On Tuesday May 24, the DePaul College Republicans are hosting the “Dangerous Faggot Tour” featuring speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. A journalist for Brietbart News Network and poster boy of the emerging alt-right movement, Yiannopoulos calls himself “the internet’s most fabulous supervillain” and rose to fame for his participation in the 2014 #GamerGate controversy.
For those unaware, #GamerGate was an international media saga that came about as a reaction to feminist bloggers’ criticisms of sexism in the video gaming industry. Accusing these women of ethical violations and conspiring with the industry, Yiannopoulos and his followers launched an internet harassment campaign that included sending death threats to various women and “doxxing,” posting personal information online to induce harassment. Researchers at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University found the campaign to be “vitriolic” and noted “considerable abuse and harassment — including rape and death threats — of female developers and game critics.”
This controversy propelled Yiannopoulos to fame, or perhaps infamy, making him one of the few right-wing icons popular with today’s youth. His notoriety continues to grow due to his outspoken support of presidential candidate Donald Trump and his criticisms of liberalism, identity politics and the rise of “political correctness,” most notably on college campuses. He has garnered significant media attention for causing controversy and testing the limits of free expression.
One of Yiannopoulos‘ favorite targets is feminism, a movement he calls a “cancer,” and denies various statistical realities including the gender wage gap, which he calls “debunked” despite most researchers accepting the reality that gender wage differentials exist. He also denies the existence of the patriarchy — a matriarchy in his eyes — and argues that all university gender studies programs should be eliminated, asserting that birth control is “evil” because it makes women “fat and crazy.”
Despite being openly gay himself, Yiannopoulos publicly attacks the LGBT community and connected activist movements. He has stated multiple times that he believes that being gay is “wrong,” thinks that gay rights have made us “dumber,” and asserts that he would not raise a child in a “gay household.” He also challenges transgender rights, arguing that trans people should be banned from undergoing sex changes — which he views as an indulgence — and should instead be treated with therapy and drugs like other psychiatric disorders.
Another favorite topic of his is #BlackLivesMatter, a movement Yiannapoulos accuses of being counteractive to its own intentions because of the demonstrators’ “whiny” demeanor and lack of factual support for their cause, although he provides no counter-evidence aside from making generic, racist criticisms of black culture including blaming the failure of black men for the prevalence of single-mother households. He has also called the movement “preposterous and socially counter-productive” and is staunchly opposed to African-Americans’ “racist” behavior towards whites.
What is clear, after an in-depth look into Yiannopoulos’ arguments, is that these ideologies are not intended to be rational viewpoints but instead are formulated to create as much dissent and rage as possible. This anger is materializing all over the country as he incites protests at various colleges, including Rutgers University, where his recent event was disrupted by feminists demonstrating by covering themselves in fake blood. A major component of alt-right rhetoric is the portrayal of liberals as coddled, childish and regressive, accusing them of being overly politically correct (PC) and opposed to free speech if it is discordant with their progressive ideology. The rise of “safe spaces,” trigger warnings and a new focus on non-offensive discourse on many campuses is seen as a way of repressing conservative ideology.
Here’s the important point: Yiannopoulos isn’t entirely wrong. The issue of political correctness on college campuses is an extremely necessary conversation. One prominent issue, for example, is the debate over trigger warnings on class syllabuses, which would allow students to exempt themselves from schoolwork they find offensive or disturbing and require professors to provide alternative assignments. This kind of hypersensitivity is counter-productive to the goals of higher education, not only because of the high potential for abuse, but also because a certain level of discomfort is often necessary to a learning experience. How could one, for example, truly understand the history of this country without exposure to various unsettling themes and images such as racial violence?
Another important issue is the politics surrounding “safe spaces.” The idea of a safe space is to offer an inclusive environment in which all opinions may be voiced and heard without judgment. In order for a safe space to be fully functioning, all opinions must be welcome at the table. This is a great framework for discussion, but in reality it is not hard to imagine that conservative viewpoints could be quite taboo in these situations. Yiannopoulos, responding to students’ demands for safe spaces on campus, makes the accusation that the guise of offensiveness is used as technique to suppress conservative opinion.
So why, then, are we not having these important conversations? Herein lies the catch-22 that Yiannopoulos has expertly concocted with his tour. As he travels to different universities, he intentionally provokes protest that in turn is documented and used as evidence of the “regressive” politics of the left. His event at DePaul, for example, will be recorded by Hypeline for use in Yiannopoulos’ upcoming film. This approach of being intentionally extremist in order to “trigger” those groups, supposedly to illuminate the intolerance of progressives, but in reality only makes the environment for discourse more divisive and fruitless. While it may be successful in inciting protest, he is using his speech not to contribute to the discussion but instead to make inflammatory, unsubstantiated claims with the explicit purpose of causing anger, essentially “building a wall” of animosity instead of promoting respect, tolerance and open discourse between ideologies. It’s disturbingly hypocritical.
This criticism of protest — also a form of free expression — is dangerous rhetoric because it disparages civil disobedience, which is among the most established and respected forms of free speech in America. This message mirrors the sentiments of Trump, who mentioned in multiple rallies his nostalgia for the old days when protesters would be “carried off on stretchers.” This rhetoric detracts from the actual issues relating to the repression of freedom of speech at DePaul and other universities. While Yiannopoulos points the finger at college liberals, the reality is that DePaul and other universities have a history of censoring demonstrations from a wide range of ideologies. For example, in 2014, liberal DePaul students’ protest over alleged sexual violence in the athletic department was shut down after 20 minutes. In 2005, the university shut down the DePaul Conservative Alliance’s protest against affirmative action after just 40 minutes.
This is indicative of a larger political trend of protest suppression, which is the subject of a number of current social science studies. Political demonstrations are becoming increasingly censored by various government and private institutions which use permits as one tactic of preventing or minimizing speech that is counter to their agenda or ideology by regulating attendance, disallowing the posting of propaganda or simply denying permission outright.
We should be discussing these real barriers to speech that threaten the very existence of our democracy, but we are not doing so in a meaningful manner. This has everything to do with the unique and critical partisan division in political discourse right now in the United States. The relevance of Yiannopoulos’ tour is partly due to his mirroring of statements made by Trump about many of the same subgroups. Trump’s exaggerative style, or as he calls it, “a truthful hyperbole,” is mimicked in Yiannopoulos’ tour, which features this same breaking of cultural norms by making obscene statements and offensive arguments. This discourse, it seems, is quickly becoming mainstream in right-wing political commentary.
If we are truly committed to open discourse and free expression on campus, we must remain open to all viewpoints and accept the reality that the opinions of others will sometimes make us uncomfortable. We must also exercise restraint and treat others with respect and dignity with consideration of painful circumstances. Most importantly, we must come together and try to understand our differences in an attempt to compromise, instead of allowing demagogues to further divide us.
Kyle McElroy is a member of the DePaul Chapter of The Roosevelt Institute.