunt such dramatic platitudes often are lacking in any sense of what these early moderates understood to be our societal fabric. It is, in essence, the belief that decency plays a part in how people interact in society, and the even simpler fact that how you say something almost always matters more than what you are saying. Again, this is why many people who agree with Yiannopoulos’ views are just as soon disassociating themselves from him: they understand that some semblance of decency is necessary. In short, most people believe words matter. Not in any trigger-warning sense, but in the sense that people should have a greater sense of responsibility to the words they speak. That people can say whatever they want, watch one of the slower of the bunch take those words a bit too literally and act violently toward whomever, see that same speaker then wash their hands of the situation under the self-congratulatory stance of “I can say what I want” is problematic to say the absolute least. Oakeshott was right when he said “we are too ready believe that so long as our freedom to speak is not impaired we have lost nothing of importance—which is not so.” Indeed, if our current landscape tells us anything it’s that this is not so at all.
Perhaps, then, it should be “I don’t approve of what you are saying, but you are conveying your message in a decent and genuine manner, so I will defend to death your right to say it”—maybe a job as a Yiannopoulos decency translator is in my future. I have no problem adding a decency disclaimer to all speech given our situation. That is, given most people today use their oh-so-coveted free expression to rattle off the first thing that pops into their heads as if they have confused spontaneous thoughts with divinely inspired truths.
Maybe, upon seeing how my thoughts are playing out, I do lean a little more toward the anti-Yiannopoulos side. Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t see why civility or common decency needed to go when we became a more expressive and open society. It’s almost as if civility was interpreted as a male-dominated, whitewashed remnant of a bygone, more repressive past, therefore, it needed to go as well. How bourgeois. God forbid we leave the baby in the tub at least one time, or, put another way, see that decency is compatible with just about any set a beliefs one holds—it’s a manner of expression; it hardly determines our beliefs. Unlike the Yiannopoulos defenders, I don’t think that we need people like Yiannopoulos to prove to us that we still have dissent or an open-society, just as I don’t need to set fire to my house every time I wish to clean it. It is nothing short of immaturity to believe that flamboyantly crude figures like Yiannopoulos are necessary to keep the machine running, or, as they would have it, running away from Fascism.
If anything at all is to be gleaned from my criticism of Yiannopoulos, it is simply the fact that I don’t think we should hold him up as a gem of dissent in the maelstrom that is our democratic discourse—we should aspire much higher.
Dissent isn’t in danger; decency is. There’s plenty of dissent, but you can’t hear it because Milo Yiannopoulos is yelling so loudly.