Breitbart editor and alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos is a fearsome creature indeed — he has been called “the Internet’s biggest troll” and was permanently banned from Twitter for “inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.” That was even before his talk at the University of California at Berkeley last week was canceled after a peaceful protest turned violent, thanks to outside agitators who some suspect may have been called in by the provocateur himself. Yiannopoulos is one hateful fellow who is rightly called out as a misogynist, racist, transphobic and — oh yes — a self-loathing homosexual, and the alt-right is a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state. But none of these things are why I’m afraid of him, and why you should be, too.
No, the reason to pay attention to the 33-year-old Breitbart editor lies in his ability to provoke otherwise decent citizens to put profits and publicity before civil discourse, and in how his hateful speech incites many to clamp down on the free speech that is a fundamental right in this country. That’s what we most have to fear from him: that we’ll lose ourselves and our values in this mud-wrestling contest.
Before his Berkeley appearance was nixed — but after he incited his Twitter followers to torment “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones last summer, igniting another firestorm — Yiannopoulos caused a flap in the LGBT community with an interview he gave to Out magazine last fall. Critics rightly called the story a “puff piece” — eight pages featuring photos of him in drag and dressed as a Harlequin clown. By glamorizing Yiannopoulos, the magazine clearly sought to drive newsstand sales and online clicks, as well as generate PR for itself.
Yiannopoulos told Out that he considers himself “one of the primary engines of change in American culture because I’m demonstrating that someone sassy and silly and gay and flamboyant who loves Ru Paul’s Drag Race . . . doesn’t have to vote Democrat.” Criticisms about his foul spewings are met with accusations of “political correctness” and the killing of free speech for conservatives. In the world according to Yiannopoulos, only liberals enjoy free speech, which they quash in those who don’t agree with them.
As troubling as I found the profile, I was more distressed by the response. Many of the biggest names in the LGBT media penned a public letter to the magazine’s editor in chief, Aaron Hicklin, making the specious argument that Yiannopoulos’s brand of hate speech should preclude him from coverage. They called the story “a serious problem,” saying that it “negligently perpetuates harm against the LGBT community.” They continued, “His attacks against women, people of color, Muslims, transgender people . . . are as malicious as they come, and he catalyzes his many ‘alt-right’ followers to turn on any target he deems worthy of abuse.”
How is a thinking person to reconcile the shameless profiteering of a magazine that supposedly serves the LGBT community with the knee-jerk reaction to suppress this admittedly outrageous voice?
The flame wars will no doubt start again next month, when Yiannopoulos’s new book, “Dangerous,” is published by Threshold Editions, the conservative imprint of Simon and Schuster. When the book was announced in December, Simon and Schuster found itself — unsurprisingly — on the defensive. Trying to dodge a bullet, a company statement said, “We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form.”
Let’s be honest: Simon and Schuster reckoned that there’s gold in them thar hills and decided to mine it. Carolyn Reidy, the company’s president and chief executive, has a right to publish and profit from Yiannopoulos, but she made a choice, just like Out’s editors: to profit from hate.
In the storm of criticism that ensued, comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted: “The guy has freedom of speech but to fund him & give him a platform tells me a LOT about @simonschuster YUCK AND BOO AND GROSS.” Lambda Literary, a foundation whose mission is to promote LGBT writers, responded similarly: “While publishers undeniably have the right to acquire and profit from any book they wish, they also bear an essential responsibility to promote civil discourse and reject hate speech that is often a precursor to violence.” In other words, Yiannopoulos has a right to be heard, but Carolyn Reidy did not have to offer up her platform to accommodate him.
And so we come up against the great conundrum: Do we silence outrageous, hateful voices or let them have their say in the name of free speech? The American Civil Liberties Union’s Lee Rowland told me that much of what Yiannopoulos says is “absolutely hateful and despicable — but those adjectives don’t remove his speech from the Constitution’s protection.”
“To the contrary,” she added, “it’s easy to protect speech we agree with, but more important to protect speech we abhor, lest the First Amendment simply become a popularity contest.”
I’m reminded of what the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, which is that the remedy for hateful speech is not enforced silence, but more speech. As much as I deplore what Yiannopoulos says and the greed that gives him a platform, we should not silence his offensive words. We can only face them with our ongoing message of inclusion and respect, drowning out his message of hate.
PS: If you’re unhappy with Simon and Schuster’s decision to publish “Dangerous,” don’t buy it.
Agree or disagree with my perspective? Let me know in the comments section below.
Email questions to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Feb. 21 at 1 p.m.