Over the summer, I wrote an essay on Medium about Donald Trump, the rise of the Alt-Right, and my experiences enduring vicious harassment campaigns on social media. It was a risky essay for me to publish. I wrote it knowing it would lead to a new onslaught of abuse and vitriol, because addressing the behavior of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich and Paul Joseph Watson is like waving red meat in front of Ramsay Bolton’s hounds. But the stakes were too high to remain silent in the midst of the most vicious election in my lifetime, and I knew it was worth sharing my personal experience with a phenomenon most were still dismissing as Internet fringe hatred.
80,000 people have now read that essay. One of those people was Hillary Clinton, who sent me a deeply moving letter expressing her solidarity with my work as an activist and my value as a voice. “The erosion of civil public discourse is one of the most concerning developments in our society today,” she wrote to me. “I have found strength in living by Eleanor Roosevelt’s admonition that women in politics need skin as thick as a rhinoceros — but it shouldn’t take that, and you and I, and all women, should refuse to let this become the new normal. That’s why I won’t stay silent about it — and why I’ve made promoting love and kindness a central pillar of my campaign.”
We all know what happened next. Hillary Clinton lost. As our forty-fifth President, Donald Trump has continued his love affair with violent rhetoric and policy targeting Muslims, transgender people, immigrants, journalists, and so forth. Emboldened by their leader’s success, Nazis, fascists, white supremacists and sexists have made the Internet a stewing pit of hatred and terror. High profile figures on the left have closed their accounts on Twitter, including influential feminist Lindy West. She announced her exit on The Guardian, writing “The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore?”
In the last few weeks, the Alt-Right has demonized Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American-Muslim and one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington. Articles on Breitbart about Sarsour, one penned by Yiannopoulos himself, led to an outpouring of harassment and abuse on Twitter that would shock only someone who hasn’t been paying enough attention.
A small glimmer of meme-worthy light came when white supremacist Richard Spencer was punched in the face on camera. The clip immediately went viral, but less attention was paid to the fact that Spencer and his ilk have quite literally placed a bounty on the puncher’s head using a disturbing crowd-funding platform called WeSearchr.
Organized harassment campaigns continue in the wake of the election, churning onward with more precision and effectiveness. Every day I learn of a new friend being harassed on Twitter for being Jewish, for being a journalist, for being a feminist, for telling a joke that got retweeted by the wrong Men’s Rights Activist. Since August I’ve been receiving disturbing tweets, Facebook messages and emails from a stalker determined to get me fired or drive me to kill myself. I have stopped writing.
I’m not alone in feeling my voice wilt since the events of November 9th. Clinton’s loss was a disturbing, deep warning to women with loud voices that we are not safe. It is a horrible feeling to want to fight and find yourself frozen. Without words I am weaponless. I urge you to look around at the voices you admire and see if any of them have gone missing as of late. You might find you are surrounded by many more empty chairs than you were expecting.
Perhaps it’s fate that Milo Yiannopoulos is the man to get me writing again. Last night he was a guest on Real Time With Bill Maher, a late night talk show on HBO that I used to watch avidly as a teenager. I have not watched the two segments featuring Yiannopoulos and I don’t plan to: he has nothing new to say. I recommend reading Mathew Rodriguez’s summary of the episode on Mic. Predictably, Yiannopoulos spewed racist, sexist, homophobic and deeply transphobic comments with his usual flourish asBill Maher laughed, failing to challenge any of the disturbing claims of his guest. The only saving grace of the show seems to have been Larry Wilmore telling Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself not once but twice.
Let me be very clear about this: Bill Maher should not have booked Milo Yiannopoulos. He normalized Yiannopoulos’s lies about the transgender community as a dangerous threat to women and children when in fact transgender folks are among the most at risk of violence out of us all. He allowed Yiannopoulos to repeat his racist comments about Leslie Jones, which were the very attacks that got him permanently banned from Twitter. Inviting Yiannopoulos on Real Time gave him a new platform to do harm, which should come as no surprise. The self-described “provocateur” has used every platform he’s ever had as an opportunity to do real, tangible harm.
