Reminder: Boycotting Milo Yiannopoulos' Publisher Is Not Censorship

Will it have a "chilling effect" on free expression? Maybe, but so does hate speech.

On Dec. 29, “alt-right” boy wonder Milo Yiannopoulos announced that he’d signed a $250,000 deal with Simon & Schuster’s conservative imprint, Threshold, to write a book entitled Dangerous.

By the end of the day, social media was in an uproar. Petitions begging his publisher to rescind the contract were circulating, while others, including Chicago Review of Books and indie bookshop Raven Books, announced they’d be boycotting all Simon & Schuster titles in response. 

To many free speech advocates, this backlash was more troubling than the initial book deal. On Thursday, the National Coalition Against Censorship published a statement defending the publisher’s right to publish Yiannopoulos’ work, no matter how offensive. The statement, also signed by industry advocacy organizations including the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the National Council of Teachers of English, argued that a boycott of Simon & Schuster would have a “chilling effect” on publishers that would undermine dissemination of diverse ideas:

This kind of response will have a chilling effect on authors and publishers, which is undoubtedly the goal of those who support such boycotts. However, the suppression of noxious ideas does not defeat them; only vigorous disagreement can counter toxic speech effectively. Shutting down the conversation may temporarily silence disfavored views, but does nothing to prevent them from spreading and resurfacing in other ways.

Whether “vigorous disagreement” can effectively neutralize hateful speech seems more questionable than ever in recent months. A November essay by an anonymous columnist in The Guardian confessed that the accessibility and popularity of alt-right vitriol ― including Yiannopoulos’ own work ― temporarily seduced him into harboring racist views. “If it can get somebody like me to swallow it ― a lifelong liberal ― I can’t imagine the damage it is doing overall,” he wrote.

After backlash erupted in response to a now-canned A&E show intended to follow Ku Klux Klan members, an anecdote about Oprah’s decision to no longer interview neo-Nazis on her show, after a 1988 segment, resurfaced. Having hosted a group of white nationalists onstage for a segment meant to stir vigorous and provocative discussion, Oprah later recalled, “I actually thought for a long time that through the power of conversation, I could break down barriers of racism or homophobia.”

Instead, what she discovered as she hosted a jeering crowd of skinheads eager to broadcast their agenda, was that “the power of the platform” was greater than the power of debate. “I went, whoa, I think I’m doing one thing. I think I’m exposing them, I think I’m showing them in their vitriol and their dark side, and trying to get them to see another point of view, and they are using me.” She realized, “I think I’m doing good here, and I’m not.” 

Anti-censorship organizations and critics of the boycott movements have equated any successful push to have Yiannopoulos’ contract rescinded with a form of censorship, if a less direct form than governmental restrictions on speech. But lacking a sponsored platform for one’s views is a fate long suffered by women and, especially, minority groups who have been boxed out of access to those platforms. The default, in American history, has been that marginalized groups simply weren’t offered book deals or staff positions to disseminate their ideas to begin with, while white men with all manner of noxious views were paid to propagate theirs without consequence to themselves ― just to the underprivileged people targeted by toxic screeds. By the same token that most of us will never get book deals, no one is owed a book deal or any sort of megaphone, even by virtue of possession being nine-tenths of the law.

For those affected by the willingness of gatekeepers to participate in spreading hateful speech, protest and boycott don’t register as censorship, but a meaningful response to the propagation of harmful speech directed at their communities. 

In a phone conversation with HuffPost, NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin, emphasized, “We’re not saying readers can’t boycott, of course they can.” Instead, she says, “Our hope is that publishers will support their authors.”

So far, Simon & Schuster has stood behind their new author, now with the support of a coalition of anti-censorship organizations. (Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, is a member of the NCAC board of directors; however, Bertin stated to HuffPost that “he had nothing to do with the statement or our decision to issue it.”)

Free speech is enshrined in our Constitution, protecting us from overt governmental censorship of ideas. When it comes to private citizens’ protests, and private companies’ responses, the concept of “censorship” grows far more muddled. Protesting Dangerous might have a chilling effect on publishers; then again, Yiannopoulos’ own words and encouragement of racist harassment had such a chilling effect that they drove actress and comedian Leslie Jones from Twitter. He’s also famously advocated that women leave the internet because they’re “ruining it” for men with their annoying opinions.

For her part, Bertin sees no conflict: “These are not principles that can readily be applied in a one-sided fashion,” she told HuffPost. “In my experience it’s been the advocates of progressive causes that have most often been silenced. So in order to protect those rights for those people, we have to say, you know, Milo’s got the same right.”

Though Yiannopoulos has the right to express his opinions, it’s nonetheless troubling to see his ideology, which propagates disdain and contempt for various vulnerable groups of people, given an immense platform. Though we don’t want to sand the edges off our discourse in the name of a comfortable consensus, at some point, it’s reasonable to ask gatekeepers to answer for elevating deliberately harmful views. Given that Yiannopoulos’ range of targets have historically been subject to comprehensive oppression, admonishing critics to engage with his abhorrent views through debate while watching him, and his publisher, profit off of his dissemination of racist, sexist ideology, doesn’t seem like the best solution. It elevates hatred and invalidation of nonwhite humanity into a category of debatable thought, leaving marginalized groups to politely argue for their own right to be in the room at all.

At a time when women are leaving Twitter because of sexist abuse and an incoming president has hinted that he doesn’t support full freedom of the press, worrying over petitions to rescind a book contract to a bully and alt-right troll seems almost beside the point. Questioning a major outlet’s decision to give Yiannopoulos such a powerful platform, given his body of work, isn’t censorship, especially since, unfortunately, it seems he’s going to have more than enough opportunity to exploit it.

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