At the close of 2016, senior Breitbart editor and banned Twitter user, Milo Yiannopoulos, announced a quarter-of-a-million-dollar book deal with Simon and Schuster. The announcement inspired a deluge of Internet uproar against both the publishing house and the self-proclaimed Internet super-villain, with the mainstream media falsely labeling Milo as a white nationalist and crowning him the poster child of the alt-right (Milo isn’t even a member of the movement).
Most troubling, however, were the calls for censorship, not only from celebrities (which is to be expected), but also from members of the publishing industry, an industry which very existence is contingent upon the exercise of freedom of expression. What’s worse, the calls for censorship have morphed into violent protests, as seen at UC Berkely, UC Davis, and the University of Washington. These reactions illustrate that an anti-speech culture is alive and well in the United States, and if we are not vigilant the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression may be at risk.
The Left used to be associated with elements of classical liberalism, notably Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If we take a look at what the progressive movement has become, it is clear that the anti-speech culture has taken a stranglehold on the ideology. Although the anti-speech culture has found a home in the progressive Left, it certainly isn’t endemic to it. Consider the 1990s when conservatives sought to sensor violent video games and media that were not congruent with “family values”; in the post-9/11 era of patriotism, criticism of United States foreign policy was condemned as unpatriotic, and possibly even sympathetic to terrorism. In our current age of the “social justice warrior,” speaking outside of the progressive Left’s tightly-restricted narrative earns accusations of “hate speech,” racism, and misogyny.
At least, that is what students chant as they violently protest Milo’s speaking engagements. They even go so far as to claim that his very presence on campus makes them feel “unsafe” (as if one needs to be kept safe from ideas). But if you look past his Loki-esque antics and outrageous headlines, Milo’s positions are well within the parameters of the mainstream Republican and Libertarian platforms. The most unconventional aspect of him is the fact that he is a flamboyantly gay supporter of Donald Trump. Milo’s methods, however, are where he stands out from other conservative pundits, such as Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren. His unapologetic conservatism combined with his penchant for provocation make him an easy target for anti-speech crusaders.
Milo, much like a stand-up comedian, sees the pearl-clutching and grievance-taking aspects of the anti-speech culture as golden opportunities for creating satirical humor. The titles of his speeches (e.g., “Why do Lesbians Fake so Many Hate Crimes?”) and his article headlines (e.g., “Would You Rather Your Child Have Feminism or Cancer?”) are purposely outrageous to send shock waves through politically correct circles. This makes it easy for his detractors to rip the humor from his words so that they can make him the bigoted monster they claim he is. When a society becomes overly restrictive of expression, provocateurs inevitably arise to challenge the status quo: Take, for instance, George Carlin (“Save the children? F*** the children!”), Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“America? F*** Yeah!), and now Milo (“Darling, F*** your feelings!”). Milo straddles the worlds of comedic provocateur and conservative thinker. For those on the Left already predisposed to disliking what he has to say, the line between satire and serious commentary becomes blurred, garnering outrage and calls for censorship.
Some of the vehement opposition to Milo is rooted in the flawed belief that we have the right to be protected from speech that offends. This is, of course, lunacy: One has the freedom to practice any given religion but not the freedom to live in a country where that religion is free from criticism, for example. This often comes up in discussions of Milo’s supposed Islamophobia, as he’s made numerous comments critiquing Islam. But criticism of religion is one of the primary vehicles by which religions adapt to modern society. Moreover, people conflate exercising their constitutional rights with being protected from criticism for doing so. To demand to live in a country where you are protected from criticizing or offensive speech is to say that your feelings are more important than someone else’s constitutional right to free expression.
There is also the flawed belief that there is some “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Hate speech is defined as speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other personal traits. With such a broad definition, nearly any speech could be categorized as hate speech. George Carlin’s jokes at the expense of Christianity could be considered hate speech; speaking out against an incumbent president could be considered hate speech; offensive art or burning the flag could be considered hate speech. The effective definition of hate speech can be wholly determined by societal passions, which are fluid and subject to change. Whatever Milo’s beliefs and comments regarding Islam, feminism, or Black Lives Matter, categorizing them as hate speech shouldn’t be a factor in allowing him to express them, whether in talks at college campuses or in his upcoming memoir. Protecting non-offensive speech is easy. One could argue that the entire existence of the right to free expression is to specifically protect speech that is unpopular.
You may be asking why this is important. Everything I’ve discussed, from calls for censorship, to violent protests, to social media bans are all within the realm of culture, not legislation. You could even argue that private social media companies are free to enforce their community standards as they see fit, with which I would agree.
Culture precedes legislation; wars won on the cultural front today will often find their way to the politician’s pen tomorrow. We need only to gaze across the Atlantic to see that free expression is under assault in Western civilization, from the banning of pro-life websites in France to prison sentences for Holocaust deniers in Germany. Granted, Europe has never had quite the zeal for free expression that we do, but the restrictions placed on free speech in Europe are the result of the same flawed reasoning that opposes Milo’s freedom of expression here. More than that, we are witnessing growing justification for violent action against unpopular speech, evidenced by the attacks that have taken place on Richard Spencer, Muslims, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters. Restricting unpopular expression is a slippery slope with no end.
Freedom of expression is the bedrock upon which all other liberties stand; we should be thankful to people such as Milo for courageously drawing out and critiquing the anti-speech culture so that we may resist their attempted repression.
Featured image: Screen shot of a segment from Fox News of the riots at UC Berkely.
* Augustus is the CEO of Claudius Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Claudius Speaks, a literary journal that focuses on publishing undiscovered writers and artists. She is completing a masters in mathematics and, in her spare time, blogs about libertarian issues on her website, www.kaugustus.com.
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