Troll Comes Home to Roost

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: James LaRue

The story of Milo Yiannopoulos, internet enfant terrible, has taken some twists. I first heard about him during GamerGate. For those of you who missed it, the sorry saga began as a gamer’s attempt to “punish his ex-girlfriend” by online harassment. Along with Anita Sarkeesian, many women in the gaming world found themselves inundated with rape and death threats. What was Yiannopoulos’s contribution? He claimed that online gaming was besieged by an “army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners” who were “lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the Internet for profit and attention.”

Then he went to work as a tech writer for Breitbart, the “alt-right” online journalism site. Then he led an insulting, racially-tinged Twitter war against Leslie Jones, for which he was officially kicked off the platform.

Then Yiannopoulos got a controversial book deal from Simon & Schuster, and a quarter million dollar advance. The pre-pub orders pushed up Dangerous, a book not yet written, to a #1 bestseller on Amazon, in part because of his college tour, in which he was invited by college Republican groups to come and mock “political correctness.” They found him hilarious. In Berkeley, CA, protesters of his speech caused some $100,000 of damages.

Then he was on Bill Maher’s show.

So Milo was in the news, reveling in mischief and mayhem, sowing outrage and consternation in his wake, delighting in pushing the boundaries of politeness and “triggering” liberals. A free speech warrior!

And then the turn: A video from 2016 surfaced in which Yiannopoulos said,“Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty.” The notion of consent, he said, is “arbitrary and oppressive.”

Overnight, his fortunes changed. His invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference was rescinded. Then he lost the book deal. Then he quit before Breitbart could fire him. The troll had fallen.

Is he done? And what on earth does it all mean?

But there was always something surprising about a flamboyantly gay man fronting for alt-right conservatives not known for their tolerance. His approving comments about sexual relationships between adult men and minor boys was one cognitive dissonance too many for them. For a time, Yiannopoulos was the poster child for free speech abrogated through cancellation of speeches. Even the president (“Daddy” to Yiannopoulos) said so. Suddenly, Yiannopoulos found that he was being canceled again — this time by his “friends.”

Let me be clear: Milo Yiannopoulos does have the right to free speech. Simon & Schuster committed no crime by offering him a book contract — indeed, I’m confident that they expected to make money from people who had already lined up to buy it. They sell books. Likewise, S&S is well within their rights to cancel the book contract, presumably because now they think they won’t make money on it. (I admit I’m curious about that $250,000 advance, though. Did he get to keep it?)

Moreover, I hold that speakers shouldn’t get disinvited just because others won’t agree with the speaker’s views or style. The audience has other options: Don’t go to the talk. Go and listen, and ask questions. Protest peacefully. The nasty truth is this: Violence, rescinded invitations and media drama play into the troll’s motivations. They want, they need, to be noticed, to be the center of attention. Without the outraged attention that feeds them, they wither up and become irrelevant.

Aside from a penchant for insults and invective, Yiannopoulos has always seemed shallow to me. He’s offensive and childish, but he’s not controversial in the sense of offering anything substantial. Amidst all the tawdry rudeness, misogyny, sexism, body-shaming, and anti-Islamic epithets, did Yiannopoulos actually express any ideas worthy of consideration?

To my mind, Yiannopoulos’ talk was small-minded and poisonous. But it wasn’t fatal. Civilization, and even common courtesy, endures. Yiannopoulos had, and still has, the right to say whatever he wishes. But he’ll have to live with the consequences when the audience he courted just doesn’t find him funny anymore.


  • I first came across Milo Yiannopoulos as the subject of an excellent article in Bloomberg Businessweek: Milo Yiannopoulos Is the Pretty, Monstrous Face of the Alt-Right. They did a pretty good job, as you just did, of putting him into context, and after reading their article, whenever his name cropped up, I chose to ignore him. He came across as vain and self-destructive, which is neither interesting or relevant to the challenges we face.

  • Thanks, Frederic. To me, the saddest thing was that many people really mistook the circus of distractions (MY comes to campus and hurls insults at protesters) as some kind of meaningful exchange. I continue to believe that most of us actually want significant conversations. Celebrity isn’t substance.

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