Free speech, it seems, has limits for American conservatives. And that limit is accepting child abuse.
For those of you fortunate enough not be au fait with the latest doings of Milo Yiannopoulos, the Anglo-Greek agitator was recently invited to give a keynote speech at CPAC, America’s largest conservative conference (CPAC stands for Conservative Political Action Conference. I dropped in once. Think ComicCon with Fox News anchors.)
Milo is a professional provocateur-turned-Trump acolyte, which probably still makes him sound less nasty than he is. Before he was banned from Twitter, he had led the harassment of Lesley Jones, whose crime appears to have been to be a black female actor with a black female mouth. And by harassment, I don’t mean Milo simply called Jones some mean names and made her cry.
While promoting her role in an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters – a gender reversal taken by some as an attack on a sacred male fan space – Jones had become a target for hackers, who “doxxed” her (a term for publishing personal documents, such as a passport copy, online) and stole nude photographs presumably intended for a lover. Milo – though he’s cultivated careful deniability – encouraged Jones’ abuse by his hundreds of thousands of followers.
At its height, he circulated fake images of tweets, purportedly written by the actor, in which she appeared to utter racist statements against white people. For someone who campaigns against censorship and disinformation by left liberals, it looked a lot like fake news.
The Lesley Jones affair wasn’t the only example of Yiannopoulos’s bullyboy tactics. But it’s now the most famous, resulting in him being banned from Twitter permanently. Milo defended his behaviour as a legitimate response to a bad work of art – unconvincing, when the three white actresses who starred in Ghostbusters received a fraction of the abuse levelled at Jones. None of this seemed to concern CPAC.
Milo has a built his career as a free speech advocate, which largely consisted of being as aggressive as possible in provoking protests against himself. It’s good work if you can get it. I was once told by an editor, with a straight face, that he could promise commissions if I could get myself banned from a university. But his most unpleasant outbursts are not examples of necessary free speech or investigative journalism. They are invasions of privacy and acts of defamation.
The wheels do seem to be coming off, however. This weekend, a video began to circulate in which Yiannopoulos appeared to advocate sexual relationships between underage boys and older men. Yiannopolous responded on Facebook that he did not support paedophilia.
Conservatives – suddenly aware that they are, in fact, conservatives – have begun to demand CPAC rescind the invitation to their keynote speaker. This teases the prospect of the US right, so long defending Milo as a victim of cruel no-platforming, no-platforming him from their own banner event. But is musing about youthful sexuality really worse than encouraging the harassment of a black woman?
It is and it isn’t. Milo’s comments on paedophilia bear careful reading, because they exemplify the aerial acrobatics of his rhetoric. He starts, as always, with a statement that is both thoroughly reasonable and impressively taboo-busting: “We get hung up on this kind of child abuse stuff to the point where we’re heavily policing even relationships between consenting adults…”
He then adds an example, just pushing at the boundaries of decency, but not surprising anyone: “You know, grad students and professors at universities.”
Let me be clear: libertarians have been arguing for a more relaxed approach to adolescent sexuality for decades. And we all know that intellectually productive relationships between students and teachers can be erotically charged.
But – and I speak as a current graduate student – student-teacher relationships are always predicated on a potential for abuse of power, situated as they are on the first rungs of a deeply hierarchical career ladder. From uttering a much-needed social bombshell, Milo has already skipped within seconds to what looks to me like celebrating abuse.
Who doesn’t believe that people are messy and complex? Who doesn’t know of an underage sexual relationship that wasn’t quite legal but was probably OK?
Unlike Milo, however, the rest of us don’t go onto celebrate them in his style, advocating “some of those relationships between younger boys and older men, the sort of coming-of-age relationships, the relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are, and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of a rock when they can’t speak to their parents” in the same breath as talking about his relationship with a much older Catholic priest as a teenager.
No wonder American conservatives are fuming. But this isn’t anything new from Milo. If anything, his popularity on the right (and the alt-right, and the neo-fascist right, whatever demarcations we’re using this week) stems from his ability to pinpoint people’s reasonable fears about liberal social prescription – and then push those fears to their worst.
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He has, many times, been right to argue that European nations have ignored the threat of radical Islamism; or that the rise of identity politics has turned ugly as minority groups turn on each other in the competition for grievance (the occasion when a Black Lives Matter group objected to an LGBT police march was grist to his mill.)
But most people who are seriously worried about the integration of Islamic minorities in Europe get involved with community reconciliation projects, not self-promotion. It’s hard to take Milo’s concern for orthodox Muslim women seriously when he spent his early days at The Telegraph vaunting the tiny number of female Nobel winners as proof of women’s lower IQ.
Milo loves the bait of the left, and the left love to be baited by him. Being banned from student unions kick-started his career – and it’s fair to criticise the easily offended for fuelling his rise. But the right, in Britain and America, should start championing free speech defenders who act in good faith. Even the Man/Boy Love movement could find better advocates.