To the glee of many—myself included—Milo Yiannopoulos has quickly fallen from grace as a star of the American populist right. This fall was occasioned by the discovery of a video in which he appears to defend pedophilia; appropriately, the American public has reacted with disgust. This has led to Simon and Schuster revoking Milo’s book deal and the Conservative Political Action Conference disinviting Milo from the event altogether, although he had previously been scheduled as a speaker. This is notable because, until now, the Right has huffed and puffed in response to progressives protesting Milo’s speaking events; in the course of this bloviating, they have accused the Left of abandoning the principles of freedom of speech and tolerance. In inviting Milo to speak at CPAC, its organizers declared that “free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective.” These recent events, however, prove that nothing that has happened has been about “freedom of speech” at all. Rather, the political Right has used freedom of speech to avoid the underlying issue: What we can or should accept as legitimate political discourse as a society.
Long before the revelation of Milo’s pedophilia apologetics, he had established himself as a notorious bigot. He routinely mocked transgender students and sought to “out” undocumented immigrants. His talks did nothing to advance political discourse on university campuses; if anything, his presence lowered discourse to its basest level. All of this, the Right insisted, was something we must tolerate in the name of freedom of speech; even if we disagree with Milo’s transphobia and racism, it is imperative that we hear him out and counter his opinions with more speech. This is all well and good to the extent that freedom of speech is actually the subject of our debate—but it is now clear this is not the case. The reality is that the Right has been using the notion of freedom speech as a political cudgel against the Left’s objections to the rank prejudice Milo and his ilk spread wherever they go.
The political Right has used freedom of speech to avoid the underlying issue: What we can or should accept as legitimate political discourse as a society.
With remarkable swiftness, CPAC decided that Milo’s “important perspective” was no longer part of “free speech.” Rather, his comments on child abuse, they rightly noted, were “disturbing.” In this move, however, the Right has tipped its hand: Milo’s invitation, to the surprise of no one, was not about free speech at all. Instead, the decision of whether to invite or exclude a speaker at CPAC is made on the basis of the actual substance of the person’s beliefs. For CPAC, as with any reasonable group, defending pedophilia is a bridge too far. But in admitting as much, by implication, CPAC has indicated that his racist and transphobic antics were not “disturbing” enough to exclude him from their conference; to the contrary, it appears that his loud expression of these prejudices formed the very basis of his invitation.
Milo’s disinvitation and fall from grace reveals that we—as a society—continue to view some viewpoints as outside of the acceptable realm of discourse, even if, at the same time, we believe that the government should not intervene to prevent the expression of those views. Most, if not all of us, would not welcome a Nazi to speak to our private organizations or insist that the head of the Klan has an “important perspective,” nor would we suffer the presence of a pedophilia apologist. Together we have concluded that these beliefs are so odious as to warrant social, but not legal, censure. Even the so-called “tolerant Right” admits this, though not in so many words, by rejecting the presence of people like Milo.
By abusing the notion of free speech in defense of bigots, the Right has managed to normalize some of its most opprobrious elements; in making the invitation of Milo and his ilk about “hearing other perspectives,” the Right obscures the unspoken, but real, substance at issue: Whether racism, transphobia, and Islamophobia should be acceptable in American political discourse and exempt from social sanction. The vast majority of us would say that these beliefs are contrary to the essence of what it is to be American. Yet by transmogrifying the debate into something else entirely—”do you believe in free speech?”—the Right gets to eschew any substantive defense of the disgusting ideals propounded by its worst advocates.
Now that it has effectively admitted that the worst among it are not entitled to a hearing based on free speech alone, the Right must defend those elements on the merits. And the Left must stop indulging the Right’s efforts to avoid that debate; rather than engaging in an irrelevant discourse about the peculiarities of what freedom of speech theoretically requires, we must hold the Right to its own standard: One in which substance, rather than entitlement to speak regardless of how horrific the viewpoint, is what matters.