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?