Milo Yiannopoulos, the notorious political celebrity and former Breitbart editor, may think that his brand is “dangerous” — the title of his personal website and most recent book. But he is, in fact, entirely predictable. Like every other provocateur before him with no real talent or skill to showcase, he resorts to controversial statements and outright insults to garner attention. And this strategy has worked for Yiannopoulos. His rhetoric is obviously incoherent and hateful — but that didn’t stop him from becoming the ninth most Googled personality in 2017. Yet, as student bodies across the country protest to keep him from speaking (for good reason), his support base becomes increasingly convinced that Yiannopolous’ voice is being silenced because liberals cannot handle being exposed to a conflicting viewpoint. Or worse: because liberals are afraid of losing to him.
If we truly wish to push Milo into the irrelevancy that he deserves, progressives must stop giving him exactly what he craves to maintain his popularity: the satisfaction of watching us be offended. It would serve us much better if students allowed Milo to perform his foreseeable tricks on stage. Deny him — and his supporters — the satisfaction of trolling young liberals, and instead engage with him calmly, though that requires courage. It’s no secret that Yiannopoulos delights in targeting marginalized populations.
From his Breitbart articles to his Instagram posts to his talk show, Yiannopoulos basks in the blowback to his outrageous, deliberately provocative behavior. In 2017, he wished everyone but single mothers a Merry Christmas on Instagram — because, he insinuated, single mothers should be blamed for allowing their families to fall apart. Needless to say, his statement sparked outrage, and women spoke up against the misogynistic claim that single mothers do not have their children’s best interests at heart. Countless women commented that they had been victims of domestic violence, or had been widowed, or had simply been unhappy in their previous marriages. But Yiannopoulos didn’t care about any of the messages left on his inflammatory post, and he probably didn’t have a real stance against single mothers. He was, however, enjoying watching his Instagram engagement climb. It’s the oldest trick in the book. When you have nothing of substance to offer, create scandals.
But the best way to counter Yiannopoulos’ manufactured scandals is not to shut him down, as protestors at the University of California at Berkeley did last year. Such responses only empower him and energize his sympathizers. Yiannopoulos used the ensuing media storm to sign a book deal and secure several appearances on television, during which he claimed that liberals were denying him his constitutional right to freedom of expression because they were scared of his ideas.
Don’t get me wrong — I believe students are right to oppose his disturbing rhetoric. But it’s about time we stop letting ourselves become a vehicle for Yiannopoulos’ pathetic ticket to fame and fortune. After all, his book, “Dangerous,” was a bestseller because there’s something attractive about the story of a man hated, banned and feared by young liberals. But if Yiannopoulos’ story weren’t so exciting — if he encountered engagement with his ideas, instead of violent protests or even calls for his removal from campus — I doubt he’d sell as many books, gain as much conservative sympathy or make as many headlines.
Critics have alleged that giving Milo a platform at a major university — even if he’s been invited by student groups, not the university itself — normalizes his message. But stopping Yiannopoulos from speaking to students strengthens his popularity and persuade his supporters that he was right in branding the left “intolerant.” Letting Milo speak is not the same as surrendering to his ideas; it’s the exact opposite. It’s a sign that young, liberal students are firm in their own convictions and can counter poisonous rhetoric, no matter how inflammatory, wherever they see it.
So instead of shutting Yiannopoulos up, young, liberal students on college campuses should give him a chance to speak and challenge him on his deeply flawed beliefs — even though this is a larger burden for the groups he has targeted. Young liberals should ask him how he is comfortable living with so many contradictions. He married a black Muslim man and yet is against gay marriage, Muslim immigration and Black Lives Matter. Instead of booing him off the stage (as Yiannopoulos expects and, likely wants, them to do), young progressives should show him that they are ready to offer an intellectually sound rejection of his prejudice. As Bryce Campanelli ’18 wrote in a column last year, this sort of engagement may actually prove constructive, teaching students how to refute unfamiliar or extreme ideas. Of course, healthy debate probably won’t change Yiannopoulos’ views. But it will likely undermine his provocative agenda — since scandals generally don’t start at respectful academic forums. Young people must remember that Yiannopoulos is dangerous not because his message is meaningful or worth hearing, but because it is amplified by controversy.
Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.