Just to be clear, I don’t like Milo Yiannopoulos. The “alt-right” bad boy’s menagerie of outrageous and often toxic sentiments reveal a careless attention-seeker rather than thoughtful provocateur, one seemingly not concerned with the damages caused, smugly delighted to push biased buttons and stoke hate as long as he sounds cool while doing it. Ya, I don’t like Milo Yiannopoulos.
All the more reason to be very careful about shutting him down.
This week Milo, or @Nero, was permanently kicked off Twitter after a barrage of racist and misogynist hate-tweets were sent to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. She is black, she is a woman, you can fill in the rest. The messages were beyond gross. They brought into the light the sick weakness that still festers in people, metastasized into easily deliverable responsibility-free bits by the anonymity of the Internet.
This isn’t the first time Yiannopoulos has been reprimanded by Twitter. He has been involved in many trolling controversies and accused of influencing his followers in very hateful and bullying directions. Watching his interviews you will find a well-spoken and charismatic individual, but one seemingly there simply to incite and provoke, barfing a silver-tongued mix of rightwing hot topics, a beguiling procession of sexism, misogyny, religiosity, and Islamophobia (but apparently cool because he’s young and British and gay).
He has made a career of being a hateful shit-disturber and it finally got him kicked off Twitter. His followers cried foul, defenders of liberal principles and decency applauded, and I felt strangely excited.
Proclaiming to be a defender of free speech is easy; standing brave for a free speech cause you support is even easier. And then you run into something like this.
In 2009 HBO produced the documentary Shouting Fire: Stories From The Edge of Free Speech which examined contentious cases of free speech. Among others was the story of a teenager suspended from high school for wearing a “Homosexuality Is Shameful” shirt during a gay and lesbian awareness event. Or the tale of a tenured professor fired for writing that U.S. foreign policy abuses were a partial cause of the 9/11 attacks. And the story of a respected teacher and founder of New York City’s first Arabic-English public school, forced to resign simply for citing the literal definition of “Intifada” during a newspaper interview.
Free speech, we say, is a principle we will defend to the death. Until perhaps we don’t agree with what has been said. Then, suddenly, we are able to find very valid reasons to rationalize ourselves away from a supposed absolute value.
Cases like Yiannopoulos’ push our proclaimed moral positions up against the wall, compelling us to confront our human tendency towards personal bias. And that’s why they are so interesting. Having our moral positions tested pulls us from the anesthetizing embrace of our comfortable camps and forces us to sharpen our tools, reevaluate the consistency of our convictions.
As Shouting Fire demonstrated with its varied examples of restricted free speech from different ends of the ideological spectrum, once you allow speech to be limited you must assume that yours could be next. If not the whole thing falls down.
“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.” ― Neil Gaiman
To the specifics of Yiannopoulos’ case. He did post some mean and unnecessary comments about Leslie Jones’ acting and looks, and then once the abuse-parade had started, retweeted some nastier stuff that others had sent. But I have yet to find any tweets from @Nero that directly incited hate or violence towards Jones. By simply being a huge asshole and having even crazier asshole followers sitting there waiting to have their hate directed somewhere, it seems that you can be kicked off one of the world’s largest public forums for speech.
Again, this is not to take a side. Your side doesn’t matter. The flexing and exercising of our moral muscles does.
Twitter is a private company, able to set their own terms of usage and decide what sort of content flows through its network. Yes. But if private social media like Twitter or Facebook are our new avenues of speech, our new public squares, then perhaps they should be held to the same exacting standard as public free speech. And we wander into dangerous territory when the outrage of one group can force repression of an opposing voice, no matter how deplorable that voice may be, especially when decisions being made come from the top, based on corporate and financial considerations. What happens when the popular tide is not flowing in your direction?
Bullying is terrible and is a serious issue online, especially for women and minorities. It should always be fought. But if we care about stopping the abuse, unilaterally and somewhat randomly silencing some hateful blabbermouths is likely not the way. You turn the ones you meant to silence into martyrs, increasing their platforms, alienating their followers, and further insulating them with their ideologies. All of which works against the goal of reducing abuse.
And so do nothing? No, but turning a mid-level blowhard into a free speech hero, while giving his acolytes more fuel to rage against other less protected non-celebrities seems like a very myopic fix.
A more productive method of shutting this sort of thing down? Perhaps a measured counter-campaign showing Yiannopoulos’ history of unsavory behavior, a list of all the bile and hate undeniable its offensiveness, exposing racism and misogyny, tweeted and retweeted.
Instead of using the support Jones received to demand he be silenced and kicked out of the town square, why not focus that swell towards the general public and his corporate sponsors? This sort of corporate pressure has worked well in recent LGBT cases in the US and would force ugly words meant for the web’s underbelly into the light for all to see.
Believe me, I would love him to stop talking. Normally I prefer debate as a means towards change, but people like Milo don’t want constructive conversations. Abuse and hate are fine as long it gets more clicks, and so it’s better to hear less from such toxic voices. But unfortunately the only way to do this while staying true to our values is through the long slow work of education and evolution. Society will eventually progress to the point where such views become so unacceptable, so alien, that we will self-select these voices into extinction. But until that day we have to live with it, pushing back against them, watching them being silenced by the inescapable glacial inertia of progress, and not the delete button.