I fully intend to keep writing about jerks as well as con men and con women who have actual power. If someone has seen fit to hire you to host a television show, if you make decisions about who gets to work and tell stories in the entertainment industry, if you have an elected office or a position in the bureaucracy that gives you influence over arts and communication policy, or if you occupy the Oval Office and you behave like a creep, a fool or an intellectual arsonist, then I’ll rush to my keyboard and write what needs to be said.
In contrast to these figures, there are unpleasant people who regularly behave poorly in public, who hold no official position of influence or respectability, and who derive much of their power from media coverage of their unpleasantness. It’s true that to ignore someone like Breitbart writer and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and the response to him might deprive readers of insight into how the extreme right wing in the United States is evolving and reinventing itself. And when people in these positions manage to persuade their followers to do things that have real-world implications and force significant questions of corporate policy, as was the case with Yiannopoulos’s role in inciting the harassment of actress Leslie Jones on Twitter, that’s probably worth covering, but more for what these incidents say about corporations and free speech than for feeding the perpetrators with our contempt.
But it’s also true that to breathlessly cover Yiannopoulos’s every thirsty bid to incite outrage is to give him exactly what he needs to get speaking engagements and sell books. If Yiannopoulos manages to get anyone worked up over, say, a mediocre-sounding art show, he’s proved that he can do what his audiences want from him, which is to irritate liberals. Ignore him, and as Hua Hsu put it in a New Yorker review of said show, “this was just a guy who loves attention sitting in a bathtub of blood, making faces.” The real threat to Yiannopoulos’s controversial publishing deal with an imprint of Simon & Schuster isn’t the anger directed at the publisher. Rather, the worst thing that could happen to both him and his imprint would be silence, lowering his profile and making it harder for him to sell out his advance, which in turn would make it harder for him to get another book contract.
I want to be careful about how much time I devote to mucking around the fever swamps when those swamps have already been carefully mapped and an extensive census of the species who dwell there has already been conducted. And I really don’t want to be a participant in the kinds of cons that outrage-mongers are perpetuating. I am not going to be the barker for a clip joint, pointing the direction to figures who are looking to make money by behaving in splashy, grotesque ways and insist that they’re offering their followers something meaningful. And where possible, I’m not going to be the person whose wounded feelings jerks and cons can point to as proof that their attempts at transgression are effective.
There’s a difference between shedding a light on something that is genuinely hidden and adding oxygen to a fire that is blazing merrily away in full view.
I want to keep that distinction in mind this year, not least because the cons that provocateurs pull can embroil journalists in another way. Just as there’s a market for anyone who can send the left into the tizzy, it’s easy to generate a lot of traffic by feeding the whirlwind and giving readers something to feel bad and angry about. If someone disgusts me and makes me angry, I don’t want to effectively be in business with them.