Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley

Professional conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to Berkeley to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans. Some 1500 people gathered to protest. A group of 150 masked and violent agitators attacked the protesters. Rocks were thrown; fireworks deployed. A riot broke out, and Berkeley security forces decided to cancel the event, to protect Yiannopoulos from physical harm. Those are the details I know; I’ll admit right now that I haven’t followed the story all that closely.

Nor have I followed the career of Milo Yiannopoulos very closely. (I have read that his followers generally refer to him as ‘Milo.’ So I won’t, even though it means having to type out the long and hard-to-spell ‘Yiannopolous’ over and over). Reading him would require that I go into Breitbart.com, which I am loathe to do. It’s an alt-right website; I’m not about to give them the click. As I understand it, he’s a Brit, ostentatiously gay, and absurdly good-looking. He was the head troll in Gamergate. He was banned from Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones, the actress, for having committed the unpardonable sin of getting cast in a movie. He hates ‘political correctness,’ which Breitbart seems to define as any constraints on mocking disabled people, women, or African-Americans. He’s anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay rights.

In short, he’s deliberately and intentionally insulting, needlessly vicious, and a self-promoter of the first order. He’s toxic, on purpose, for fun. And for profit: he just got a quarter of a million dollar book deal from Simon and Schuster. Which has done untold damage to that esteemed mainstream publisher; professional book critics have announced that they’ll boycott all Simon and Schuster books in future, other S&S authors have pulled out of their book deals; it’s a big mess. Which is great news for Yiannopoulos; like most infants, he likes causing messes.

And that’s the key to understanding the alt-right. They’re not Klan, and they’re not Klan wannabes. They’re not Nazis. They just get the giggles over using the rhetoric and style of the Klan and of Nazis, which usage they seem to regard as consequence-less. That’s Yiannopolous; when he insults feminists, he doesn’t seem to know or care if it actually harms women. It’s just how he gets his kicks.

So the Berkeley college Republicans, for fun, decided to invite the most incendiary alt-right troll on the planet. To Berkeley. They knew there would be protests. Anticipating those protests, a bunch of masked thugs launched a violent counter-protest, for kicks. Kind of like Fight Club; violence being politically incorrect, so let’s do that too.

So how should a university respond to a guy like Milo Yiannopoulos? First of all, the College Republicans were within their rights to invite a speaker to campus. And Berkeley students are within their rights protesting that invitation. As long as that protest, and that invitation live up to certain standards of civil discourse–and those standards need to be expressly stated and understood–then the University can be said to be fulfilling its main educational purpose. Invite speakers. Let them speak. Let protesters protest. Use the fact of that talk and that response to influence how teachers teach and how learners learn. Do not, ever, ban certain speakers or points of view.

And if you think it unlikely that Yiannopolous is going to say anything worth listening to (which I do), then don’t go to his speech.

What I strenuously disagree with is the idea that potentially offensive speakers should be banned from college campuses. Campuses absolutely must invite speakers, and some of those speakers are likely to hold points of view that some members of the campus community find offensive. Fine. Invite them anyway. A robust and bracing exchange of views is good for all participants.

Do you think Milo Yiannopolous is a contemptible weenie? Me too. In which case, his ideas, such as they are, won’t stand the test of time. So who cares?

5 thoughts on “Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley

  1. Anonymous

    Well done Sir. Good insight! He clearly has the gift of getting under people’s skin. He is like the Al Sharpton of the right, except that Milo is not cut from the right mold.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Clark

      Unless the right mold is one of those that grow on certain cheeses, which all the alt-right resembles anyway. Stand up proud, Breitbart (which unless I’ve forgotten all my college German means something like Bright Beard) until you’re cut down by the razor of time.

      Reply
  2. amyj

    Hi, Eric.

    But the story is worth following more closely. Linda Haverty Rugg (she’s really a prof there, studying Swedish literature and culture) posted on Facebook about the incident:

    “I was one of five professors deputized by a larger group of faculty to speak with the chancellor and other administrators about our concerns regarding the Milo Yiannopoulos event. Initially we argued in a letter that we thought the event should be canceled not because of what the speaker says or because of the ideas that he expresses, but because he had chosen, at the University of Wisconsin, to name, project an image of, and ridicule a transgender student. That student was then harassed by Milio’s fans in a wave of hate speech of the kind that earlier had prompted Twitter to close Milo’s account. There is a commitment at our university to upholding free speech for everyone, which means preventing the kind of harassment that is designed to silence people who have traditionally been excluded from the table. There are actually laws in place to prevent that type of harassment, and we asked the administration if they could countenance a violation of those principles.

    By the time our conversation with the administration occurred, there had been a shooting at the University of Washington, in which a protester was critically injured in a confrontation between white supremacists, anarchists, and other demonstrators, many of whom were not part of the university community. We all understood that the situation in Berkeley could easily escalate in the same way. We urged cancellation of the event on the basis of Milo’s history of harassment (which affected a University of Washington student as well) and the potential for uncontrollable violence on our open campus.

    But the chancellor and.the administration remained fully committed to holding the event because of Berkeley’s commitment to free speech. On the day of the event we received word that right-wing extremists would be on campus, and we knew that in all likelihood there would be a left-wing radicals and anarchists as well. A fully ramped-up police presence was in place by the afternoon, with helicopters overhead, extra officers, barricades, fire trucks, and ambulances. Berkeley PD was in evidence, and we I would find out later that Oakland PD was at the ready as well.

    A peaceful gathering of about 1000 or more students and faculty were protesting when a group of masked demonstrators in black broke into the scene and began to shoot off fireworks, set things on fire, throw things at the police, overturn barricades, and break windows at the venue. At that point the event was canceled, in part to protect Milo and his audience. The agitators moved on to vandalize our campus, but the students and faculty dispersed peacefully, and many began to pick up trash and clean Telegraph Ave. As a university we are committed to free speech and peaceful protest. Milo is committed to provocation and stirring up hatred and violence, and the anarchists are as well. I condemn their actions. And I am proud of my university.”

    Reply

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