As harrowing footage of the protest of Milo Yiannopoulos’s cancelled event at UC Berkeley have filled up my social media feed, reactions arguing that protest plays into his hands— many of them peddled by self-identifying liberals—abound in equal measure.
I write the following as a “response to the responses” of sorts. Before I give a critique of them, I should note two things. First is the importance of the role knowledge plays (or is now ceasing to play) in the political landscape. I have given extensive takes on “post truth” and and “alternative facts” (see here and here. I won’t dwell on “alternative facts” here, but I will say that if the prevalence of these “alt-facts” has shown us anything, it is that these trolls feed themselves. Their message boards, their news media, and their President have all but ensured that. Moreover, that their politics receive the imprimatur of the Administration only enhances these trolls’ self-sufficiency.
Second is the fact that we all should be well aware that there are people, unaffiliated with UC Berkeley, who will attend these protests only because they are happening at UC Berkeley and not anywhere else. Regardless of whether their designs are pure (and this is, in my view, very questionable), it is of little doubt that it will be the University, the students who protest, and their communities that bear the brunt of the blowback.
It is only having given the preceding context that I return to the protests. Milo’s appearance at UC Berkeley, and the protest that would undoubtedly surround it stoked heavy controversy and multiple statements from high-level UC figures, most notably Chancellor Dirks and President Napolitano. And it is easy (at least for me) to see why, primarily because the idea of self-sufficiency is a new one—I mean, who expected this? In addition, Yiannopoulos explicitly states on his site that he lives to make liberals angry—in college campuses or elsewhere—and has built a lucrative brand around that. So, on its surface, it seems like he cannot live without “liberal tears.”
But I disagree with that conclusion. Though he may live for stoking liberal anger, he does not live off it. If I can define privilege even so loosely as not needing something yet still having an obscene amount of it, then the privilege Yiannopoulos possesses is present in the fact that he gains a large following in alt-right echo chambers as well as media like Breitbart and Fox News, the latter of whom interviewed Yiannopoulos after the event’s cancellation at UC Berkeley. We should not worry about making him legitimate; Yiannopoulos is already legitimate, taking the circles he traffics in into account. The alt-right gives him what he needs; in a sense, he is using the marginalized to merely run up the score.
As respectability seems to have risen anew, remember this: it is not on the protesters to conduct themselves in a way that neither he nor his people can use. Think about how infantilizing it must be that, in your protesting against hate speech, that people who claim to be on your side argue that Yiannopoulos’s optics must be considered too. Emblematic of this line of thought, one of the arguments I have heard time and time again is that those who oppose Yiannopoulos should not only not protest him, but that they should in fact ignore him, denying the pleasure he derives from appearing. Suppose such ignorance is actually feasible (it might be more feasible for the privileged and liberal among us, but let us put that to one side). Milo comes to campus, gives his talk, and leaves without incident. Though we, in our privilege, may be able to feel good in our act of willed ignorance, we still wouldn’t be sure that we haven’t unwittingly given a tacit endorsement of hate speech on campus. And if we did, it wouldn’t be our necks on the line. The marginalized UC Berkeley student looks at their professor and sees someone who places their intellectual purity before the safety of those students most vulnerable. See, it is one thing to acknowledge there is not a clean solution; it is another to force cleanliness in the short term, while endangering the marginalized in the long term. Such an argument misses the forest for the trees.
But there lies a deeper danger (isn’t there always a deeper danger?). I would argue the fact that he is in a position where we have to worry about feeding his ego is the real concern. Worded differently, what role do those who oppose him yet push these arguments actually play in enhancing his legitimacy? Consider this: why are we so concerned that he in particular is the one talking? Even if he explicitly says that he works to get a rise out of liberal students on college campuses, why do people not question the origins of that statement’s legitimacy and protect the protesters who have to live through its consequences? What worries me most is the fact that people with liberal sensibilities reflexively worry more about what the protest does to legitimize Milo without questioning its very nature or liberal complicity in creating that legitimacy. More important is how much liberal sensibilities value Yiannopoulos’s optics rather than focus on what animates the protest on the part of the protesters themselves, many of whom are marginalized. By worrying about “feeding the trolls” or “letting him win”, those who ostensibly care about countering hate speech nevertheless give him and his alt-right following the epistemic space to believe that protestors have to worry about legitimizing him. And that, in my view, does the legitimation for him.
So how do we counter the sensibility to not only unwittingly legitimize hate, but project that legitimation onto the protestors themselves? Understand that protest is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the legitimacy he already has. The importance of protest is to affirm to the alt-right that they do not get to derive a twisted pleasure from the exercise of protesters’ right to protest, speaking up in defense of themselves and their communities. It is also to see the all-too-well-hidden collusion between liberal respectability and the boldness by which neo-Nazi supporters approach such protests. The feeling that their appearance could fracture liberal alliances through respectability politics is what emboldens the alt-right; further, the neo-Nazi contingent and their ilk do not have to shame the protesters because liberals are doing it for them.
And this is why respectability is so pernicious. It is representative of well meaning people’s capacity to do the oppressor’s work for them. It is no accident Martin Luther King, recipient of the Nobel Prize and myriad bastardized legacies, penned a missive speaking of this exact problem. If we are so worried about the legitimacy of the so-called “alt-right”, why not confront it directly, and why not do it via protest? The appropriate reaction to the so-called “alt-right” was not to ignore them; it was to call them exactly what they are-Neo Nazis.
In close, remember that light does not drown out darkness by ignoring it, but through direct confrontation. As I always like to say, you cannot hope to change the world unless you resolve to contend with it.
Photo credit: Scott Strazzante, SF Chronicle