Monday, February 20, 2017

on Milo, the limits of free speech, and who gets thrown under the bus

I recently published an essay on Medium called Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance. In that piece, as well as in a follow up essay I published yesterday morning, I touched upon recent debates regarding whether Milo Yiannopoulos should be granted a platform to speak at universities and other high profile venues. I argued that Yiannopoulos has a long history of inciting hatred and harassment campaigns toward women, people of color, trans folks, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. I invoked Karl Popper's "Paradox of Tolerance" to make the case that we should not tolerate people (such as Yiannopoulos) who attempt to use their "free speech" in order to suppress and silence others.

While many people (especially those who have witnessed the real harm Yiannopoulos has caused over the last several years) agree with this position, others have taken a free speech absolutist stance that can be paraphrased as follows: "Yiannopoulos may say horrible things that I don't agree with, but I support colleges and others who offer him a platform to speak (and you should too!) because FREE SPEECH." (or something like that.)

But today, we learned the true hypocrisy of the "let Milo speak because FREE SPEECH" crowd. Yesterday, audio/video clips surfaced wherein Yiannopoulos suggests that teenage boys are old enough to consent to sex with older men. In the wake of that revelation, the American Conservative Union, who had previously invited Yiannopoulos to speak at their upcoming CPAC conference, rescinded that invitation. Simon & Schuster, who had been vigorously defending its decision to sign Yiannopoulos to a huge $250,000 book deal, announced that it was canceling that deal. Even employees at the alt-right/white nationalist news outlet Breitbart (where Yiannopoulos is a senior editor) have threatened to quit if he is not fired.

In other words, the same people who were arguing for, or even championing, Yiannopoulos's FREE SPEECH a few days ago, are now disassociating themselves from him. They are, in effect, "no platforming" him.

It seems that FREE SPEECH isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

And I could have told you that. In fact, I did! In my aforementioned Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance essay. As I say there, and as Stanley Fish discusses in this interview (and to borrow his line), there is NO SUCH THING AS FREE SPEECH. Rather, there is speech that we (as individuals, or as a society) are willing to tolerate, and speech that we deem to be beyond the pale. Every single one of us has a hard limit -- a point at which we will exclaim, "I simply cannot tolerate that!" For certain Breitbart employees, the American Conservative Union, Simon & Schuster, and journalist Kurt Eichenwald (whose tweet initially inspired this post), that hard limit is apparently advocating (or seeming to advocate) adult-teen relationships.

I have no problems with any of these groups refusing to tolerate Yiannopoulos's comment. And I have no qualms with their decisions to "no platform" him over this issue. But I do want to point out that, by drawing the line there, the American Conservative Union, Simon & Schuster, Kurt Eichenwald, and others, are implicitly saying that EVERYTHING ELSE that Yiannopoulos has done up until this point -- his long history of blatant racism, misogyny, and transphobia, and his penchant for doxxing, harassing, and intimidating marginalized individuals online and during his talks -- all of that is a-okay. Absolutely tolerable. Within the boundaries of normal discourse, in their eyes.

If that's how you feel, then fine. It's your decision. BUT FUCKING OWN IT! Stop spouting nonsense like, "Well, I don't agree with what he says, but I support his right to say it." THAT IS BULLSHIT! What you are ACTUALLY saying is: "I have chosen to TOLERATE what Yiannopoulos is saying. And if that includes blatant racism, misogyny, transphobia, doxxing, harassing, intimidating, etc., then so be it."

As the aphorism goes: It's a free country. That means that we each get to decide what we are willing to tolerate and what we will not. Isn't that wonderful!!! But that also means that we should be accountable for where we decide to draw that line. And if we are going to take an unwavering stand against speech acts that we feel may harm, injure, or silence some vulnerable group (e.g., teenage boys), then we should also be willing to admit that we are not standing up for everyone. We must admit that there are other vulnerable groups who may also harmed, injured, or silenced by speech acts, who we are effectively throwing under the bus.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]