The scheduled appearance of breitbart.com writer and "Alt-right" gadfly Milo Yiannopolous at Cal Poly on Jan. 31 has gained considerably more attention than most of our speakers. Milo's Dangerous Faggot tour is making stops at several West Coast universities, and at each, students, faculty, and community members are protesting, demanding cancellations or greater accountability for his commentary, or organizing alternative events. Such responses predictably feed the popularity of his shows, as followers claim that to censor Milo is to suppress free speech. Cal Poly President Armstrong's office supports this position as a promotion of "free speech and the open exchange of ideas and opinions."
However, the appropriateness of bringing Milo to Cal Poly is more nuanced than the expression or suppression of free speech.
Milo's performances come with plenty of ideas worthy of debate. His broad condemnation of the Islamic religion, and especially his lack of differentiation between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (the conservative social movement), deserves critical attention. His criticism of feminists (he rarely distinguishes between varieties of feminism) and liberals for their failure to address illiberal threats within Islam are crucially important topics. And we can exchange ideas and opinions over the numerous controversial claims that Milo has made regarding the intelligence of women ("Sorry girls! But the smartest people in the world are all men,"
breitbart.com, Oct. 2, 2015), the existence of lesbians (he claims that most really lack other dating options), and his ideas about the inseparability of culture and race.
Indeed, it is not Milo's specific, little ideas that universities should reject. Rather, it is his big idea, his identity as "one of the primary engines of change in American culture" and all that it entails, that rightly offends advocates free speech and higher learning.
Offense, more than ideas, is what Milo is peddling. While "cultural libertarian" sounds vaguely academic, what Milo stands for more than anything else is "mischief, irreverence, and fun" regardless of the suffering it causes others. He is much less a journalist than a provocateur. Openly acknowledging "I play an asshole in my columns," he justifies his outrageous claims as a proper response to "outrage culture." He calls women he disagrees with "cunts," while spattering his performances with self-deprecating gay jokes. Milo is an anti-social justice warrior, an asshole warrior, if you will, expressing exactly the sort of identity politics that he rails against.
For his followers, Milo is an exotic cultural mutation, a creature that simultaneously strokes white male supremacist egos, but has all the traits of otherness. On a SLO Facebook discussion, one person reasoned that Milo should be taken seriously because he's a "gay Jew who has a reputation of having black boyfriends." Imagine how empowering it must be to have someone who so embodies one's fears and delusions about "diversity" finally acknowledge and defend white male Christian victimhood.
Predictably, when Milo pulls the trigger, his followers go berserk. After calling comedian Leslie Jones a "barely literate" "black dude" on Twitter, she was treated to a barrage of racist, hateful messages—which Milo helped propagate. Several cases like these, including statements that his targets deserve to be harassed, Milo refers to as "teasing" or "jokes." So it is not even clear that he is serious about the worst things he says. What is clear is that he takes no responsibility for the consequences. In response to what his followers did to Jones, Milo made himself out to be the victim, complaining that Twitter was "holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left." Ideally for Milo, we would all live by a bro code where insults can be hurled without anyone taking it too seriously. But society is never as tight as a brotherhood, which is why most of us opt for civility.
Milo acts as though he has no stake in the well-being of others, and thus no responsibility for serving as a conduit of racial hatred and misogyny. This is where cultural libertarianism gets us. An asshole warrior might temporarily relieve our boredom, but does anyone, even Milo, really want to live in a world of assholes? We should not treat personal insults as protected speech. And toxic ideas, like all of the other toxins housed in university chemistry labs, need to be handled with care. Milo should be welcomed to Cal Poly if he can seriously defend his claims, and a panel discussion as part of his presentation would seem a more appropriate venue for that. In doing so, President Armstrong and Cal Poly would be taking more seriously our obligation, not only to protect free speech, but also to promote an actual exchange of ideas and opinions.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a letter to the editor at email@example.com.