For those who aren’t familiar with Milo Yiannopoulos, allow me to brighten up your day. Yiannopoulos is an “alternative right” (or “alt-right”) provocateur who hates feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement, and is currently embarked on his “Dangerous F*ggot Tour” across college campuses. (Yiannopoulos is openly gay, a freedom hard-won by progressive activists.) His rhetorical strategy is to use hyperbolic language and outrageous insults — usually playing on gender and racial stereotypes — to inflame the emotions of “regressive leftists” who have boisterously protested his talks, interrupted him while speaking and even caused some of his events to be cancelled. What many First Amendment enthusiasts like about Yiannopoulos is that he pushes against what some characterize as an “authoritarian” trend on college campuses to regulate ideas and words that others find either offensive or triggering. To be sure, Yiannopoulos’ tactics are crude, but as he puts it, “The only proper response to outrage culture is to be outrageous.”
First, it needs to be pointed out how funny this situation is. Yiannopoulos suggests that the “social justice warriors” that keep interrupting him are childish. But the fact is that he’s a professional troll — or “supervillain,” to use his word — who provokes people on purpose (as he’s admitted) in order to get more attention directed his way (as he’s also admitted). He enjoys teasing people and then lavishing in the chaos that ensues. But let’s be honest with ourselves: What is more childish than trolling? What’s more puerile than intentionally pushing people’s buttons rather than engaging in hyperbole-free civil discourse about the ideas themselves? Yiannopoulos is an emotionally-charged agitator whose entire project is no more charming or original than schoolyard bullying.
And second, the target of his antagonism is “outrage culture,” or the phenomenon of progressives being offended by even the smallest microaggressions. But again, let’s be honest: Where is there more outrage today than on the political right? The Fox News fear machine and, more generally, the incessant apocalypticism of right-wing media like Breitbart are fundamentally rooted in outrage over things like Black people demanding better treatment from police, women insisting that “sexual assault” should include groping (which Yiannopoulos considers to be an act of normal human sexuality) and, perhaps most seriously, a Kenyan-born secret Muslim socialist president who hates the United States and wants to take away everyone’s guns. The reality is that outrage culture is not primarily a left-wing problem, it’s a mainstream conservative problem. Can we at least get this right?
Nonetheless, the end of protecting free speech on campuses justifies, in some people’s eyes, Yiannopoulos’ morally dubious means of deliberate button-pushing. But does Yiannopoulos really believe in unbridled free speech? Is his tour of college campuses really about standing up for our First Amendment rights? The answer is an unambiguous No. Yiannopoulos actually supports significant — indeed, potentially catastrophic — restrictions on free speech in the US. How? By explicitly endorsing and defending Donald Trump’s free speech-curtailing proposal to expand libel laws so that Big Government can sue news outlets if they run stories that Trump finds distasteful.
“There’s no reason why the First Amendment should insulate you from the consequences of your actions,” Yiannopoulos said on “The Rubin Report,” “if you go out and deliberately, mendaciously, knowingly lie about people.” He emphasizes that such lies must be done “knowingly,” but the problem here is what exactly this word amounts to in the messy real-world — and indeed, what Trump would count as “knowingly.” Even more, Yiannopoulos gets the facts wrong: Trump’s proposal actually includes “purposely negative” and “horrible” articles as well. In other words, if a news website publishes an article that Trump determines to be “purposely negative” or “horrible,” Big Government could sue that website “like you’ve never been sued before” (in Trump’s words). This is why Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric about supporting free speech should not be taken seriously: if anything, Yiannopoulos is an enemy of our First Amendment rights. In a phrase, he is not the advocate of unrestricted free speech that some believe him to be.
But the problems with Yiannopoulos’ worldview go far deeper than this egregious bit of chicanery. Yiannopoulos embodies anti-intellectualism. This refers to the phenomenon, mostly concentrated among the political right, whereby people fail to be genuinely curious about other points-of-view, to engage in rational debate without the obfuscating effects of hyperbole, and to make sure that one’s beliefs are always the destinations of an ongoing intellectual journey and never the points-of-departure. (To illustrate, science begins with doubt and then arrives at beliefs, whereas religion begins with beliefs that can never be revised.) While Yiannopoulos often emphasizes the importance of facts and argumentation, a careful (or even cursory) look at his work reveals an abundance of sloppy logic, factual errors and un-cited assertions.
