June 21, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Lashing the Tongue
IN THESE “SKIRMISHES” of mine, I try, for certain definite reasons, to keep to that mass of trivial and transient happenings which is known under the name of “current events,” or more widely yet as “news.” I try to get beyond the mere happenings as they happen—for I am fully aware that the “news” of today shall be the “olds” even of tomorrow—and to indicate how they might, if we but think on them, show us the way to some wider view. For this I try ever to begin from some definite article present in this or that newspaper or journal. Today however I am not going to write of something which is to be found in the news—but rather something which is most interestingly absent, and has been for some time: namely, the fate of one Milo Yiannopoulos.
Not four months ago one almost could not touch the internet without encountering his name somewhere or other, generally circumscribed by flames of infamy. It is not strange, of course, that a man should fly so prominently before the public eye for a week, a month, half a year, before fading thereafter once more into comparative obscurity. This is even the pattern of fame, governed as it is by the stunted memories and ephemeral hungers of the public. But Yiannopoulos’ cannot be described as a fading into obscurity so much as a plummeting into oblivion—a sudden, wrenching fall, precipitated by certain inflammatory comments. He made a brief reappearance lately when he announced he would be suing Simon & Schuster, the publishing house which dropped his book deal in the wake of the outrage elicited by these same comments—but this news item was something like a disturbance in a flock of pigeons: loud, brief, and quickly forgotten.
I believe the conventional account of Yiannopoulos’ rise and fall could be put something like this: Yiannopoulos made a name for himself by going about spouting flagrant insults and unseemly comments on sensitive subjects, until one day he crossed the line with a number of really horrendous remarks which seemed to justify or mitigate pedophilia. Looking at his overall career, one might say then that he had courted controversy in order to attain notoriety, but pressed the game too far, and so became persona non grata, losing at once his job, a book deal with Simon & Schuster, and a speaking appointment with the CPAC.
So much for the conventional account. Yet in truth the matter is considerably more interesting than that. In the first place, the by-now infamous remarks for which Yiannopoulos was shunned in fact date from January 2016, a full year before the scandal in question. They were brought to light with the specific intent of darkening Yiannopoulos’ image, to convince the CPAC to cancel his speaking appointment; they were published, that is to say, with defamatory intent. They were so wildly successful for the simple reason that they were picked up subsequently by Yiannopoulos’ most powerful detractors on the left, and brought against his reputation like a wrecking ball.
Now, throughout all of this the question of freedom of speech of course was much bantered about—the question of the appropriate limits of that freedom, if there should be any at all, and just what that freedom is meant to protect. It is therefore easy to conclude that Yiannopoulos’ remarks simply transgressed those appropriate limits, and that he was silenced for having outraged the public morality. This in and of itself would not be particularly disturbing. No one believes that freedom of speech should protect an individual from public indignation, should he choose to utter immoral or reprehensible remarks. Freedom of speech is a legal, not a social, principle. The silencing of Milo Yiannopoulos would appear then to be nothing more than an utterly wholesome response to a rather detestable series of statements.
But slow, now—for the plot thickens. According to what we have just said, Milo Yiannopoulos was cast out for having attempted to blur the clear moral lines distinguishing adult consent in sexual acts, from child abuse. Those who spoke most fervently against him, we may then suppose, are precisely those who refuse to countenance any blurring of the lines whatsoever.
And if the matter were really so clear, we could let it rest in the silence to which it had rightly been consigned.
Salon Magazine wasted no time in publishing numerous articles denouncing Yiannopoulos’ statements, and defending limitations on freedom of speech for the sake of democracy. Decidedly the moral high ground. This is the same Salon, however, which in that same period conveniently deleted an article it had previously published in which a man who self-identifies as a pedophile defends his urges. This is the same Salon which to this day has a several articles (see here and here) which seem to accord perfectly, if not with Yiannopoulos’ original remarks, then certainly with the apology he later made for them.
Or again—Huffington Post ran a series of infuriated articles on the scandal, among which we find one entitled “Milo Yiannopoulos’s Downfall Demonstrates the Necessary Limits of Free Speech.” All well and good—save that this is the same Huffington Post to ran an article celebrating a little shop in New York which panders to those who fetishize sexual fantasies involving babies.
The issue here, as should be abundantly clear, is not pederasty; the issue is that Yiannopoulos had, quite prior to this scandal, made himself detested amongst the liberal community in the United States. He was but fruit ripened for the fall. The issue here really does regard freedom of speech—but it does not at all regard our freedom to speak on matters of pedophilia. What is at stake here is rather our freedom to speak against this pious nonsense known as “political correctness.”
Yiannopoulos made himself hated because he refused to bow to this piety. He made a name for himself in part by rubbing salt in open wounds. In what is perhaps the most infamous of these episodes, he mocked and reviled an especially poor actress, even pointing out rather gleefully that her responses to his mockery were semi-literate. (They were: evidently we are not permitted any longer to hold individuals even to the standards of good grammar.)
There is little of chivalry in all of this, I will grant—but we are not living in chivalrous times. The fate of Yiannopoulos, the unofficial censorship to which he has been subjected, and the mass of pretexts and utterly misleading rationales that are given to defend it, is extremely disquieting. I have claimed, and I will claim again, that freedom and equality are at best uneasy bedfellows, and at worst incompatible and mutually destructive ideals. It seems to me that this entire episode is but another instance of how freedom is ceding fast to equality in our day, how our societies are becoming more and more egalitarian even at the expense of human liberty, and how the pious powers that be are forcing us to bow before this ludicrous ideal of human equality, even when it means suppressing our awareness of the most obvious and once uncontroversial differences between human beings. Indeed, I genuinely fear that we are fast heading in the United States toward that specific form of despotism to which our contemporary democracies are most especially prone. In the future, the confluence of our technology and our egalitarian ideology could well force us all into the shoes of Milo Yiannopoulos—reticent to speak our minds on any subject you please, for fear that some odd comment or other we have once made in passing might suddenly arise to strangle us into submission, lashing our tongues, costing us our jobs, our reputations, and our very futures.
The already nigh-forgotten fate of Milo Yiannopoulos is important for us to remember, because it may well be but the harbinger of a nightmare which might fall upon all of our heads.