Internet provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos' career appears to finally be taking a hit. And among the more satisfying aspects of the scandal that is poised to bring him down has been watching conservatives make all the arguments about the limits of free speech that liberals have been making for years.
"While I'm all for free speech, there is such a thing as vile, hateful speech that does not deserve a platform," Ned Ryun, a board member for the American Conservative Union, which hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference each year, tweeted. On Monday, CPAC disinvited Yiannopoulos from its annual conference after video emerged of the Breitbart editor defending pedophilia.
Now that conservatives agree that some speech is too abhorrent to deserve a platform — that in the marketplace of ideas, some stocks are too low to list — it’s worth asking: Can we finally stop paying attention to Yiannopoulos?
Over the weekend, a conservative site called the Reagan Battalion released video in which Yiannopoulos — who has made a name for himself by harassing and denigrating feminists and transgender people online, leading Twitter to ban him from the service last year — defends sex between 13-year-old boys and older men.
"In the homosexual world, particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men — the sort of 'coming of age' relationships — the relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of rock," Yiannopoulos said, acknowledging the view as controversial.
The remark generated a firestorm of controversy. Besides CPAC rescinding its invitation for Yiannopoulos to speak about freedom of speech on campus at the annual conference, Simon & Schuster announced it would no longer publish Yiannopoulos' book, Dangerous, and Breitbart seems to be moving toward dropping him from the masthead.
The victims of Yiannopoulos' online attacks have been quick to ask: Why now?
This is a guy who said he "went gay" so he didn't "have to deal with nutty broads," declared his birthday "World Patriarchy Day," set up a scholarship to put white men "on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates" and regularly denigrates women and transgender people, who he has said suffer from a mental disorder. Neither Yiannopoulos' misogyny, fear-mongering about Muslims, nor attacks on transgender Americans were enough to stop him from getting a book deal or receiving invitations to speak at conservative gatherings.
Instead, it was Yiannopoulos perpetuating one of the oldest and most vicious stereotypes about gay men. As German Lopez points out at Vox, the idea that gay men prey on children has long been used to oppose LGBTQ rights. In the 1970s, anti-gay activist Anita Bryant led a nationwide campaign, "Save Our Children," to stop gay people from teaching in public schools. "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children," Bryant said at the time.
While anti-LGBTQ groups like the Family Research Council continue to peddle the myth that gays are a danger to children, extensive academic research has shown that they do not.
The bipartisan consensus that pedophilia is bad, though, helped bring to light yet another unsettling truth: Conservatives' embrace of the internet troll was never about championing freedom of speech. Yiannopoulos' sudden downfall shows that, all along, conservative groups gave him a platform because they agreed with what he said — or, as with the supporters of President Donald Trump, did not find his views abhorrent enough to warrant censure.
ACU president Matt Schlapp said as much in a statement released Monday. "We continue to believe that CPAC is a constructive forum for controversies and disagreements among conservatives, however there is no disagreement among our attendees on the evils of sexual abuse of children," he said.
In a Facebook post, Yiannopoulos blamed deceptive editing and the "usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humor" for the controversy. Continuing to borrow from the playbook of liberal identity, Yiannopoulos claimed to have been the victim of child abuse, which he said gave him license to joke about the subject.
"I am a gay man, and a child abuse victim," Yiannopoulos wrote. "My own experiences as a victim led me to believe I could say anything I wanted to on this subject, no matter how outrageous."
This has always been Yiannopoulos' schtick: Say the indefensible, and then denounce your critics for failing to have a sense of humor. Given his long history of stoking outrage, Yiannopoulos had little reason to believe making light of child abuse was a bridge too far.
We don't need Yiannopoulos to uphold freedom of expression.
The final irony in a story dripping with it is that it has been liberals and liberal institutions that have been most responsible for extending Yiannopoulos' reach. By playing to liberals' insecurities about their own open-mindedness — if there's anything the left loves, it's testing the limits of its own tolerance — Yiannopoulos got himself booked on Real Time With Bill Maher, was profiled by left-leaning gay magazine Out and appeared in the Nation.
"All I care about is free speech and free expression," Yiannopoulos said on Real Time over the weekend. "I want people to be able to be, do and say anything."
We don't need Yiannopoulos to uphold freedom of expression; the First Amendment guarantees anyone can say whatever they want. What it doesn't guarantee is that your views will be warmly received, or deserve a full airing at major media outlets. Free speech doesn't mean every Nazi gets a megaphone. This is not because some views are too offensive to consider, but because Yiannopoulos' vitriol makes no contribution to our political discourse.
No doubt some Milo 2.0 will eventually take the place of the Internet provocateur — there will always be someone willing to spout sexist and racist garbage in order to get attention. But for the moment, both left and right seem to agree that some speech goes beyond the pale. One can only hope this means that’s the last we all have to hear from Milo Yiannopoulos.