For example, after endorsing Trump’s proposed assault on free speech, Yiannopoulos said that he, personally, wouldn’t be worried because, unlike the “liberal media,” he doesn’t lie about people. Or, in his words: “I get my facts right.” This is risible because, first of all, Yiannopoulos supports Trump, and Trump is an industrial factory of falsehoods, unverifiable claims and equivocations. Indeed, Trump believes that climate change is a hoax perpetrated “for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change”; that “tens of thousands” of Islamic fundamentalists are entering the country right now; that “We’re the highest taxed nation in the world“; that Hillary Clinton “doesn’t do very well with women“; and so on, ad nauseam. Trump even won PolitiFact’s 2015 “Lie of the Year” award for a record-breaking three outright lies. If Yiannopoulos cares about the facts, then he wouldn’t support Lyin’ Trump.
Second, consider a single article of Yiannopoulos’ because it has the word “facts” right there in the headline: “14 Facts the Tanking ‘Women in Tech’ Movement Doesn’t Want You to Know About.” Unfortunately, the close reader will be disappointed by a conspicuous dearth of actual facts in this article. For example, among the 14 “facts” that Yiannopoulos identifies are: “The women who want to work in tech already do”; “Feminist campaigners lie about the numbers”; “There’s vanishingly little sexism in the tech industry”; and “Identifying as a ‘woman in tech’ is the kiss of death for your career.” (Space limitations prevent me from including more such claims.) How does Yiannopoulos justify these statements? What evidence does he adduce to explain why we should believe them? None. Zero. Nada. He gives serious people no evidence-based reason for believing these “facts.”
As for Yiannopoulos’ attempts to justify some claims, he says that in Bangladesh, “the gender split in science courses at university can be as high as 50-50.” But all my scouring of the internet reveals is that far fewer Bangladeshi women enroll in tertiary education than men, and only 14 percent of Bangladeshi scientists are women. Perhaps Yiannopoulos has a citation for this statement, but if so, he doesn’t provide it. He then asserts that, “Women’s brains aren’t as well suited to programming as men’s.” But he fails to provide any corroborating data for this “fact.” All he produces is a (legitimate) study showing that men are more likely to be idiots and geniuses than women. What this has to do with the ability to write code is beyond me. No doubt most programmers are neither idiots nor geniuses. (In fact, if it were the case that most programmers have slightly above-average IQs, then there should be more women writing code than men.) So much for rigorous thinking.
Next, Yiannopoulos skillfully misrepresents the results of a 2015 study showing that female scientists have a 2-to-1 advantage of being hired over men. He uses this to buttress his claim that, “Women already have a massive advantage when applying for tech jobs.” Let’s consider this statistic carefully, because Yiannopoulos frequently whips it out in his talks to prove that women who whine about discrimination are wrong to do so. Fortunately, Yiannopoulos deviates from his usual modus operandi and provides a citation to the relevant study, as reported by CNN. A quick look at this article, though, reveals that the 2-to-1 statistic is a recent change that’s the result of decades of social justice campaigning by progressives.
As the study’s authors put it, “We interpreted our findings to mean that anti-female bias in academic hiring has ended [meaning that it has been a problem]. Changing cultural values, gender-awareness training [both of which are the result of social justice activists] and trends such as the retirement of older faculty members [who are more likely to hold sexist views] have brought us to a time when women in academic science are seen as more desirable hires than equally competent men.” The authors then affirm that “women may encounter sexism before and during graduate training and after becoming professors.” Does Yiannopoulos mention these nuances? Does he note that a peer-reviewed 2014 study found that there are actually significant hiring biases against women in STEM fields? (This is not a contradiction. The 2015 study focuses on hiring faculty members, while the earlier 2014 study concerns lower-level positions.) No, because these data would undercut his tendentious thesis.
Elsewhere, Yiannopoulos writes that it’s a “fact” that “There Is No Evidence That ‘Diversity’ Improves Company Performance.” But Yiannopoulos is once again guilty of omission, because he fails to mention scientific evidence that’s directly relevant to his claim. (As a quick epistemological side-note: What justifies a belief isn’t evidence per se, but the totality of evidence available at a given time. This is why omitting some evidence is problematic: it can lead to avoidably wrong conclusions.) According to a study published five long years before his Breitbart gem surfaced on the internet, (a) collaborating groups of people can literally exhibit a kind of emergent collective intelligence, and (b) collective intelligence isn’t strongly linked to group motivation, the IQ of individual members, or the highest IQ in the group, but it is “significantly correlated” with the number of women in the group. This was a peer-reviewed study published in one of the top journals in the world, Science, so we ought to take it seriously. It’s not exactly the most exciting result for career misogynists, but as Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Finally, Yiannopoulos writes that, “The number one reason women don’t work in tech is: other women.” But once again, what evidence does Yiannopoulos provide for this “number one reason”? None. Zero. Nada. But I repeat myself.
