Written by Jinwan Cho
Since Donald Trump first took center stage in American politics as the Republican presidential candidate, the social divide lurking among us for so long finally stepped into the limelight, in the process elevating many extreme political views to mainstream status. Among those thrust into fame by this changing social and political atmosphere is Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor at Breitbart News, a far-right news source catering to subscribers of alt-right ideology. His rhetoric, characterized by a general lack of consideration - from claiming that “rape stories are just a way for women to tell you they’ve been hit on” to comparing Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones to an ape - masked by an overzealous support of free speech, has generated not only censorship against him but also fervent adherents who venerate his apparent spearheading of the free speech movement.
On one hand, censorship against a man like Yiannopoulos does not seem surprising, given the general offensiveness and the lack of any factual basis in most of his statements. Just this past month, Yiannopoulos, invited to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans, was met by hundreds of Berkeley student protesters who barred his entrance into Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union. Berkeley is one among many campuses around the globe that have participated in this “No Platform” movement to take away the platform for the dissemination of hateful rhetoric. Undoubtedly, to aid the spreading of the prejudice and lies that flow from the mouth and keystrokes of Yiannopoulos appears to be an injustice in itself, and the natural course of action is to simply prevent him from speaking.
On the other hand, given that he was invited to speak at Berkeley through the proper channels, any censorship - regardless of its just intentions - does violate Yiannopoulos’s right to free speech. Because freedom of speech guarantees one the right to speak one’s mind without fear of governmental or societal censorship, neither the offensiveness not the outright lack of factual evidence in Yiannopoulos’s statements preclude him from the right. Perhaps one could argue that his words are so inflammatory that they could be compared to yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater when there is in fact no fire, but I doubt such comparisons would hold up to any reasonable level of scrutiny. Ultimately, the point is that we cannot simultaneously tout our undying support of free speech while censoring the words of anyone, even those as contentious as Yiannopoulos.
This inevitable conclusion is where the problem lies. Perhaps the protesting students did not believe such actions constitute a violation of free speech, or maybe they considered it a necessary cost to prevent people like Yiannopoulos from setting foot in Berkeley. In any case, the students, in the effort to curb this hateful rhetoric from creeping onto our campus and into unsuspecting minds, have willingly cast themselves into the very role that Yiannopoulos himself assigned to the far-left - that of “social justice warriors” that have no consideration for free speech rights and “special snowflakes” who just want to hear what they want to hear. Ironically, censorship against him only justifies his claim that he is a defender of free speech and raises his profile amongst his growing number of followers as a supposed civil rights activist. In fact, his book skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon book rankings in the wake of the Berkeley protest and the media plastered his name in headlines, granting Yiannopoulos the golden opportunity to cast students fighting for social justice as civil rights violators. Similarly, he managed to use the Twitter ban enacted upon him several months ago in response to his racially abusive comments to cement his status as a glorified free speech leader among his supporters.
Then one may ask, “Are we to simply allow him to go on spreading prejudice and deceit, giving more power to those who subscribe to his hateful ideology?” My answer is yes. Yes, we should allow him to speak, but call him out every time he does so. Do not attempt to silence him, but rather respond with facts, logic, evidence. Granted, these will have little effect on a man who is seemingly immune to truths, like many others in the current political realm. However, by assuming the role of the logical responder, we no longer play into his hand. Yiannopoulos rose to stardom not just by spreading hate, but by casting liberals as the enemy and his crooked ideology as the necessary evil to fight against them. Frankly, censorship just doesn’t work in the digital age other than as a symbolic gesture of opposition and instead makes it rather easy for manipulative men like Yianopoulos to turn our activism on us.
I admit, allowing him to go on speaking is not as simply as it sounds, as he intentionally targets the core of one’s identity, provoking even the most serene minds to flare up with indignation; he must, because his words rarely stand up to any form of logical criticism and largely relies on the emotional response of his opposition to provide him with the ammunition for retorts. However, in the absence of such ammunition, people like Yiannopoulos have no choice but to dig deeper into the lies and prejudice, and eventually, they will suffocate under the power of their own words. Just weeks after his controversial visit to Berkeley, Yiannopoulos has received severe criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, even by his alt-right supporters, after claiming pedophilic sex acts between adults and 13 year old boys can be helpful. His implosion, in my eyes, was inevitable; like some perverted version of Icarus, he flew too close to the sun this time, soaring on the wind of his own rhetoric. As we witness Yiannopoulos’s fall from infamy, it may be naive to think all those spreading hate will be crushed by the weight of their own words. But we must still understand that while censorship empowered Yiannopoulos instead of stifling him, in the end it was his own, unfiltered words that was his undoing.