Milo Yiannopoulos is no stranger to controversy. For those of you who don’t know him, he is a political commentator, an author, a former news editor at Breitbart, and an all-around media personality. His particular brand of…let’s call it activism…has lead to many different things. He was forced to resign from Breitbart because of comments he made about pedophilia. His Twitter account was permanently suspended because of his comments about Leslie Jones following her phone being hacked and compromising pictures of her being released to the public.
He’s been labeled a firebrand. A provocateur. A white supremacist. A neo-Nazi. An asshole. He has sparked intense debates and even a few riots on college campuses. He is an unapologetic troll — so much so that he’s called his campus speaking tour the Troll Academy Tour. It seems offending college students has become a large piece of his overall business plan. It also seems that this tactic is working, as his latest self-published book is selling fairly well.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Milo Yiannopoulos. I’ve caught a couple of clips from interviews he’s given over the years, but before last night I’ve never seen him speak. I’ve never read his books. I usually pay him no mind. After having heard what he has to say with my own ears (not through the interpretive lens of some other commentator), I have to say that I’m still not a fan.
Yiannopoulos’ speech was pretty boilerplate. He was quick with the jokes — mostly about Kevin Spacey and the hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals being the target of so many sexual harassment/assault allegations. He praised Trump and championed the call to engage liberals with their own tactics. “When they go low, you go lower,” he might have said. “All with a smile on your face.” He gave history lessons on the origins of Halloween. He called for the defunding of American universities that refuse to protect free speech, while bemoaning the plight of the ever-maligned American campus conservative.
“When it comes to oppressed minorities and marginalized groups, there’s no tribe in America at greater risk — the physical and existential risk — than the campus conservative.”
Aside from the jokes and the timely history lesson, I easily guessed at what the rest of his speech would be. It wasn’t a surprise and, to be honest, it wasn’t particularly compelling. This is the thing with Yiannopoulos: His popularity stems mostly from the opposition to his message, rather than the actual merits of his message. His talk was innocuous. Other than a couple rather offensive barbs flung at people who did (Harvey Weinstein) and didn’t (Michelle Obama) deserve it, his speech was less memorable than I thought it would be. What little action was occurring inside the auditorium was punctuated by laughter, gasps, and occasional groans.
The real action was happening outside. Before the speech, I was milling about amongst the protesters and counter-protesters. I don’t think there was much organization or planning on either of their parts. There was a somewhat large group of protesters with signs and a bullhorn repeating simplistic chants to an unenthusiastic crowd. More than once, the person leading the chant started laughing in the middle of it, making it seem like this was more of a social gathering than an actual protest. People were passing out fliers and waving their own homemade signs. Socialists distributed propaganda. What a time to be alive.
The mood changed once a counter-protester started debating with someone. They both had their phones out filming each other and quickly a crowd grew around them, much to the dismay of the other sign-toting, slogan-chanting protesters. They were largely ignored as everyone flocked to these two verbal pugilists. Everyone was filming everyone else, just waiting for something to happen.
To me, this was really the crux of the issue last night. We have devolved into a “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!” society where everyone is just waiting for a something even remotely newsworthy to happen just so they can record it, post it, and revel in their 5 minutes of fame. At every confrontation, both before and after Yiannopoulos’ speech, there were a sea of phones and cameras just waiting for the powder keg of pent up aggression to go off.
Groups of close to 100 crowded around two or three people in anticipation of one or more of them throwing a punch. Masked Antifa agitators pressed their way into crowds making their presence known and setting everyone on edge. People ceased to be people in the crowds. They were caricatures spewing talking points at one another, just waiting for someone to make the wrong move so they could take advantage. What happened to civilized debate? What happened to society as a whole?
I feel like all of this is a direct result of increased interactions via screens. If there is a common symptom of the disease that has stricken modern society, I’d say it’s a lack of empathy. Empathy is developed by interacting with other people. Face to face. You see their reactions and you adjust yourself accordingly. When you don’t see that reaction, you tend to be less sympathetic and more cold. You can find yourself hurling insults and sometimes punches at someone who disagrees with you. That’s not how you win arguments. That’s how you polarize people.
Sadly, I don’t see this changing any time soon. We have an extremely polarizing person in the White House and an American populace that seems to revel in its individual echo chambers. For as much condemnation that those agitators who pepper sprayed others and physically and verbally assaulted those they deemed worthy, there is likely a strong voice of approval from their own side. People who chant “FUCK TRUMP!” are congratulated and lionized. We value emotion over logic and political gotchas over actual understanding.
We can’t evolve as a society unless we reverse this. It starts with you and me. Let’s be better. We need to be better than this. Better than Milo. Better than Antifa. Better than Trump and Schumer and Pelosi. More importantly than simply talking to one another, we need to actually listen. That’s where learning happens. That’s where empathy is built. This goes for all sides.
Let’s be better than ourselves.