I was trying not to write anything about Milo Yiannopoulos this morning, because I have a great deal to do, but I think that his case deserves more analysis than my initial series of tweets. For those of you who do not know, Yiannopoulos is a writer and public speaker who has risen to prominence for championing the far-right, or the “alt-right”, as that fleet of particularly vicious online trolls has tried to rebrand itself. During the presidential campaign, his articles mocking those with progressive values made him hugely popular; during that campaign, he was also banned from Twitter following years of using its platform to orchestrate the harassment of anyone he didn’t like.
There is little more to say about such toxic behaviour. The only interesting thing about Yiannopoulos’ career is the degree to which he has so far been indulged. He is currently facing his most sustained backlash to date; no sooner had he been confirmed as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, than tape emerged of him apparently endorsing sexual intercourse and relationships between adults and under-age children. Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are calling for CPAC to remove Yiannopoulos’ invitation. Yet the key question is why Yiannopoulos’s career was allowed to get this far, and the answer is two-fold: first, because not enough people cared about his reprehensible behaviour until it began to affect them personally, and secondly, because too many people loved him merely because he hated liberals.
I wonder whether part of the current revulsion at Yiannopoulos is due to the fact that, as a gay man apparently approving of sex with underage children, he has reawakened in some minds the barely-hidden conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Yiannopoulos often used his sexuality as a shield; he could be as homophobic as he liked, falling back on the defence that he could not be prejudiced since he himself was a gay man. Ironically enough, he may find that – in the bitterest of ironies – his unique brand of identity politics may be used against him.
This is one of the reasons why I take little pleasure in the setback that he is experiencing today. Because let us be clear: Yiannopoulos has served his purpose, and he has already done irreversible damage. He was as instrumental as the Pepe the Frog meme in giving far-right sentiment just enough cuteness for its advocates to be comfortable with it. Yiannopoulos championed the alt-right as a provocative movement that mocked the excesses of political correctness; with his garish attire and cruel tongue, he scandalised the Left. Bigots have long sought charismatic figures who can seduce them. That is one reason why Nick Griffin failed, and why Nigel Farage succeeded; it was not so much the content of the message that repelled people, but the packaging.
That is what Yiannopoulos has been, for so many of his followers now scrambling over each other for the exit: he has been the acceptable face of hatred. He allowed them to mock gay people by setting up a series of speaking engagements called “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”. He threw LGBT people to the lions, but somewhere along the way he forgot that he was still in the den. Judging by his latest and impassioned Facebook post, he knows that for many he is now beyond the pale; and that, finally, this is a storm that he cannot ignore.
I would not like to say too much more about Yiannopoulos, because he has already taken up too much of everyone’s time. I would only like to remind people how difficult it is to fight for social progress, because people like the above have supporters who frequently put activists in fear of physical harm and even of their lives. Last night I had dinner with an activist who has been targeted for months because her work, critical of the far-right, has been posted on neo-Nazi websites. She has seen threats to her friends and her family, all because people like Yiannopoulos organise the intimidation of brave people like her. I cannot describe how proud I am to know her, and how disgusted I am at those who sit behind their keyboards and toss out complacent tweets about how those with progressive values merely need to suck up their hurt feelings. People like my friend are taking very real risks in order to expose extremism, and people like Yiannopoulos willingly enable acid to be thrown in their direction. I applaud the former for confronting the latter, and they inspire me to go about my own efforts with ever greater vigour.