Even one of Yiannopoulos’ most often cited “facts” in his talks turns out to be wrong. According to Yiannopoulos, the pay gap between men and women is a fiction peddled by angry feminists who just want to man-hate. Yes, it’s true that the general statement, “for every dollar the average man makes, the average women earns between 76 and 79 cents,” is misleading because it doesn’t take into account the different types of jobs had by men and women. Yiannopoulos is right to point this out, and intellectually honest people ought to give him credit for it. But, crucially, does Yiannopoulos mention that multiple studies have found that even “with the same job title, at similar companies, in the same state, with similar levels of education and experience,” women still get paid less? The overall difference is less significant, but it’s nonetheless there: women make about 95 cents to every dollar earned by men. Even more, “In many individual occupations, the gap is actually much, much wider. Women who are computer programmers, chefs and dentists get the rawest deal.… They earn 72 cents for every dollar men in those same positions earn.” Does Yiannopoulos hint at this data when he’s asked by feminists why he believes the pay gap is a myth? At this point, I think you know the answer.
This is just the tip of what Jon Stewart calls “Bullshit Mountain” — the capital of contemporary conservatism. For example, Yiannopoulos claims to be a libertarian and to have pursued journalism to “stand up to authority,” yet he’s a vocal supporter of Trump, the only authoritarian candidate running for president. I haven’t heard much about “libertarian-authoritarianism,” but apparently it’s Yiannopoulos’ chosen political ideology. Furthermore, he claims that “words can’t hurt you,” yet he reports that he’d never use the “n” word. Why? Because, “It’s an ugly, hateful word,” thereby implying that, on second thought, perhaps words can hurt.
Yiannopoulos talks about freedom from tyranny, yet he threatened his former employees when one of them complained on Twitter about not getting paid. In Yiannopoulos’ own words: “You’ve already made yourself permanently unemployable in London with your hysterical, brainless tweeting, by behaving like a common prostitute and after starting a war with me, as perhaps you are now discovering.” And he values personal responsibility, yet it turns out that 44 interns at Breitbart are personally responsible for writing his articles. Yiannopoulos only tells them stuff like: “include (1) feminism attention seeking for ugly people (2) wage gap (3) campus rape culture … a load of mean jokes.” (So, perhaps it’s unfair to fault Yiannopoulos himself for the error-riddled, undergraduate-level article vivisected above.)
While his campus talks have provoked a fair amount of attention among both students and popular media, Yiannopoulos is not a serious thinker who actually wants to engage in honest, rational debate about ideas. Nor is he a laudable champion of the First Amendment, as some people mistakenly believe. And, despite his assurances otherwise, his work reveals a chronic inability to play by the intellectual rules of basic epistemology. Even more, I’m not even convinced that he believes in some of what he says, such as when he told Dave Rubin that Trump is “one of the smartest people in the country, you know? He’s so clever.” (Given the fact that Trump literally talks at a fourth-grade level, this statement appears dubious.) After all, Yiannopoulos once admitted that his “natural disposition is a satirist and a comic. I like to entertain and to please people.” He then added, “I didn’t like me very much and so I created this comedy character. And now they’ve converged.” So, it’s not clear that Yiannopoulos even intends to be a serious thinker or social critic. He might be pulling off a less clever Andy Kauffman-like prank on both his dissenters and fans. Indeed, when The New York Times asked Yiannopoulos, “If you succeed at your goal and everyone is able to say whatever they want [although this is not what he wants, as established above], what happens next?” he answered, “I might have to become a social-justice warrior ’cause I’ll be out of a job.”
The obvious conclusion from this brief survey of Yiannopoulos’ antics is that he’s a clown, whether he means to be or not. Sure, it’s dangerous to have someone out there reinforcing the epistemological acceptability of intellectual dishonesty. And it’s dangerous whenever a public figure floods the marketplace of ideas with distortions of the truth and factually incorrect statements presented as veracious.
Just remember: trolling is what individuals resort to after filing for intellectual bankruptcy. The very fact that childish, angry, hypocritical, race-baiting, attention-seeking, fact-challenged, professional button-pushers like Yiannopoulos — not to mention “daddy” Trump — are dominating the conservative movement today is an unequivocal indication that progressivism is winning, even if its “regressive” wing has taken the ethics of kindness and respect a bit too far.