Milo Yiannopoulos’s tour of college campuses is not a celebration of saying offensive shit, it’s actual violence. At University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he singled out a transgender student, Adelaide Kramer, in his presentation. He misgendered her, called her a “tranny,” projected a photograph of her before her transition on the wall, and stoked her peers into laughter and applause. Kramer was in the room and later withdrew from the university. “Milo has a supremely extensive, highly-documented track record of doing precisely this,” Kramer wrote in a letter to the school administration. “As I’ve already said, you knew this would happen. We told you it would. And we told you again. And again.”
He repeated many of his comments about Kramer on last night’s episode of Real Time.
Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley recently, much to the horror of the university’s student body. Rumors circulated that he was planning to name undocumented students at the school during his talk, an act made even more disturbing as the event was due to be live-streamed online. Students protested and the event was canceled, but coverage derided the protestors as violent rioters too sensitive to handle his political commentary. They were cast not as young adults concerned for the safety of their peers, and news coverage relished in showing the fires lit by antifa protestors. President Trump himself tweeted “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
All of this is to say nothing of the countless lives Yiannopoulos has targeted on Breitbart, Twitter, Facebook and other networks. Don’t believe me? He shared my essay about the Alt-Right on his Facebook page back in September, and the 629 comments are a disturbing tour of sexism, slut-shaming, threats of violence and inventive uses of the word “cunt.” See them for yourself.
I wonder if Bill Maher had a good time giggling at Milo Yiannopoulos’s outlandish remarks.
Ah, but the only way to tear down the views of bigots and fascists is to debate them, Ella! We cannot silence them; we must prove them wrong! Maybe that’s true, and if you have the patience, the energy and the safety to debate bigots, I applaud you. But that approach certainly didn’t work with conservative firebrand and racist bobblehead Tomi Lahren, who is now even more famous and normalized than she was before appearing on The Daily Show. Remember that? Remember the headlines about how Trevor Noah demolished her? Her audience loves her even more now.
It is difficult to have constructive dialogue with the other side when you invite to the table squalling peacocks more interested in their own fame than healing the divide. Even if 95% of viewers thought Yiannopoulos was exposed as a squawking asshat last night, there was still 5% who were turned on by his antics and are just now joining his movement. Already we’re witnessing how Yiannopoulos’s presence on Real Time emboldened his fans. It gave them confidence and told them their reprehensible views are acceptable.
Ah, but censorship is bad, Ella! I’ve been thinking a lot about the argument that denying Milo Yiannopoulos a platform is a blow to free speech. This is a popular talking point among liberals, many of whom are my friends. But it’s also Yiannopoulos’s favorite talking point. If he had been booted off Real Time at the last minute, he would have then been given the headlines he wanted: that he was “censored.” And that would have been playing into his hands. He loves painting the left as hysterical, sensitive demons eviscerating his free speech. Free speech is his favorite defense of his violent harassment online. Free speech is the theme of his college speaking tour. Free speech is his shield and liberals buying into that narrative are no better than his pawns. Don’t fall for it.
If you see women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community expressing outrage and pain every time a controversial figure on the right is invited to speak, and your reaction is to defend the freedom of speech of that figure, ask yourself what your priorities are, especially if you are a white dude. And whatever you do, don’t be this guy from Facebook:
The best possible thing that television shows and publishing houses and venues can do is just not book him. That’s not censorship. That’s not silencing him. That’s not infringing on his right to free speech. That’s ignoring him. That’s not giving him new platforms to do harm. If a talk show host or a journalist or anyone else wants to take his views down, fine. Give a platform to the people he has victimized instead. Whose voices we choose to elevate matters now more than ever.
There is no silencing Milo Yiannopoulos: he has a $200,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster and all of Breitbart to say whatever the hell he wants. The chilling effect of Yiannopoulos’s actions is impossible to quantify, but it’s powerful and largely invisible. Milo Yiannopoulos’s free speech is not under attack. Milo Yiannopoulos himself is a threat to free speech.
UPDATE 2/20/17 5:47 PM: It’s just been revealed that Milo has lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster in light of his comments defending pedophilia.